To be a scientist. Yes, to be a scientist. As far as I can remember this was my very first reply to the question which most kids are pressed to answer, “Ano ang gusto mong maging paglaki mo?“
I am just not sure where the influence came from (no Dexter’s Lab back then) but as a kid, I was excited by the thought of being in a darkened room mixing liquids in tubes in a white lab gown. It’s probably the thought of creating or inventing something that excited me, I am not really sure. But then life has to go its course and many years from then on, the dream evaporated and I am not anywhere near that vision right now. It’s not that I am unhappy where I am now because I am, I am just saying. (whew! four I AMs in one sentence.)
Looking back, I think it’s high school that did it me for me. We had no facilities for experimenting (public non-science school), the textbooks that were lent to us and those in the library didn’t offer much help either. And our teachers… Yes, they were good but there is still much to be desired. I lost interest in the sciences altogether, save for Physics. Thank God for Mrs. Dayao and Mrs. Cabantog. But sayang because I heeded pa naman Mama’s challenge to be good in Math too, because Science and Math go together she said (I actually devoted the summer vacation of 1993 to studying Math on my own). To be honest, I graduated from college without really appreciating the good stuff of Chemistry and Biology except the basics. Thus electrons, protons, atomic weights, etc. became my biggest frustrations.
Fortunately, a couple of years ago, a good friend who was then my boss, offered me a book (in audiobook format) entitled A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I was never excited initially, but when I decided to play it on my iPod touch on a long drive to someplace south, I felt a gush of happiness and then all my science frustrations melted away.
Now, where do I start?
Well, first and foremost, it is a non-fiction science book which sought to tell us not only the who, what, when, and wheres but also the hows and whys from the time of the Big Bang up to the rise of the civilized world. It touches on areas like Biology, Chemistry, Particle Physics, Geology, and Meteorology among others. It introduces us to the great science thinkers of our time both known and unknown, Nobel prize-winners or not, and those in between. Unlike the textbooks we had in school, however, the discussion and presentation is humorous and closer to our experience.
For the first time in years, the infinitesimally small atoms, the vast universe, the Big Bang theory, Einstein’s theories, Newton’s Principia, the repeating cycle of creation and extinction, Darwin, why energy cannot be created nor destroyed, ATPs, and electrons mattered to me. I got the idea. I get the point.
Scientists were humanized (they are like the rest of us who make mistakes and had personality traits that are disagreeable), much like how the Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo writes about our heroes. For example, I was surprised to know that Newton once stared at the sun for as long as he can bear just so he could see what effect it has on our eyes. His eyes punished him and he had to stay in a darkened room for some months to allow his eyesight to go back to normal. I also found amusing the story of Marie Curie whose work on radioactivity won her a Nobel but up until now, people are not allowed to touch her things as it contained high amounts of radioactivity.
Another important thing to note is that the reader is made to realize that people and events did not proceed in a linear progression. The book shows the interconnectedness of people and events, that science is a work in progress with many people and places pitching in or in some occassions racing against each other to publish similar theories, as in the case of Darwin and Wallace.
I even found found the atomic version of reincarnation romantic. Here’s what Mr. Bryson wrote: “Because they are so long lived, atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms – up to a billion for each us, it has been suggested – probably once belonged to Shakespeare.“
The author, Mr. Bill Bryson, has a wikipedia entry so I leave that to you to research on. But please let me say this: I would love to meet him in person someday over a cup of coffee. I adore and envy the expanse of his imagination and his prolific writing skill. He is now up there with J.K. Rowling, Tina Fey, and John Irving, my heroes in writing.
I have listened to the whole audiobook more than five times already but it still did not prevent me from ordering the book at Fully Booked last December (not readily available on their shelves). I got the paperback version and some good deal from using my BDO credit card.
I could only imagine what could have happened had I been able to read this book one summer back in high school. Not much, I guess, but I really missed the opportunity to enjoy Science and to view the world through a different lens. This isn’t man’s world after all. Bacteria rule the world and we are at their mercy, according to Mr. Bryson.
I strongly recommend that teachers read this book because at the very least, they’d get ideas on how to make their lectures more interesting. Big ideas, enduring understanding. There’s a lighter version of the book for kids. Parents and teachers, please let them have it.
This is a fine example of what we were taught in U.P.: salaysay na may saysay.
Promise. No nosebleeds here.
Foreword* is a section that I will try to develop here in Butch Café. It will be dedicated to book reviews and recommendations that I plan to write at least once each month. If you have a book which you want me to write a Foreword to, please, I welcome suggestions.