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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Giving a brief overview of such diverse scientific disciplines as physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, and lots more, you may find yourself frustrated by only being given a taste of one subject before Bryson moves on to another. But the extensive notes and bibliography at the end will show you where to go next for those subjects that most interest you, and Bryson's characteristically witty narration will keep you reading even during those explorations you may not have found compelling in school. I was most fascinated to discover the reasons behind current scientific thought, and how much we really don't know about the earth and our universe.
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.
Bryson's accomplishment inspires awe and envy. Here is a person with no scientific background who, driven by an insatiable desire to learn, has mastered biology, astronomy, paleontology, geology, chemistry and much much more, and then translated this knowledge into a readable account of "nearly everything". The New York Times Book Review wrote that A Short History of Nearly Everything "is destined to become a modern classic of science writing" and I fully agree. Bryson succeeds to explain where we came from and how our world works in terms that every person can understand, while at the same time peppering his tale with humouristic anecdotes about the greatest scientists in history: their lives, their mistakes and their feuds.
This book is a journey in space and time. It takes the reader from the core of the Earth to the infinite reaches of outer space, and from the beginning of time to the future outlook for our planet. In this journey, Bryson brings home two messages, over and over again. First, how insignificant our lives are in comparison with the age of the world and the forces of nature, especially when we take into account the improbable odds of our very existence. Second, how little we know and understand about how we came about, how our planet works or indeed who and what inhabits it besides us. The book is full of facts which leave the reader open-mouthed; several times I had to re-read a sentence just to make sure I understood the full implication of the facts presented in it.
The first thing I did today after finishing the book was to log on to amazon.com to search for other Bryson books and order them. I am looking forward to getting more acquainted with this wonderful writer in the very near future.
Bryson is brilliant. He has the talent of writing for the layperson without talking down to anyone. He is funny, witty, insightful and, above all, makes science incredibly interesting. From the building blocks of cells to oceanography to volcanic activity to DNA to the dawn of man, this book literally is a short history of nearly everything.
A few times in this book, Bryson makes note that the existence of man has only occupied .001% of the Earth's lifetime. He also makes it clear that for as much as you can learn from him (and him, in turn, for dozens of brilliant scientists from many fields), what we know about these matters are an even lesser percentage.
No wonder we all feel so lost, we have no idea where (or what) the hell we are.