Monday, July 20, 2009

Book Reviews: "A Whole New Mind" and "A Short History of Nearly Everything"

Six months ago, I attended the TIES conference in Minneapolis with my dad. There were a number of things we were eager to see, but none more than the keynote address by Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind. We heard him argue, as he does in the book, that the kind of abilities that society values are beginning to change. He lists six aptitudes, or "senses," that will become essential as this change occurs: Design, Symphony, Empathy, Play, Meaning, and Story.

Story, of course, is most pertinent to the denizens of Literacy Log. I found Pink's discussion of the importance of story useful when I spoke to a literacy class at Hamline University in St. Paul recently, and I thought I would extend that discussion to this blog.

I used this quote from A Whole New Mind to summarize the societal shift Pink sees, and why it makes Story more important than ever:
What's unsurprising today would have seemed preposterous just fifteen years ago: an English-speaking thirteen-year-old in Zaire who's connected to the Internet can find the current temperature in Brussels or the closing price of IBM stock or the name of Winston Churchill's second finance minister as quickly and easily as the head librarian at Cambridge University. That's glorious. But it has enormous consequences for how we work and live. When facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable. What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact (p. 102).

I am reminded of my former life as a high school debater. Every August, before the season began, our team piled into two school vans and made the five-hour trip to the University of Minnesota Library to conduct research. We spent three days photocopying thousands of pages of books and magazines. We then took them back to our room at the school and spent days with scissors and glue sticks in hand, compiling briefs on various aspects of the research topic.

Today, this kind of effort seems absurd. What fifteen of us could accomplish with a ten-hour round trip and weeks of cutting is now the easy task of two or three students with laptop computers. This kind of shift has taken place across our entire economy, and especially in those activities that require the retrieval and use of information.

At Hamline, I was speaking to a room full of Math and Science teachers who were learning about teaching literacy in their classrooms. I used Pink's view of things to stress the importance of Story in Math and Science. These are not the only subjects that tend to place undue value on the memorization of facts. As the world changes, workers will not just have to retrieve information; they will have to convey it as well. Teachers in all disciplines must nurture the storytellers in their students.

In search of an example of the power of Story in Math and Science, I remembered a brilliant book by Bill Bryson called A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson, of course, is a well-known teller of travel stories. Here, he strays from his home genre into the history of science.

I must note that I have spent my entire academic life avoiding science. I have thought of myself as a student of the humanities, greatful that others found the workings of the physical universe interesting enough to study. And so I was surprised to find myself absolutely enthralled by A Short History. Bryson's brings his considerable storytelling talent to bear on the people and events that shaped our understanding of the world, and the result is the most unexpected page-turner I have ever stumbled upon.

To demonstrate what Bryson accomplishes with this book, and to exemplify the shift from a knowledge-based economy to one that values Story, I turned to the book's discussion of the Richter Scale.

Students in Science classes encounter the Richter scale in this form:

(Technical Difficulties: Please click the picture to see it more clearly. And thanks to

The average student will attend to this chart only to the extent necessary for regurgitation on a quiz or test. And yet most instruction I recieved about the Richter Scale revolved around a chart such as this. Compare this knowledge-based tool to the story told by Bryson on page 211. It is too long to quote in its entirety, but I will share a bit with you and let you read the rest on your own.

The Richter scale has always been widely misunderstood by non-scientists, though perhaps a little less so now than in its early days when visitors to Richter's office often asked to see his celebrated scale, thinking it was some kind of machine. The scale is of course more an idea than an object, an arbitrary measure of Earth's tremblings based on surface measuremnts. It rises exponentially, so that a 7.3 quake is fifty times more powerful than a 6.3 earthquake and 2,500 times more powerful than a 5.3 earthquake.

Bryson spends the next few paragraphs telling stories about earthquakes of different levels of magnitude. He culminates with this one, on 212:

For pure, focused, devastation, however, probably the most intense earthquake in recorded history was one that struck - and essentially shook to pieces - Lisbon, Portugal, on All Saints Day (November 1), 1755. Just before ten in the morning, the city was hit by a sudden sideways lurch now estimated at magnitude 9.0 and shaken ferociously for seven full minutes. The convulsive force was so great that the water rushed out of the city's harbor and returned in a wave fifty feet high, adding to the destruction. When at last the motion ceased, survivors enjoyed just three minutes of calm before a second shock came, only slightly less severe than the first. A third and final schock followed two hours later. At the end of it all, sixty thousand people were dead and virtually every building for miles reduced to rubble. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906, for comparison, measured an estimated 7.8 on the Richter scale and lasted less than thirty seconds.
For a student like me, this description would lead to a better conception of the Richter Scale than any amount of hours staring at that chart. That is why I love A Short History of Nearly Everything and would recommended to anyone who wants to take an alternate route to an understanding of science. In addition, I think that Mr. Bryson provides a powerful example of the importance of Story in disciplines such as Math and Science. Some students have a natural affinity for such subjects, but others find them intimidating or dull. The excerpt above could catalyze an interest in Seismology or an understanding of magnitude in a student who might have forgotten the facts once the test was completed.

When I mentioned Bryson's book, a few of the science teachers in the room nodded their heads in approval. Any teacher of science will find it a great resource, and I defy the casual reader to find it anything less than engrossing. Likewise, I believe that A Whole New Mind has a lot to tell us about how the world is changing and how we should change what we teach accordingly.


  1. This reminds me of the book The Worldly Philosophers" which taught me pretty much everything I still know about Economics. But don't ask me to chart anything other than the most basic Supply-Demand lines on one of those chart gags.

  2. Oh, I love that book! I was shadowing a High School Econ. teacher last year and could not put it down. I have "A Short History" in paperback and audio formats if you're interested.