A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Well it wasn't particularly short, but it was full of information about our universe and our place in it. It begins with space and what we know of what is out there, then it zooms in to earth and its plant, animal and human inhabitants. It doesn't attempt to answer the big questions as much as to review what it is that we already know (or, in many cases, assume) and what yet remains to be discovered.
The first part covers some of the same territory as Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of the World, but I found this one easier to read. I enjoyed Hawking's book but would find myself reading the same section over and over to try to get my head around it. This one felt lighter and it certainly had more comic relief. Bryson has a knack for using everyday things to explain huge concepts, a skill that makes this book fun to read and hopefully will help me remember some of it. I haven't read a lot of his work, but from this book I would say that's his outstanding characteristic: taking big ideas that are hard to understand and expressing them in smaller, more common terms that normal people can get their heads around.
There were a couple of sections I found boring. He talked for quite a while about scientists and scholars arguing over who should get credit for various discoveries (apparently this is a common argument in scientific circles), and there was a section on mosses, about where and how they grow, that I thought would make a great lullaby. I'm sure there are people who are interested in such things, somewhere.
Here, as in everything I've read about earth's formation and history and about our history as a species, there is so much conjecture that it's impossible to get what I want: a nice tidy answer to all the questions. Much of it starts with "we think", or "it's probable that" or "it would seem". Things the experts were sure of a hundred years ago have been dis-proven by new discoveries, and as science continues to advance many of the things believed now will likewise be discarded in light of new evidence. As much as I love science I find it frustrating when sweeping assumptions are made every time some new thing comes to light. Billions of never-even-imagined things are still hidden and as they are uncovered our theories will change....again, and again, and again. We need to stay open to the possibility that some - or all - of our assumptions could be way off.
What I came away with is a renewed sense of awe at how truly impressive the universe and the human body are. There is so much going on in our bodies at the cellular level at any given time that it seems impossible any of us could survive for even a few seconds; that we grow and thrive is almost beyond comprehension.
Bryson writes well and leaves you with lots to think about. If nothing else, you'll be reminded of just how vast and unknowable the universe is, and how very small a part we play in it. It's humbling, but it's good to be humbled once in a awhile.