Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Most of us have something in common with Bill Bryson. We are not scientists and, for the most part, we really do not understand science despite however many science classes we sat through during our school days. Bryson realized that about himself and, because his curiosity was still very much alive, he decided to do something about it. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the result. And when Bryson says "nearly everything," he is not joking.

The book consists of an introduction, thirty long chapters that are organized into six sections, and something like 100 pages of notes (I read the e-book version and have not looked at a printed version to get actual page counts). Most books of over 500 pages will never be called short but, considering the number of hugely complicated topics that he tackles in this book, Bryson has indeed written a "short history." And, most importantly, his explanation of the science involved is kept at a perfect level: basic enough for those of us without a background in science to understand it, but complicated enough to make us realize just how amazing it is that anyone ever reached the level of understanding held by the real scientists in world history.

The book's six sections carry the reader from the creation of the universe, through the evolution of our own planet, to the beginning of life on Earth and the eventual development of man, closing with a final chapter on the devastating effect that mankind continues to have on the other species of the world. Along the way, we meet many of the scientists who made the biggest discoveries and scientific breakthroughs in scientific history. Bryson puts a human face on these men and women by describing the many wrong turns that most of them took before finally reaching their halleluiah moments. In fact, as Bryson describes some of the petty feuding that has always been part of the scientific community, one wonders how so much was achieved so quickly.

If you find yourself feeling the way that Bryson felt before he began the research for A Short History of Nearly Everything, this is a book that you will enjoy:
All mine (science textbooks)were written by men (it was always men) who held the interesting notion that everything became clear when expressed as a formula and the amusingly deluded belief that the children of America would appreciate having chapters end with a section of questions they could mull over in their own time. So I grew up convinced that science was supremely dull, but suspecting that it needn't be, and not really thinking about it at all if I could help it.
Most of us got by our science classes without gaining much of an understanding of all the science behind those "facts" that we taught ourselves to regurgitate when it came time to fill out our test papers. A Short History of Nearly Everything goes a long way in showing us just how much we missed out on by settling for that.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. I have been meaning to read this book for awhile now and I just ordered it this weekend so I have taken the first step. It seems like a fun book and very interesting. Glad to see you liked it.

  2. I have to admit, Matt, that even at the level that Bryson covers some of the science involved, I was still challenged to keep up. But I walked away with a better fundamental understanding of how everything comes together than I ever had before in my life. It's well worth reading, IMO.

  3. I absolutely devoured this book last year. Like Bryson, I've always been interested in science but, since it was always taught to me in an uninteresting way, I figured my curiosity was better spent elsewhere. I picked this one up on the recommendation of a friend and I was incredibly happy that I did.
    Since then, I've been on a kind of minor scientific reading expedition. Following ASONE, I read Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, which I also recommend.

  4. Thanks for the recommendation. I'll have to take a look at that one because the Bryson book just absolutely fascinated me over and over again with all the things that were suddenly starting to make some sense to me.

  5. It's not just for people who never really liked science; I loved this book and I'm a science geek.
    He put such a human face on the scientists and he is so humorous. I think this will become one of my favorite books ever.
    I followed you here from the Saturday Review

  6. Raidergirl, I just figured that "science geeks" already knew most of this stuff and would find it redundant. Much of it was new to me, at that level of detail, and for the first time I started to grasp the mysteries that have been solved.

    You're right, too, in that I enjoyed his sketches on the lives of the various scientists as much as I enjoyed his explanation of their discoveries and proofs. Bryson has a real talent for doing that kind of thing.

  7. Good review, you tell it how it is.

    Bryson's book is not-so-little gem. Even if you are a scientist you will be thrilled. It was recommended to me by a Chemical Engineer among others.

    @Peyton: Coincidentally, I just started Guns, Germs, and Steel... looks not so digestible but promising nonetheless!

  8. Thanks, Miguel. I don't know the book you reference...I'll have to take a look at it.