In this book Bill Bryson explores the most intriguing and consequential questions that science seeks to answer and attempts to understand everything that has transpired from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization. To that end, Bill Bryson apprenticed himself to a host of the world's most profound scientific minds, living and dead. His challenge is to take subjects like geology, chemistry, paleontology, astronomy, and particle physics and see if there isn't some way to render them comprehensible to people, like himself, made bored (or scared) stiff of science by school. His interest is not simply to discover what we know but to find out how we know it. How do we know what is in the center of the earth, thousands of miles beneath the surface? How can we know the extent and the composition of the universe, or what a black hole is? How can we know where the continents were 600 million years ago? How did anyone ever figure these things out? On his travels through space and time, Bill Bryson encounters a splendid gallery of the most fascinating, eccentric, competitive, and foolish personalities ever to ask a hard question. In their company, he undertakes a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Review: I loved this book. Maybe that's not surprising, what with me being a scientist and all, but it was just amazingly, wonderfully, gleefully good. And really, while I knew most of the biology and some of the chemistry and physics that Bryson covers, when it came to a lot of the astronomy and quantum physics and other unfamiliar topics, I was a layperson myself. Within the first few hours of listening, Bryson had already blown my mind a few times, and explained things that I'd always wondered about but never actually formulated into proper questions. For example, a lot of the physical constants of the universe (the strength of gravity, the rate at which helium decays into hydrogen, the bonding properties of carbon, etc.) are very specific, and if they were changed just a fraction, the universe wouldn't be capable of sustaining life. Some people point to this in support of a Creator, a la "Well, who created the law of gravity?" But Bryson mentions a theory that there were (or are) Big-Bang-like events going on all the time, creating universes with random variations on those physical constants, and the reason ours looks like it was uniquely created was that it was the one to work well enough to stick around. Bryson explains it much better than I was just able to, but it, like all the best science, is just so elegant and powerful of an idea that my mind? Was blown.
That was one of the biggest revelations in the book, but I definitely learned something just about every minute. Bryson is, on the whole, an exceptionally clear writer, and he's very good about providing metaphors to help readers visualize the very big and the very small. For example, the thickness of the atmosphere is relatively the depth of three coats of varnish would be on a standard desk globe, and if all of the subsurface, rock-eating bacteria were somehow transported to the surface of the Earth, it'd form a layer approximately five feet deep. Even when Bryson was presenting facts I already knew about from my other reading (the origin of white noise, the life of Mary Anning, the early idea that North American mastodons were ferocious predators, the dinosaur wars between Cope and Marsh, etc.), I enjoyed making the connections, and listening to Bryson's dryly funny presentation of the material. This book is a little out of date, of course, but I only really noticed it in a few places (for example, in the book, Pluto's still a planet. Poor Pluto.)
The book is only very, very loosely ordered. It goes, more or less, from old to new, from the Big Bang to anthropogenic climate change and extinctions, but with a lot of back-and-forth tangents along the way. Dinosaurs, for example, come up repeatedly, when talking about the age of the earth, the comet that caused the KT extinction, and in the section on vertebrate evolution. However, while the grand organizational structure is rarely clear, each tangent flows smoothly into the next, making the book seem logically organized at the time, if not so much in hindsight. (There's a section in the middle that covers geology, astronomy, epidemiology, and others, that should really be titled "Horrible and Cataclysmic Ways in Which it is Entirely Possible You Will Die".)
I did have a few little niggling annoyances with this book. My first is Bryson's profound reluctance to use scientific notation. While I get that he's trying to keep things accessible to the non-scientist, I have a much more intuitive sense of what he means by 10^24 than by a billion trillion trillion. Also, while he's good about reminding us about who people are when they show up in later chapters, he didn't always connect ideas from earlier in the book to later spots where they would be relevant. For example, he covers the idea of an expanding universe pretty early on (in a "what's it expanding into?" section), but then fails to bring up the conclusions of that part when, later on, he mentions red-shift (a phenomenon like the Doppler-effect that lets us tell that distant stars and galaxies are moving away from us). And finally, while Bryson does a fairly good job of decentralizing humans - emphasizing that the universe does not exist to hold the Earth, the Earth does not exist to support life, and that life did not come into existence just to eventually produce humans - he belies that message by putting the section on human evolution at the end, giving the sense that this *was* what it was all leading to. A common problem among almost everybody who writes books on the subject, of course, but Bryson's not immune.
But all of those problems are really very minor compared to how much I enjoyed this book. I don't think I've learned more, and enjoyed myself as much in the process, in a very very long time. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Since I don't have the power to make this required reading for everyone, I am going to make it highly, highly recommended reading for everyone. Don't be intimidated by its size - each of the pieces is pretty self-contained - or by the science; Bryson does a wonderful job at explaining everything with clarity and a wryly snarky sense of humor.
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.
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.