A short history of nearly everything

by Bill Bryson

Hardcover, 2003




New York : Broadway Books, 2003.


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.… (more)

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.
2 more
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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 millsge
Laugh out loud is not something one associates with a history of science, but the book had me rolling on the floor several times (the story of the science of the effects on gasses on humans still breaks me up months after having read it). Like Bronowski and Wade, the author's true affection for the many certifiable human beings who have done so much to advance man's knowledge is what makes this book so worthwhile. It too should be required reading as it would do more to encourage reading nonfiction than whole libraries of vapid "young readers" and "young adults" books.… (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 bell7
Have you ever wondered about the origins of the universe or the workings of a cell? This introduction to many different branches of science gives you a taste of the history of how we know what we know (and what we think we know) about the world and how it works.

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.… (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 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) somewhat 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 fyrefly98
Summary: A Short History of Nearly Everything is pretty much exactly what its title says it is (although I bet Bryson would have titled it Life, the Universe, and Everything if Douglas Adams hadn't gotten there first.) People looking for traditional history might be disappointed, however; since the "Everything" reaches back to the big bang, the scale dictates rather a condensed view. Essentially, what this book is is a primer on science - astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, etc. - that attempts to keep everything factually accurate but understandable by laypeople. It also focuses not only on what we know, but on how we figured it out, and the people that did the figuring.

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.
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LibraryThing member ashergabbay
I picked this book up at the airport, thinking at first that it was a book about human history. I confess I did not know at the time who Bill Bryson is and was blissfully unaware of his widely acclaimed writing record. Obviously, the book turned out to be completely different from what I had expected. Bryson wrote a book about "how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since." In short, a story about the natural history of the world and much more.

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.
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LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
When I first started reading A Short History of Nearly Everything I wanted to document every "history" Bryson exposed and explained. I thought it would be fun except for the fact I quickly lost track. Short History starts out simple enough: the history of the atom and an explanation of the inflation theory. In other words, the history of you and the universe respectively. Then there's a deeper dive into the question of space, the galaxy and our place in the solar system. Somehow we moved onto inverse square law and the weight (literally) of the world. We explore volcanoes and earthquakes and the (un)predictability of natural disasters. Then there are the disasters that are not so quite natural which man insists on taking part like free diving. Then there are the bugs and so on and so forth.
Probably one of the best sections was about the struggle to make Pluto a planet. We determined we had four rocky inner planets, four gassy outer planets...and one teeny, tiny lone ball of ice.
The obvious drawback to reading something out of date is the predictions for the future are now obsolete.
what I have learned from reading Short History is not the what Bryson explains but how it's explained. The telling is everything.
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LibraryThing member sublunarie
This is, quite possibly, one of the best natural history books ever written (and this coming from someone whose personal inspiration is Stephen Jay Gould). The average person, I dare to say, would learn more from these 400+ pages than they did their entire K-12 educational career.

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.
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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.



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