Cumberland Times-News

October 26, 2013

‘Short History’ covers just about everything

Bob Doyle, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— 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.