A short history of nearly everything

by Bill Bryson

Hardcover, 2003




New York : Broadway Books, 2003.


Nature and science writer Bill Bryson examines some of mysteries of science, and attempts to understand not only what scientists know, but how they know it. Covers the creation of the universe, the size of the Earth, the origins of life, and other topics.

Media reviews

The more I read of ''A Short History of Nearly Everything,'' the more I was convinced that Bryson had achieved exactly what he'd set out to do, and, moreover, that he'd done it in stylish, efficient, colloquial and stunningly accurate prose.
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Bill Bryson
"Una breve historia de casi todo" explica como ha evolucionado el mundo para acabar siendo lo que es hoy. Explica cualquier aspecto de nuestro universo, desde el más recóndito al más conocido.
The book's underlying strength lies in the fact that Bryson knows what it's like to find science dull or inscrutable. Unlike scientists who turn their hand to popular writing, he can claim to have spent the vast majority of his life to date knowing very little about how the universe works.

User reviews

LibraryThing member JimmyChanga
Things I Learned:Behind every scientific discovery, there is always at least one, but usually a whole team of, totally disfunctional, mad, quirky, buffoonish, amusing, curmudgeonly, anti-social, or stupid scientist(s).If a bunch of scientists are trying to figure out the answer to an age-old question, the most likely person to find the answer is someone not even practicing in the field, perhaps not even a scientist. For example: an engineer figures out a physics problem, or a school janitor figures out a geology problem.If someone makes a bold scientific discovery, they are first dismissed and ridiculed, then when their ideas are finally accepted, they are attributed to the wrong person.There are many many many underappreciated, forgotten scientists in the history of mankind.Clair Patterson is one of them, and he is also my new hero. Thanks to him, and his tireless battle with big corporations (how many scientists are also politcal activists? not many) we don't all have to die of lead poisoning. He has been totally forgotten by history.There are many possible scenarios for us homo sapiens to not have made it here today. Just any one factor being slightly different would make it impossible for us to live here. We are very lucky.There are an equal amount of possible scenarios that we will not be here much longer (asteroids, volcanos, ice ages, not to mention human causes like atomic war).Many times the same things that cause mass destruction are the things that allow us to be alive in the first place. Volcanoes cause many deaths, but at the same time, without them we would still be in an ice age. A huge asteroid could destroy us all, but yet without them, the dinosaurs would never have gone extinct, which means we would never have come around in the first place.Every generation thinks it knows everything, or is at the brink of knowing everything. Every generation has been seriously wrong up to now about almost everything. There is still a LOT that we don't know. Especially about the really miniscule and the really huge. But also about our own histories.We are such a small part of everything, and when we go we will only be a blip, we will not be missed. We can't even comprehend how inconsequential we are. Humans are a blight on this earth. Everything we touch goes extinct. We put all kinds of chemicals in the earth. We overtax all earth's resources. We really are like a virus, leeching onto the earth. When humans go extinct it will be our own fault, but also a very healthy turn of events for the earth and all that live on it. Only then would the earth begin its recovery from us.
If I were told that I had to spend decades being a furry growth on a rock in the woods, I believe I would lose the will to go on. Lichens don't.p336
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LibraryThing member Katie_H
"Short History" is a layman's guide to all forms of science as they relate to the history of the world, and it is a testament to how amazing and miraculous the history of the earth and humankind really is. The book includes sections on all types of science, such as Astronomy, Geology, Paleontology, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, and Bryson explains the subjects in a way that is relevant to the average person. He tackles space, the origins of the universe and the earth, the beginning of life, cells, DNA, and humans in a timeline fashion. The text appears to be well researched, and the author includes the "back stories" that go along with all the key scientists, discoveries, and inventions, giving credit where credit is due. I did major in biology, but a prior knowledge in science is NOT necessary to enjoy this book, just an interest in the concepts. Bryson does a fantastic job of explaining abstract ideas in a way that makes sense and is close to home. This is fascinating and amusing, and far more interesting than any science textbook I've read.… (more)
LibraryThing member daschaich
An entertaining read, cautiously recommended: Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" has a lot of good points. It is above all a very entertaining and engaging read. Bryson writes in an informal, chatty style that at times reminded me of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. His subject is, essentially, life, the universe and (nearly) everything. Bryson aims to explore the history of science in general, summarizing not only what we know, but also how we know it - he sets himself the wonderful goal of trying to explain "how scientists work things out". It's a big task, and had Bryson accomplished it, this would have been an incredible book. As it is, "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is still a worthwhile read, despite its flaws, which I will soon discuss.

The organization of the book is partly chronological, partly thematic. It is divided into six parts and thirty relatively short chapters. The earlier parts focus on the physical sciences, including astronomy, cosmology, geology, physics and physical chemistry. The latter half of the book deals primarily with the life sciences - biology, ecology, botany, zoology, oceanography, organic chemistry and so on. It's a considerable challenge to organize such a large amount of material dealing with so many distantly-related subjects, and Bryson pulls it off quite well. I can make no criticism of his large-scale organization.

However, the devil is in the details, and many of the details Bryson chooses to include in his "Short History" have little if anything to do with what he's supposedly writing about. He has a persistent tendency to head off on irrelevant tangents and lose himself in anecdotes about some of the curious characters that have walked the halls of science. Bryson wastes far too much ink relating bizarre factoids picked up in the course of his research, from William Buckland's dining habits to Gideon Mantell's twisted spine. He especially loves recounting the details of feuds and squabbles between scientists - the more intense, underhanded, unreasonable and destructive, the better. In all of this, the material we picked up the book to explore can get somewhat lost. Chapter 10, for instance, is "an important and salutary tale of avarice, deceit, bad science, several needless deaths, and the final determination of the age of the Earth" - in that order of importance.

Reading "A Short History of Nearly Everything", I did greatly appreciate Bryson's ability to make clear how much scientists don't know and are still working to figure out. However, I was disappointed that despite his promise to explore "how scientists work things out", Bryson often just quotes results and conclusions without further explanation. Sometimes he doesn't even do that - modern physics is largely dismissed as wacky and incomprehensible.

Even worse, Bryson makes several glaring errors in his discussion of physics (and perhaps also in other areas that I'm not so familiar with), far worse than any I've seen in other popular science books I've read. For example, he suggests particles with "spin" are actually spinning about an axis (which they are not) and presents entanglement as a violation of relativity (which it is not). Bryson also incorrectly claims that the production of black holes within future particle accelerators would destroy the world. In fact, these microscopic black holes would evaporate in a fraction of a nanosecond - something that would have been very nice to learn in "A Short History of Nearly Everything".

I enjoy reading popular science, and much of what I've read I've found better than Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything". I would especially recommend Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, Alan Guth and Martin Rees for physics, astronomy and cosmology, and Richard Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould for biology. However, I know of no other work that attempts to cover nearly as many fields as Bryson's "Short History". Even though Bryson's book wasn't able to live up to its initial promise, it was a decent read - one I recommend, though with some reservations.
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LibraryThing member AnnieHidalgo
As a former lit major, I usually have to be coaxed into reading a science book. But this one caught my attention right away. I probably learned more about various branches of scientific thought, particularly physics, than I had in the last ten years, by reading this book. Which may say a lot about how I should broaden my reading tastes, but I prefer to think of it as a recommendation for this work. Just read it. You won't be bored. You'll be fascinated. And you'll end up with more questions about the way the universe is constructed than you started out with. Books that make you think for yourself always get my vote.… (more)
LibraryThing member dmmjlllt
A brief, layman's history of science, by the often humorous travel writer and favorite of the NPR set. Bryson can write very well, and he makes a good job of this particular story. I'd have to say I prefer this to most of his travel books, which is odd; the latter are supposed to be his bread and butter, after all.

It is thorough, in the sense that it tries to cover everything, and it is in consequence also (unavoidably shallow). This isn't really a defect - the book is self-avowedly a layman's introduction, after all, so depth and technical detail were simply never on. So I would say it succeeds well on its own terms. He's taken what is a good story on its own, and told it really pretty well.

On my first reading I would have been tempted to give it a five, as I enjoyed it tremendously. The reread took some of the shine off, though. For one thing, there's more NPR ideology-lite than I initially realized. Nothing too egregious, just the sort of snide/smug assumption of a certain set of positions on issues that are clearly only vaguely understood, coupled with the kind of "tolerance" that views Trobriand Islanders with equanimity, but cannot abide the NASCAR-watching Southern Baptist that lives only a few miles away. And be warned that if you loot his bibliography, you will find yourself reading a great many of the same anecdotes over again.
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LibraryThing member drewfull
A fun book if you're looking for a walkthrough of everything you were supposed to learn in high school science classes told by a great storyteller. Does a great job of presenting technical details with simple analogies and funny anecdotes from scientific history. It's obvious Mr. Bryson put a lot of research into this book.
LibraryThing member cyderry
I have to admit that I did not finish this book. I couldn't listen to another disc. This book was FILLED and I mean FILLED with facts and data regarding all types of science - geology, astronomy, archeology, chemistry, physics as well as personalities involved in these areas. To say the least, it was boring.
The only thing that I have to compare it to, is the Bible area where you can find out who begat who and begat who and begat who - you get the idea.
IU've heard that this writer is good so I will try another. Maybe I just got one that was not a topic for me.
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LibraryThing member bragan
This book tries very, very hard to live up to its name, covering such topics as the origin of the universe, the geologic processes that have shaped the Earth, the history of life, and the evolution of humanity. Needless to say, since this is only one 500 page book, none of this is presented in huge amounts of depth, but it does feature lots of interesting specifics, including glimpses at the sometimes highly colorful personalities involved in various scientific discoveries, as well as a pleasant sense of wonder at how much we've learned just in the last century or so and how much we still don't know. Admittedly, it's not as witty as some of Bryson's other books, and since I was already familiar with most of the topics he covers, it got a little bit tedious for me from time to time. I should probably point out that there are a few topics on which it's already a bit out of date, as well. But if you're someone with an interest in what we know about the world around us and how we know it but no real background in science and are looking for an intelligent, engaging, very broad overview, you could do a heck of a lot worse.… (more)
LibraryThing member atreic
This book was not what I was expecting. I'd bought it under the misapprehension that it was a popular guide to human history, whereas it is actually popular science. And while it is definitely short relative to the amount of material it covers, it is really rather long. It is a whistle stop tour of 1) the universe is very big and expanding and there are stars and the solar system is really big too 2) It's very hard to know how heavy the earth is or how old it is, 3) relativity, quantum, atomic bombs 4) the earth is amazingly fragile, and in lots of danger from volcanoes, comets etc 5) Life is cool, and it all contains DNA, and bacteria are Weird 6) human evolution is interesting and poorly understood.

If that sounds like quite a lot, it is. And Bill Bryson, while having a gentle and engaging prose style as always, suffers from two major flaws. The first is that he spends a disproportionate amount of time telling the stories of the people behind the science, rather than the stories of the science itself. If that is your thing you will love this book, but I was reading a big fat non-fiction book to learn things, and I found the science:anacdote ratio annoying. Secondarily, when he does get into the science, he has a really annoying habit of name-dropping a huge number of scientific terms without real explanation, just so he can make the points that a) it's all Really Really Difficult, and b) aren't scientists very clever but very weird with their Big Words. I found this very frustrating - I think most science can be made accessible with a little care, and it just felt lazy.
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LibraryThing member SharronA
Terrific book, entertaining and yet academic & authentic enough to be worth the time to read it. When I read this I was reminded of James Burke's writings and wonder why science couldn't be taught in school the way these men write. I can't think of anyone to whom I wouldn't recommend it, except those folks who believe the earth is 6000 years old and cannot tolerate thinking outside that box.… (more)
LibraryThing member TheBooknerd
This book is as entertaining as it is informative. Bryson's wit and casual humor laces through a non-stop flow of facts, dates, anecdotes, and descriptions. Never before has a book been so aptly titled -- the brief but widely inclusive coverage of a variety of topics keeps your attention sharp and focused. Best of all, Bryson gives us all this information in the form of a story that sweeps across human history.… (more)
LibraryThing member seldombites
I have always been interested in science, but usually find science books difficult to understand. This book is different. A Short History of Nearly Everything is science for the non-scientist, and it is absolutely fascinating. Peppered with Bryson's characteristic humour and, for the most part, perfectly understandable, this book is a perfect way for the average person to learn about the world around them and the history of, well, us. From just before the big bang to life as we know it today - and everything in between - Bryson outlines the most current scientific theories, and all the steps it took to get there.

While I do recommend reading the entire book, those determined to browse will be happy to note that the book is divided into easy-to-navigate chapters with clear titles, such as Welcome to the Solar System, Einstein's Universe and The Mighty Atom, making it easy to skip directly to topics of interest.

While there is a non-illustrated version of this book, I highly recommend getting the illustrated version if you are able. It is a little bulkier and heavier to carry around, but the beautiful photographs are absolutely worth it. As well as stunning photos and sketches of the universe and the Earth in its various stages, there are microscopic shots of various bacteria and viruses, and photographs of scientists, allowing us to put a face to the name. There is also an occasional amusing cartoon, to lighten the heavier topics.

A Short History of Nearly Everything (Illustrated Edition) is definitely a book I would love to have in my permanent collection.
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LibraryThing member Oreillynsf
A fascinating survey of planetary history, written in the simple and entertaining story style that Bryson has patented. Impeccably researched, Bryson is able to tell billions of years of history in compartmentalized stories that bring unifying themes to a massive range of subjects and fields.
LibraryThing member phoebesmum
Science for morons. Regrettably, even so I didn’t understand a word of it and have now forgotten it completely - except that I now know that if the Old Faithful geyser ever explodes it will be the end of the world as we know it, which I would rather NOT have known.
LibraryThing member reading_fox
Well it's not that short and unless you use a very wide description of nearly it's not everything, but it is a history. Meant as a light hearted tour through why the universe is the way it is, and how we know this, it fails on many points. The basic subjects covered is the formation of the universe, segeuing through into the solar system, (with some basic chemistry) and then turning to the development of life and finally humans and a bit of their pre-history. Nothing I read contradicted anything I've heard before so I have no reason to suppose that there were any major factual acurracies, but the style left something to be desired. This book focuses mostly on the people behind the stories, the controversies and amusing anecdotes about their lives. As such it lives up to both the lighthearted and history descriptions. However it also misses out on a lot of the science, focusing on completely irrelevant details. The book would be half as long and twice as informative if all the personal junk were cut out. The added focus on controversy doesn't really help much either. Although it is an important part of history that many alternative ideas are oftne presented, and only after much careful and patient research can the correct one be identified, many times the controversy seesm to have been added just to make the text more exiting, rather than to elucidate a point of science. There are hence even more names and dates to remember, and not usually cross referenced from when they were last mentioned. My second main gripe is that it claimed to set out how we know certain facts. This was just ignored for most of the rest of the book. One or two descriptions are given, but nothing more. A major failing in what could have been a very imformative work. It is certainly very readable, but it doesn't cover any new ground, and there are shorter and more informative books out there. Considering it was written by a non-scientist it is not a bad effort, but you get the feeling Bill didn't really understand many of the key points, and certainly hasn't conveyed them well to the reader.… (more)
LibraryThing member IsaacPearson
The author, Bill Bryson, weaves together the history of scientific discovery, the natural history of the Earth, and ideas and facts behind the many fields of science. He covers both the massive universe and the subatomic one and all the other things in between.
This book is both entertaining and fascinating as it takes you on a journey of discovery through the history of science and science itself. The author's sense of humor is good, and you can tell that he is not a technical expert, and that this is the same journey he also went on when writing this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member briandarvell
Fun read for glancing through various points of scientific history. Don't expect this book to make you any wiser other than perhaps improving your Jeopardy performance. Obviously written by a non-expert for other non-experts. My advice would be to get a better history of science text written by someone in the field.
LibraryThing member jesso13
I love learning about anything and everything (for the most part) and this book was great! It's a great combo of science and history, and a lot more interesting than reading a text book. I really enjoy Bill Bryson's writing style and sense of humor. Enough info to keep those with history or science backgrounds interested, but not overwhelming to those with no background at all.… (more)
LibraryThing member AriadneAranea
Bill Bryson does science - and it's just what you would expect. Enthusiastic and humorous, and a sort-of travel guide to what we know and how we found it out. Bryson is big on the history of science and scientists, and the human side of things. His emphasis on who did what, and how, and why, and when, does somehow overshadow the actual science part - but, hey, why not? Definitely a good read for non-scientists, and doubles as a doorstop afterwards.… (more)
LibraryThing member Valleyguy
Everyone should read this book. I know it is a rather large book, but once you start you won't be able to put it down. Bryson's research into what is man's current understanding of science will fill you in on the fascinating world of that which we know, and will leave you pondering those things we don't understand yet. I read this book just before going back to school to study science and it has greatly helped me to enjoy myself while studying these things.… (more)
LibraryThing member sixslug
That the Earth is more than an inhospitable ball of ice or fiery blast furnace seems to be dependent on a lengthy string of happy outcomes. That humans managed to survive their own birth and rise to prominence is even more improbable. Yet here the Earth is and here we are. Bryson details it all in his folksy way, making the science almost understandable when explaining by way of our best and brightest the action of galaxies, cells, geology and plant life. This bag of thinking chemicals highly recommends.… (more)
LibraryThing member delirium
This book is an overview of the entire realm of science. Bill Bryson is incredibly readable, and I found this much more enjoyable than my college science classes (and free of pesky labs and formulas). A grim reminder of how utterly insignificant a role the human race plays on the stage of natural history. We may wipe ourselves out with our antics, but the universe won't even flinch.… (more)
LibraryThing member debnance
I hate science. There I've said it. Science textbooks, science teachers, science classes....For me, it was all, as Bryson writes in the book's introduction, "...as if (they) wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable." For the science hater (and, I suspect, for the science lover), this is a singularly wonderful book. Bryson makes Einstein and Darwin, Dalton and Rutherford seem like cool dudes. He talks about big subjects like the expanding universe, plate tectonics, the human genome, and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle the way other people talk about baseball. Highly recommended. Some of my favorite quotes from the book: From the introduction: "Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn't easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize. To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you....For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence. (1)" "It isn't easy to become a fossil....When your spark is gone, every molecule you own will be nibbled off you or sluiced away to be put to use in some other system. That's just the way it is. (321)" "Of course, it is possible that alien beings travel billions of miles to amuse themselves by planting crop circles in Wiltshire or frightening the daylights out of some poor guy in a pickup truck on a lonely road in Arizona (they must have teenagers, after all), but it does seem unlikely. (27)" "Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been parts of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. (134)" "The good news, it appears, is that it takes an awful lot to extinguish a species. The bad news is that the good news can never be counted on. (206)." Bryson quotes Freeman Dyson: "The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming." "You have no secrets from your cells. They know far more about you than you do. Each one carries a copy of the complete genetic code-the instruction manual for your body- so it knows not only how to do its job but every other job in the body. (371)" "We are...uncannily alike. Compare your genes with any other human being's and on average they will be about 99.9 percent the same. (398)" "It isn't being an organism. In the whole universe, as far as we yet know, there is only one place, an inconspicuous outpost of the Milky Way called Earth, that will sustain you, and even it can be pretty grudging. (239)" "...if you were designing an organism to look after life in our lonely cosmos, to monitor where it is going and keep a record of where it has been, you wouldn't choose human beings for the job. But here's an extremely salient point: we have been chosen....As far as we can tell, we are the best there is. We may be all there is. It's an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe's supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously. (477)" "The upshot of all this is that we live in a universe whose age we can't quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances we don't altogether know, filled with matter we can't identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don't truly understand. (172)"… (more)
LibraryThing member missporkchop
What can I say about a Bryson book? The man can do no wrong. Okay, that's a little over the top, but not by far. His books are always great. Here, he really made a potentially difficult subject accessible. Science is not my thing, but I'll be reading this one again.
LibraryThing member br77rino
Though there are a couple of factual errors, this is a pretty good overview of science written with lucidity and wit.



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