Tag Archives: History

Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History Of Nearly EverythingA Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bill Bryson’s affable style can work for more than travel – science, it turns out, is just as whimsical and revealing as any other human activity.

When I first heard of A Short History of Nearly Everything I did not know it was about science. At a guess, I thought that it would be about the broad sweep of human history: empires and cultures and languages. Wrong!

Instead, it includes a history of science and current thinking on plenty of topics. The solar system and the universe, the weird world of the sub-atomic, continents that move around on an earth filled with hot liquid metal, dinosaurs and their bony evidence, the life of cells, the history of hominids, and much more (sorry, no steak knives).

In short, it a great example of popular level big history.

Bryson introduces this book as written by a science noob. Maybe that was true, but he hides it well with impressive chapters covering the whole sweep of many complex arguments. And, when possible, he tells us the fun details that – I believe – should be more central to all science education.

Some stories are old. I think people might be more interested in all the stuff Isaac Newton did if we mention the experiment of shoving a leather-working needle in his eye socket and jiggling it around to see what would happen (page 41).

Some stories are more modern. Did you know, for example, that the man who developed leaded petrol (thus spawning a very profitable industry who lied through their teeth about the ‘non’ damage of lead toxicity) also developed chlorofluorocarbons? Thomas Midgley, therefore, not only poisoned the air and earth, but also burnt holes in the ozone layer with a greenhouse gas 10,000 times more efficient than carbon dioxide. (See chapter 10.)

Quite often the tales reveal a lot about the paradox of humanity. Take the story of a US songbird, Bachman’s Warbler.

…by the 1930s the warbler vanished altogether and went unseen for many years. Then, in 1939, by happy coincidence two separate birding enthusiasts, in widely separated locations, came across lone survivors just two days apart. They both shot the birds.

As a vaguely science-interested guy, I only found a couple of slightly questionable parts to the book. I reckon that’s an acceptably low number of potential ‘errors’ for such a wide-ranging work, although I know my science knowledge is very limited. (But I was disappointed that Bryson seems to have gone for mythology of the famous but misrepresented debate between T. Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce.)

But some other reflections are in order. Particularly this: why is this book history, not science?

‘History’ makes the whole of physical reality a story, it seems to me, rather than mere events. Bryson never imposes a meaning on anything, he’s much too genial to force worldviews on people. But he has chosen a style that inherently assumes a story going somewhere – and this even when when (correctly) identifying that genetic modification and evolution as non-directional.

The Bible, of course, also has a history of everything: an extremely short history of everything, in one verse. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

I don’t believe Bryson’s book has any conflict with God’s book, in this regard. It’s just that God’s summary is even more concise. And God goes on to explain the story itself: the reason and purpose of creation, the why and who questions, and the answer to all questions in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:23).

It’s great to enjoy knowing some of ‘the all’. It’s essential to know Jesus, who is the one who ‘fills the all’ with life purpose and certainty.

 


 

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Quick review: Roads were not built for cars

Roads Were Not Built For CarsRoads Were Not Built For Cars by Carlton Reid

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am so easily tricked into thinking that the way things are now is the way things always have been. It’s self-centred thinking, of course: My way is the way.

Roads Were Not Built For Cars gave plenty of blows against that approach, for which I am thankful.

This fascinating book gives much insight into roads, transport, and modes of transport – as well as the conflicts that arose as change occurred.

Reid writes about the United Kingdom more than any other place, the United States being a close second. Yet this focus is fine, because the UK and US patterns seem to exemplify what has been seen elsewhere.

That pattern is, in a word, domination. Motor vehicles have come to dominate transport (and transport history) in a way that unhelpfully marginalises all others.

The greatest surprise to me in this history is that roads stopped being public places. Sure, they’re (mostly) not private. Yet roads used to be social places: a mixture of pedestrians, neighbours, business, conversation, play, and some transport.

Cars, though, pushed all else away – onto narrow footpaths, into the new crime of ‘jaywalking’, etc. A common space has been usurped for one group. And it happens again each time I’m on a bike and a driver yells at me, ‘Get off the road.’

Even this famous video (https://youtu.be/IJfTa5SjDCY) of San Francisco in 1900 includes car trickery: one vehicle drives past the tramcar-mounted camera again and again, giving an inflated impression of cars on the roads.

Being freed from my own self-focus is helpful in two ways.

Firstly, it makes me watch out for the bullying inherent in power. Speed, motors, and human power tend to push others out. This can happen to me, and I can also be a perpetrator.

Secondly, it frees our minds to consider other ways of doing things. If it was not always so, then it need not always be so. I guess this idea is one of Reid’s aims, since he is a promoter of cycling – a promotion I heartily endorse.

On a different level, it’s clear how some grasp of history is a mighty tool. My Christian trust is in an historical faith. It matters if Jesus died and rose again, and it matters if he didn’t. These are the things we need to find out. And if convinced, as I am, constant attention to the real Jesus of history is a must. If the history of roads and cycling is important – and I think it is – how much more the history of Jesus and his followers.

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WW1 history & New Testament history

I write one day after ANZAC Day. This dates from a battle of World War 1, which started a century ago. Next year, it will be 100 years since the Gallipoli landing – the key date for ANZAC memory.

With all these centenaries, there’s been plenty of media. There’s a guarantee that there will be so much more media coverage on 25 April 2015.

This made me realise something about history and the generations. I am old enough (still under 50) to have met WW1 veterans and talked about their military experience. My children will never know a WW1 veteran. One hundred years on, and I am one generation removed – but we are definitely into the stage of two generations removed.

One hundred years after Jesus’ execution and resurrection, there were people still around who had met eyewitnesses. The most famous claim is that Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John. I guess (as a non-historian) it’s hard to verify the certainty of this. Yet it illustrates a point: it was perfectly reasonable that a man who died in 155 AD could have known an eyewitness to Jesus’ activities in the 30s AD. 

it was perfectly reasonable that a man who died in 155 AD could have known an eyewitness to Jesus’ activities in the 30s AD

Remember also that every book of the New Testament was written before 100 AD, many within even 30 years of Christ’s cross. These writings are so many, and from numerous authors – we don’t rely on one partial scrap of a single piece of writing.

So it surprises me that people seriously consider that there was no Jesus, no Easter, no resurrection proclaimed, no truth in the record of Jesus’ teaching.

If there’s something certain in the nature of Christianity, it’s that our faith claims real historical basis. It’s a basis I’ve never seen effectively undermined.

 


 

Jesus, history & faith

Here are some thought provoking words on Jesus in history: the historic events are open to historical understanding, and at the same time are only understood by faith.

The Jesus of whom the Gospels tell us is a unique event in history, not to be confused with other personalities in history. His uniqueness in this general historical sense is an essential part of the fundamental confession of the Christian faith. …

The atonement and redemption which was achieved through the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross is an event which does not lie in the dimension of the historian. It is for that reason not something which the historian as such can recognize, but which is only apprehended by faith. It is an action of God, an act of the self-disclosure and self-communication of God, and thus is something which cannot be perceived as a historical occurrence. While the uniqueness which the historian apprehends in the Person and history of Jesus is only something relatively unique, that which faith apprehends in this historical fact as God’s deed and God’s Word of atonement and redemption is something absolutely unique, it is something that by its very nature either has happened once and for all, for all times and for every man, or else has not happened.

From Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics, Volume III.