A Short History of Nearly Everything – by Bill Bryson

14 06 2019

I remember wanting to read this book about 15 years ago, and have had this copy on my shelves for many years. Unfortunately, I’m a much slower reader when it comes to non-fiction, and the two months this took me to read has easily knocked my Goodreads target for the year out of the window, but I’m glad I finally read it!

The book takes you through a scientific history and breakdown of the world (no kings and queens in here), from the depths of space, down to what makes up an atom, from cloud formations to tectonic plates to neandertal man. But it’s all done in a chatty way that’s easy to follow 98% of the time – occasionally he lists a few too many long science-y words and I found myself drifting off, but you could generally skim through to the next paragraph in those situations.

A lot of it is told from the perspective of when each thing was discovered and it was fun to learn about the chemist who insisted on tasting every element he worked with (and so ended up dying pretty young), and the one who thought you could get gold from urine, just because of the colour! He also discusses how Pluto isn’t really like the rest of the planets, because of course, this was written while it still was a planet!

One thing that in a way I found kind of reassuring was the uncertainty of nearly everything in this book. Nearly every chapter or section finished with a statement about just how little we know about the area that had just been discussed – the best one was early on: “The upshot of all this is that we live in a universe whose age we can’t quite computer, surrounded by stars whose distances from us and each other we don’t altogether know, filled with matter we can’t identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don’t truly understand.”

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite lines from the book:

“At an elemental level gravity is extraordinarily un-robust. Each time you pick up a book from a table or a coin from the floor you effortlessly overcome the gravitational exertion of an entire planet.”





How not to be wrong, the hidden maths of everyday life – by Jordan Ellenberg

30 03 2018

Over 2 months on a book isn’t going to help at all with my 30 books in a year, but I promise it was a good book!

It’s full of interesting thoughts on lotteries, perspective, statistics, music, correlation, voting systems, sports, all sorts! Complicated in places, but he always starts a section at a level we can all understand, and at some points I just had to just read the words to get to the point I understood the next bit, but it’s all written in a way that makes it fairly easy to read!

That all said, it was lovely to delve back into the world of maths, stretching my brain, seeing what I could remember, and enjoying some of the common sense that is shared.

As with any book of this sort it is of course full of gems, so here are some I particularly enjoyed:

  • “Dividing one number by another is mere computation; figuring out what you should divide by what is mathematics.”
  • “Improbable things happen a lot.”
  • “The natural logarithm is the one you always use if you’re a mathematician or if you have e fingers.”
  • “Mathematics as currently practised is a delicate interplay between monastic contemplation and blowing stuff up with dynamite.”
  • “In real life, mathematicians are a pretty ordinary bunch, no madder than the average.”
  • “I’ve found that in moments of emotional extremity there is nothing like a math[sic] problem to quiet the complaints the rest of the psyche serves up.”
  • “I encourage you to write directly in the book, if it’s not borrowed from the library or displayed on a screen.”
  • “An inelegant axiom is like a stain in the corner of the floor; it doesn’t get in your way, per se, but it’s maddening, and one spends an inordinate amount of time scrubbing and scouring and trying to make the surface nice and clean.”
  • “Genius is a thing that happens, not a kind of person.”
  • “[The stereotype is that mathematicians are] determined to compute everything to as many decimal places as possible. It isn’t so. We want to compute everything to as many decimal places as necessary.”
  • “Mathematics, the extension of common sense by other means.”





Paradoxology – by Krish Kandiah

3 11 2015

If you find someone who claims they didn’t initially pick up this book because of its cover, I bet they’re lying! The author even ended up talking to the public from a matching sofa! Yes, I did pick this book up because it was a brightly coloured, geometric pattern, but normally I’d have a quick look and put it down again. Instead, I read the back and thought, gosh this sounds interesting. And I wasn’t wrong.

I take forever to read non-fiction, so the fact this took three months isn’t a bad thing. If you saw the number of page corners I’ve folded down, that speaks for itself. For each chapter, the book takes a character (or occasionally a book) and the paradox tied in with it to look at, so the book could be dipped in and out of, chapter by chapter if you wanted to. The chapters are as follows:

  • Introduction
  • Abraham – The God who needs nothing but asks for everything
  • Moses – The God who is far away, so close
  • Joshua – The God who is terribly compassionate
  • Job – The God who is actively inactive
  • Hosea – The God who is faithful to the unfaithful
  • Habakkuk – The God who is consistently unpredictable
  • Jonah – The God who is indiscriminately selective
  • Esther – The God who speaks silently
  • Interlude at the border
  • Jesus – The God who is divinely human
  • Judas – The God who determines our free will
  • The Cross – The God who wins as He loses
  • Romans – The God who is effectively ineffective
  • Corinthians – The God who fails to disappoint
  • Epilogue – Living with Paradox

He highlights in his introduction how these aren’t questions every asks, but that a lot of people avoid asking, for fear of shaking our faith. At one point I was going to put in here the bit from each page that I folded down, but that would now be a tad excessive. But I’ll share two or three – Kandiah’s text is littered with citations, quotes and footnotes, so I’ve given credit to others where it’s due:

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentence, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confessions.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“It was no accident, either, that God appeared to Moses as a flame. The movement of a flame and its bright colours attract us, and yet the heat of the flame pushes us away.”

“There is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” – D F Wallace

There’s a lovely story from a Royal Film Premiere when he didn’t quite get to meet the Queen, an excellent look at the hotel with infinite rooms problem, and wave particle duality and Schrodingers Equation. He also introduces us to some paintings and the significance in what they show – I felt quite well educated after reading this!

The only critique I’d give this book is that some chapters could have been helped by starting with either an overview of the story of the character we were looking at, the relevant bible passage, or at least a reference to the correct bible passage. I have to confess, when we jumped into Habakkuk, I didn’t have a whole load of background knowledge to go by!

paradoxology