2003-07-31 / Arts & Entertainment


"Ambitious" New Book From "Skilled, Prolific Writer"
Associated Press Writer
By Randolph E. Schmid

"Ambitious" New Book From "Skilled, Prolific Writer"

By Randolph E. Schmid

Associated Press Writer

If you could somehow travel to the end of the universe and look outside, what would be there?

That’s a question that has perplexed many people, and one that is addressed in an ambitious new book by one of the country’s most prolific and skilled writers.

The answer, Bill Bryson tells us in "A Short History of Nearly Everything," (Broadway Books. 544 Pages. $27.50) is that you simply can’t get to the edge of the universe.

No, not because it’s too far — though it is — but because space bends in ways people can’t adequately imagine, so that "even if you traveled outward and outward in a straight line, indefinitely and pugnaciously, you would never arrive at an outer boundary. Instead you would come back to where you began."

Bryson’s massive volume reflects the enthusiasm of someone who grew up thinking that science was extremely dull and only recently became interested in the subject. He spent three years learning all he could and compiling as much of this as possible into the book.

Wisely, the title includes the word "nearly," since neither this book nor a collection many times its size can claim to include a history of everything.

But Bryson combines a wide range of interesting science with a smooth and skilled style to make reading about science fun. Along the way he drops in fascinating pieces of information that remind you of the delightful tidbits James Burke scatters through his books.

Consider, for example, if Charles Darwin had followed the advice of editor Whitwell Elwin, who read a draft of Darwin’s work and advised the great naturalist to write about pigeons instead, commenting, ``Everyone is interested in pigeons.’’

Darwin ignored the advice and went ahead with "On the Origin of Species" anyway.

Observes Bryson: "The first edition of 1,250 copies sold out on the first day. It has never been out of print, and scarcely out of controversy, in all the time since."

Or go with Bryson to the world of geology, a surprisingly young science.

"We know amazingly little about what happens beneath our feet," reports Bryson. "It is fairly remarkable to think that Ford has been building cars and baseball has been playing World Series for longer than we have known that the Earth has a core."

While it’s 3,959 miles from the planet’s surface to its center, the deepest mines go only two miles or so. "If the planet were an apple, we wouldn’t yet have broken through the skin. Indeed, we haven’t even come close," he writes.

Bryson’s research even reaches to 1816, known as the year without a summer because of the worldwide cooling caused by the airborne dust from the massive explosion of the volcano Tambora the year before.

"In New England, the year became popularly known as Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death. Morning frosts continued until June and almost no planted seed would grow. Short of fodder, livestock died or had to be prematurely slaughtered.

"In every way it was a dreadful year," concludes Bryson.

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