Magazine article The Spectator

Gluons, Bosons and Quarks

Magazine article The Spectator

Gluons, Bosons and Quarks

Article excerpt


by Bill Bryson

Doubleday, L20, pp. 515, ISBN 0385408188

This modestly titled book, Bill Bryson tells us at its outset, is 'a quest to understand everything that has happened from the Big Bang to the rise of civilisation'. That's to say, it's a compendious popular science book: an attempt to explain how we bipedal apes have come to be standing on such a planet in such a universe at such a time.

Of course, there are people much better qualified than Bill Bryson to attempt a project of this magnitude. None of them, however, can write fluent Brysonese, which, as pretty much the entire Western reading public now knows, is an appealing mixture of self-deprecation, wryness and punncry. With his glasses, beard and air of mild middle-class incompetence, Bryson has long styled himself as the Hobbit of travel-writing: here, he puts his Hobbitishness to work investigating all of time and all of space.

A passage from the first chapter will give the flavour of the book (Bryson is writing about one of his favourite themes, the contingency of human existence):

At various periods over the last 3.8 billion years you have abhorred oxygen and then doted on it, grown fins and limbs and jaunty sails, laid eggs, been sleek, been furry ... and a million things more. The tiniest deviation from any of these evolutionary imperatives and you might now be licking algae from cave walls ... or disgorging air through a blowhole in the top of your head before diving 60 feet for a mouthful of delicious sandworms.

Bryson has been researching this project for three years, partly in libraries and partly on foot: he has pottered round the world to interview the world's most august and sometimes most kooky - scientists. A few of his encounters, as recorded here, are less than memorable. Thus, for instance, he meets some seismologists, who say what seismologists always say in interviews or movies: i.e. something along the lines of 'a sizeable quake is likely to occur here within the next century', or 'the Big One's coming real soon, there's no doubt of that'.

The stuck-record seismologists arc made up for, however, by Bryson's winsome thumbnail biographies of scientists past. …

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