Cumberland Times-News

Columns

October 26, 2013

‘Short History’ covers just about everything

Astronomy, my field has a number of popular books that start from the beginning of time and advance to the present.

There are even a few books that take us forward to the end of the universe (as we know it). One fine popular book that I have overlooked is Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” first published in 2003.

This book reminds me of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos,” as it is a blend of science and history, with many interesting metaphors. There are three versions of this book; the first version is in prose and the second version adds illustrations and photographs.

This column will comment on the third version, “A Really Short History of Nearly Everything” that was published in 2008. This book is a condensation of the earlier versions with only 160 pages of text.

This book is the kind that you might pick up and read a few pages at random or spend a few hours reading. It is suitable for all libraries, both school and public.

As the other versions, “Really Short” has 6 sections, Beginning with “Lost in the Cosmos” and ending with “The Road to Us.” This version has ISBN 978-0-385-73810-1 and was published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Childrens’ Books.

You may find a copy of “A Short History of Nearly Everything” in your local library.

Here are some highlights that I found delightful.

In “Lost in the Cosmos,” there is a “recipe” for cooking up a universe. The Big Bang was no explosion; it should be viewed as a vast, sudden expansion in every direction.

You can “see” some of the radiation from the universe’s formation by turning your television onto a channel it doesn’t receive. One per cent of the “snow” is from the Cosmic Background Radiation, the glowing fog of our universe before atoms existed.

In “Size of the Earth,” Edmond Halley”s many accomplishments included the invention of the weather map and life expectancy tables. But Halley’s most important act was to ask Isaac Newton about the shape of comets’ orbits. This led to the publication of Newton’s Principia, revealing the laws of motion and the Law of Gravitation.

Halley suggested that observations of Venus passing in front of the sun would allow a determination of the Earth-Sun distance. In the 1760’s, there were two passages of Venus in front of the sun; the Earth sun distance was found to be 93 million miles.

In “The New Dawn,” one of Einstein’s most surprising ideas is that time is just another dimension in four-dimension space-time. Just as light can be bent by massive bodies, the rate of time is also subject to change.

One of the most dismal chemists of the twentieth century was Thomas Midgely who first realized that tetraethyl lead reduces engine knock. In 1923, three large corporations began to market leaded gasoline for use in motor vehicles.

This caused lead to spread through the atmosphere, causing a number of human illnesses, including mental retardation, kidney failure and cancer. It wasn’t until the 1970s that tetraethyl lead was withdrawn from gasoline for most U.S. motor vehicles.

In “Life Itself,” the molecules in the air we breathe collide after moving an average of only 3 millionth of an inch. In the atmospheric layer known as the thermosphere, air molecules are miles apart and rarely collide.

At 3.5 miles above sea level, humans can’t live permanently. Sea water contains 70 times more salt than what humans can drink. The South Pole is buried under about 2 miles of ice while the North Pole has only 17 feet of ice over it.

SKY SIGHTS AHEAD: All this week, the moon is strictly an a.m. object, seen as a waning crescent at dawn. The moon appears near the planet Mars on Oct. 28 morning. On Oct. 29 at dusk, the brilliant planet Venus will appear half illuminated through a telescope. Halloween this Oct. 31 was the first night that the Pleiades or “Seven Sisters” star cluster was seen at twilight in the northeast.

To the ancient Celts, this was the last night of their year. On this night, the Celts believed that any recently deceased who had been wronged, would rise out of their graves and haunt the living.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.

1
Text Only
Columns
  • Peanuts and Cracker Jack beat any foam finger

    Times have changed, and for the better, as this week marks the third year in a row NFL training camps have opened and have not taken center stage in the cities of Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Washington. That, of course, is due to the play of the three baseball teams that inhabit said cities, the Orioles, the Pirates and the Nationals — two of whom hold first place in their respective divisions, with the other one entering play on Wednesday just 2 1/2 games out of first.

    July 23, 2014

  • Big loophole Big loophole

    How ironic — and how sad — that the Potomac Highlands Airport Authority plans a closed executive session to discuss the open meetings law.

    July 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • Don’t do it. Don’t do it

    Temperatures have been moderate recently but are projected to rise to the upper 80s and low 90s later this week, so we want to remind you: Never leave children unattended in a vehicle.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • He means well, and this time they spared his life

    Our pal Phil is the only re-enactor certified in writing by both the Lee and Custis families to portray Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee (whose wife was Mary Anna Custis Lee). When he’s in uniform, he generally stops at the bottom of the path that leads to the summit of Little Round Top, salutes Capt. Gary and First Sgt. Goldy and asks permission to join us. (Get it? Generally ... General Lee?) We always return his salute and grant him permission, in part because he’s our friend and also because the real Lee never got to see what it really looks like from up there. (Get it? Grant ... Grant? U.S. Grant? Real Lee ... really? OK. I hear you. That’s enough. Seriouslee.) Phil gets a kick out of being able to sneak up on us while we’re distracted by tourists.

    July 20, 2014

  • It’s hotter here than in D.C. or Baltimore

    At this time of the year, the weather is a frequent subject of conversation, particularly the temperatures. We are now in the “Dog Days,” usually the hottest days of the year. The term comes from our sun appearing to be near the “Dog Star” (Sirius) and the “Little Dog Star” (Procyon). In reality, the sun is now about 94.5 million miles away while Sirius is 8.6 light years away with Procyon at 11 light years distance. Sunlight takes only 507 seconds to reach us, while the two dog stars’ light takes about a decade to travel to our eyes. So our sun is in the same direction (but not distance) as these two bright winter evening stars.

    July 20, 2014

  • Mike Sawyers and his father, Frank Sale of quart-sized Mason jars lagging, merchants claim

    The opening day of Maryland’s squirrel hunting season is Sept. 6 and I am guessing you will be able to drive a lot of miles on the Green Ridge State Forest and see very few vehicles belonging to hunters of the bushytail. It wasn’t always that way. In the early 1960s, when I was a high school student in Cumberland, there was no Interstate 68. What existed was U.S. Route 40 and in the last couple of hours before daylight on the opening day of squirrel season there was an almost unbroken line of tail lights and brake lights between Cumberland and Polish Mountain.

    July 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Hugo Perez Columnist, son are range finders, but where are .22 shells?

    We feel pretty lucky on this side of the Potomac to have a nice shooting range to utilize for free and within decent driving distance.

    July 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Opposition and inclusion understood

    Those of you who have been here before know how I feel about the late great Len Bias, who I will remember foremost as Leonard Bias, the polite, spindly Bambi-eyed kid from Hyattsville’s Northwestern High School, who could throw a dunk through the floor, yet had the most beautiful jump shot I have ever seen.

    July 17, 2014

  • Stopgap

    Kicking the can down the road was one of the things American kids did to pass the time in the old days, particularly if they lived in rural areas where there was little traffic to contend with.

    July 16, 2014

  • Further proof you should never bet on baseball

    Had you known in March that ...

    July 16, 2014