So I finally got round to reading Bill Bryson’s book “A Short History of Nearly Everything”. OK, so it’s not quite as entertaining as some of his travel guides, but it is amazingly full of things that make you go “Wow” and “Can you believe it?” I especially liked the bits about soft drink cans and a man named Norman.
I can vaguely remember learning about Avogadro’s Number (the number of molecules in a couple of grams of hydrogen) when I was studying chemistry a great many years ago, and I know it’s a big number. A really big number. Much bigger that the kind of numbers we computer people usually play with. And the book also shows how bad we are at explaining how big our numbers are.
For example, we often talk about the lack of publicly available IPv4 addresses and explain that the new IPv6 mechanism will provide enough for everyone on the planet to have a trillion each. Unless you can envisage how many people live on this planet, and what a trillion looks like, it’s all pretty uninformative. But when you hear how Avogadro’s Number is described in the book you get a much more realistic impression of its size. Supposedly, when converted into the same number of soft drink cans, there would be enough to cover the entire planet with a stack two hundred miles high. Now you really get that “big number” feeling.
Bill’s book also talks a lot about biology, and illustrates how flighty and unreliable we computer programmers are. We casually skip from one technology to another, flip between programming languages, and wander through the forests of patterns and frameworks that make our life easy. It just demonstrates how little real concentration we have compared to the guy named Norman who worked in the Natural History Museum in London.
Norman steadfastly spent forty-two years studying one species of plant, St. John’s Wort. And after he retired he still came into work one day a week to continue his task. Imagine what it would be like if you had to spend most of your working life just producing better implementations of the Singleton design pattern.
Still it could be worse. I read in the newspaper this week that the team at CERN using the Large Hadron Collider think they’ve discovered a whole new Standard Model on which all physics is based, possibly rendering the old one obsolete. You have to feel sorry for Peter Higgs, who’s been waiting nearly fifty years for them to find a Higgs boson
Now someone has to tell him that actually it’s all just wiggly bits of string…