A review of A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

The whole book converges on one point: that all life is one, on Earth, and in the wider universe, and that life is a miraculous thing and not something to be taken lightly. Put into the context of this large work about everything, the point is well made and one which will stay with readers long after they’ve put down the book.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

A Short History of Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson (Author)
Hardcover: 560 pages Publisher: Broadway; 1st edition (May 6, 2003) ISBN: 0767908171

Bill Bryson’s travel writing has always been laugh outloud funny. But after conquering Britain, Australia, the US, and Europe, Bryson’s latest book has a much wider scope–the known universe. His non-fiction science book for everyone tackles, as Bryson says in the introduction, all of the questions which have plagued him over the years. It is a book of science which is as clearly written, as funny and interesting as anything Bryson has written to date and does significantly more than simply demystify. For a layperson’s guide which uses no technical jargon, and is meant to appeal to all levels of scientific enquiry, A Short History is surprisingly deep, and raises issues which strike at the heart of what it means to be a modern human being.

The book begins appropriately with the Big Bang and moves through concepts like the birth and death of stars, meteors, the age of the earth, carbon dating, gravity, the construction of the earth, the elements, relativity, thermodynamics, quantum physics, plate tectonics, evolution and extinction, fossils, the atmosphere, clouds, the oceans, taxonomy, cells, bacteria, ice ages, volcanism, and much more. It isn’t the breath of what Bryson covers that is so impressive, although he does cover a surprisingly broad spectrum. What makes this book so marvellous is the way in which Bryson gets to the point, using his command of the English language to make otherwise incomprehensibly large numbers or metaphysical concepts concrete:

Imagine trying to live in a world dominated by dihydrogen oxide, a compound that has no taste or smell and is so variable in its properties that it is generally benign but at other times swiftly lethal. Depending on its state, it can scald you or freeze you. In the presence of certain organic molecules it can form carbonic acids so nasty that they can strip the leaves from trees and eat the faces off statuary. In bulk, when agitated, it can strike with a fury that no human edifice can withstand. Even for those who have learned to live with it, it is an often murderous substance. We call it water.” (330)

Impressively researched, Bryson references and explores a wide range of great scientific thinkers and writers both modern and ancient, and incorporates a kind of history of the sciences into his work, so that we not only learn about current theory but the lead up to it, including some prescient and forgotten souls who managed to come up with ideas which took decades or even centuries to reach the public imagination. We not only learn about Newton’s discoveries, we also learn about his propensity for sitting for hours in bed immobilized by “the sudden rush of thoughts to his head,” or his unpleasant experiment with a bodkin and his eye. We learn about Halley and Hooke‘s scientific wager and Rutherford’s booming voice. Under Bryson’s hand, the history of science comes alive and his characters as literary and fascinating as those in a novel. Bryson places everything into the context of a modern literary reader, his audience, to whom he shares his discoveries with the kind of wide eyed excitement which readers will link into.

Not all of the book is lighthearted. Although Bryson never preaches, the chapters on the number of human beings we’ve exterminated (“Goodbye”) is terrifying, as is the chapter which describes the damage which we have done to our oceans (“The Bounding Main”):

Large areas of the North Sea floor are dragged clean by beam trawlers as many as seven times a year, a degree of disturbance that no ecosystem can withstand. At least two-thirds of the species in the North Sea, by many estimates, are being overfished. Across the Atlantic things are no better. Halibut once abounded in such numbers off New England that individual boats could land 20,000 pounds of it in a day. Now halibut is all but extinct off the northeast coast of America.(147)

The whole book converges on one point: that all life is one, on Earth, and in the wider universe, and that life is a miraculous thing and not something to be taken lightly. Put into the context of this large work about everything, the point is well made and one which will stay with readers long after they’ve put down the book. A Short History of Everything is a remarkable book, not because it illuminates anything about science which isn’t more or less commonly known. It is actually not really a science book at all. What makes it wonderful is that it is a humanistic book, written so well that by the time the reader puts it down, the impact of science on life as we know it, and don’t yet know it, will become a part of self-awareness. We can’t afford to live in a vacuum, and considering the miraculous and rare nature of our birth and development, we shouldn’t want to. There is much still to discover, and much which we need to learn, quickly. This is a book for everyone. It is easy enough for my seven year old to read and enjoy (he read the first chapter before I did), and sophisticated enough to spark the imagination of most literate adults.

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