The Third Person


Mi Yu

There is a famous anecdote about the Theory of Relativity. After Albert Einstein’s paper had been published, rumor has it that Sir Arthur Eddington, one of the propagators of the theory, was one of the only three persons in the world to understand it. When asked about the rumor during a casual conversation, Eddington allegedly paused for a moment, then replied: “I’m trying to think who the third person is.”

Witticism travels fast, within or without the professional circle. Soon the conceptual link was formed: Relativity is hard.

Of course, I’m not here to argue that Relativity is easy. There are counter-intuitive parts of the theory that simply makes it difficult for people without professional training to wrap our head around it. But Eddington was in a different position: the scientist in the know was trying his best to propagate the theory, but still no one, according to him, can fully comprehend it. Eddington’s claim marks a departure from the previous era of mass participation in science, when the well-to-do middle class could sit in for a lecture in the Royal Society of London, just as they would for a Shakespeare play. We all agree now that science is beyond our intuitive comprehension, and that only through rigid training can we come close to the Holy Grail of human intelligence. In a sense, Eddington is speaking our minds: science is, and should be, hard to understand.

This brings us to the first objection against Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything: Bryson doesnt understand. Yes, he is a curious individual like most of us, wondering how life came about and why the universe is in its current form. But just like most of us, he is not a scientist, has no formal trainings, and had just started asking ninth-grade science questions when he decided to write this book. In his own words:

I had no idea, for example, why the oceans were salty but the Great Lakes weren’t. Didn’t have the faintest idea… I didn’t know what a proton was, or a protein, didn’t know a quark from a quasar, didn’t understand how geologists could look at a layer of rock on a canyon wall and tell you how old it was, didn’t know anything really.

It is inherently questionable whether such a person could sit down and write an introductory book to science. Who is this amateur, anyways? What is he doing here if science is not his field? What is his role?

It turns out that Bryson’s role has been assigned thousands of years earlier, as the middleperson between professionals and the public, the translator of the rigid, convoluted scientific language. He is like Gorgias, the ancient Greek orator, who communicated political and philosophical ideas to the common citizens, and on whom the professional philosophers, like Socrates and Plato, kept a wary eye:

SOCRATES: And with all the other arts and sciences too, the position is the same for the orator – and for rhetoric. There’s no need for him to know how things are in themselves, merely to have discovered some device for persuading people, so that he can appear to those who don’t know to know more than those who do know.

GORGIAS: Doesn’tthat make life a lot easier, Socrates? You don’t have to learn the other arts and sciences,only this one, and you’re on a par with the experts.

And he is an ambitions orator. Consider the breadth of knowledge he touches on, against the present level of specialization. We are putting increasingly specific titles before scientists: before, it was just philosophers; now it is quantum physicists, data analysists, robotic engineers, etc. The fragmentation of science is so developed that its best student can claim sophistication in one, and only one, branch. But Bryson doesn’t stop at one branch. Each part of the book dwells on a different field: Lost in Cosmos is on astronomy, The Size of the Earth on geography, A New Age Dawns on Relativity and Quantum Physics, Life Itself and The Road to Us on biology, etc., each part complete with explanations of major theories, their implications and influences, and brief biographies of prominent figures, their gossips and quirks. The most talented couldn’t claim to know them all, but Bryson makes them sound surprisingly holistic and accessible:

[A] certain art was invoked from outside, from some different branch of knowledge … in order to cement together material that had previously been disjointed and kept apart, and to tie it together with the help of a certain method.

Question is: how did he do that?

The most succinct answer is provided by Cicero: Bryson “take[s] the same themes about which they debate in plain and meager language, and develop[s] them with all the attractiveness and dignity he can muster.” We were so used to the rigid but arcane definitions of scientific terms that Bryson’s account is refreshing. Here is a snippet of language we usually associate with science:

A proton is a subatomic particle, symbol p or p+, with a positive electric charge of +1e elementary charge and mass slightly less than that of a neutron. Protons and neutrons, each with masses of approximately one atomic mass unit, are collectively referred to as “nucleons” …

Here is Bryson on the same subject:

A proton is an infinitesimal part of an atom, which is itself of course an insubstantial thing. Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this i can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them, rather more than the number of seconds contained in half a million years. So protons are exceedingly microscopic, to say the very least.

If someone asks what a proton is, we immediately have a picture in mind. It is part of an atom, and, well, it is small. Much, much smaller than the dot on the letter “i”. Wikipedia, on the other hand, presupposes a lot. It automatically assumes that we should know about elementary electric charges, atomic mass unit, etc. But in fact, we might simply be wandering on the internet one Saturday afternoon, curious about some random terms. Cramming ten other scientific concepts we haven’t heard of before into the first paragraph hardly count as satisfying our curiosity – it makes us feel left out. The conventional scientific writing, therefore, is by professionals, for professionals – “he teacheth them that are already taught.”

This is where another major criticism of this book comes in: science, including scientific writing, can only be the business of scientists. And since Bryson is only a travel journalist, his book simply shouldn’t enter the science club. One side of this criticism is that the author indeed made some factual mistakes. As noted by Sean Elvidge and many others, “Voyager 1 never got to Uranus nor cross the orbit of Pluto, only Voyager 2 did”; Betelgeuse, instead of fifty thousand light years away, “is around 643 ± 143 light years away” – I wouldn’t be surprised to find quite a few more mistakes. Bryson is not perfect – far from it, as the perfect orator according to Cicero “should acquire a knowledge extending over the principles and nature of all objects and arts.” But since knowing all fields of science is impossible to achieve (and even the most accurate textbooks can contain mistakes), the Ciceronian rationale would be that the orator should provide an account as persuasive and intriguing as possible.

Another line of the criticism, however, doesn’t go after Bryson’s factual mistake. It follows the classical Platonic argument that young readers of this book would indulge in the pleasure provided by gossips and trivia, and never look pass Bryson’s words into science itself. Instead of formulas, numbers and definitions, Bryson is talking about how the depth of the universe can be compared to the Empire State Building, or how, referring to the unfinished Supercollider, “Texas now boasts the most expensive hole in the universe.” According to Jupiter Scientific, “[f]rom a scientific point of view, most topics are treated superficially.” Structural errors include: 1) treating speculations and competing theories as scientific truth, 2) “[neglecting] events that have been observationally established,” and 3) misplacing emphasis on trivialities and not on science.

The problem with insisting on the conventional way of writing science, however, is that common readers and professionals inherently care about different things. Stephen Hawking, when sending in the original draft of A Brief History of Time, was warned by his editor that for every mathematical equation in the book, its readership would be halved. This, of course, is an exaggeration, but nevertheless explains why Hawking’s book became a bestseller, and countless other scientific journals didn’t. It is not Eddington who sparked public interest in the Theory of Relativity, despite his endeavors. Granted, he may have got the attention of the academic circle, but it was newspaper headlines, editorials, science fictions and, later on, books with titles like How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog, that spread the words to the world (or dogs, for that matter). Plato wants language to be exclusively professional, whereas Cicero says it’s not enough. There has to be someone who can explain the subject eloquently and elegantly, like an orator, otherwise the common public will remain ignorant, and the professionals will continue to be obsessed with the truth.

It is not to say that the public have no desire for science and knowledge, nor is it suggesting that all scientific writing should compare the size of a proton to a dot on a letter. Orators “[scorn] no art or branch of learning, but [claim] them all as the companions and attendants.” What Cicero’s argument suggests is that we are missing a link between two ends of the spectrum, a link to inspire and not to scare or confuse the public, that breaks out the trap of professional writing and reach as many readers as possible. Hard science can be made simple with the power of language, and Bryson’s book, in doing so, becomes “the science for the many.”

Of course, not everyone that reads Bryson’s book will become a scientist. A book that helps aspiring kids start their journeys doesn’t automatically remove the obstacles. Everything remains the same in the field of science: discovery still takes commitment, persistence, creativity, and professionalism. But one thing is certain: without Bryson’s book, a great number of journeys wouldn’t have started; and figuratively speaking, the third person to understand the Theory of Relativity may truly never appear.