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Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything

April 23, 2012

41. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (2003)

Read By: Richard Matthews
Length: 18h 17m (560 pages)

Genre: Non-Fiction; Science / History of Science

Started: 30 March 2012
Finished: 10 April 2012

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? My dad recommended it.

How did you get here?
Bryson lays it out, starting
at the beginning.

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.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

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First Line: 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.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2012 12:37 pm

    Your enthusiasm for this book is contagious! You’ve made me want to read it.

  2. April 23, 2012 1:23 pm

    I’ve had this forever, but never picked it up. It’s a bit daunting I guess. But I love books about science and the world and history so I’m bound to love it as much as you did.

    • April 24, 2012 2:06 pm

      Joanna – It is a little daunting, but it shouldn’t be… the reason it worked so well as an audiobook should also make it a non-daunting paper book: namely, there’s no plot to keep track of, and it can easily be read in small chunks at your leisure without losing anything.

  3. Brian permalink
    April 23, 2012 1:26 pm

    recently read this and loved. Very fascinating.

  4. April 23, 2012 2:17 pm

    I loved this book! I read it maybe five or six years ago and it really triggered a love of science in me. Since then I’ve read as much science as I can get my hands on and I’m about to start a second degree in astrophysics. I think this book should be required reading in most schools.

    • April 24, 2012 2:08 pm

      Sam – Wow! That’s pretty amazing that this book inspired a second degree! And I’m totally on board with making this required reading in schools… maybe in science for non-majors courses?

  5. April 23, 2012 3:11 pm

    I’ve been reading this one off and on for a few months and have been savoring it, so I don’t know how long it will take me to finish. There is just so much there to think about. The thing that blew my mind the most was the information about just how far it is from Earth to the edge of the solar system, and how vast distances are in space.

    • April 24, 2012 2:09 pm

      Alyce – I think I had a pretty good handle on distances in space, but I didn’t quite put that together with the fact that from Pluto’s perspective (poor Pluto), the sun just looks like a rather bright star. Makes me think twice about all of the space-travel sci-fi I read…

  6. April 23, 2012 7:01 pm

    Did you find that the pieces of the book you knew about (dinosaur wars, white noise, etc.) were pretty accurate? I’ve been wanting to read this but have felt nervous about Bill Bryson in the past, for reasons I can’t put my finger on. For some reason I just don’t altogether trust him. But if he got your sections of science right, I can probably assume he got other sections of science right too, and read this book at last.

    • April 24, 2012 2:11 pm

      Jenny – Yes, absolutely. The parts that I mentioned were specifically those I’d read about in other books recently, and he and the other authors were mostly if not entirely presenting the same information. But on the parts of biology and chemistry that I just know about in general, I didn’t notice a single time where Bryson was being inaccurate, or even oversimplifying things too much.

  7. April 23, 2012 10:03 pm

    I love Bill Bryson to pieces, but I’ve been too daunted to read this one. Just the title alone is intimidating! You speak so highly of it, though, that I may just have to get over my fear and read it.

    • April 24, 2012 2:13 pm

      Emily – No being daunted! Bryson breaks everything down really clearly, and into nicely digestible chunks. (Although I have to admit that I’d probably be equally daunted with a similarly-sized book titled “A Short History of History”.)

  8. April 24, 2012 12:54 am

    I’ve enjoyed other Bill Bryson’s but haven’t got to this one. Thanks for reminding me – looking up the eBook version now!

    • April 24, 2012 2:15 pm

      Sam – I’ve read about half (?) of Bryson’s books, and liked-to-loved all of them, so I need to get around to picking up some of the ones I haven’t read… but instead I’m re-reading A Walk In The Woods. :)

  9. buriedinprint permalink
    April 25, 2012 6:26 pm

    I’ve seen lots of chatter about this one, but “gleefully good” made sure it finally landed on my TBR, after allll this time: thanks!

    • April 26, 2012 12:28 pm

      BiP – To be fair, I’m a total nerd, so I tend to get gleeful about really nerdy things, but this book was one of those where I kept constantly stopping it to tell anyone and everyone around me about the fascinating thing I just learned. :)

  10. April 29, 2012 1:23 pm

    I agree with Kathy! I’ve wanted to read this book before, but you’ve made me want to go out to the store and pick it up RIGHT NOW.

    • May 2, 2012 9:33 am

      Lu – Yay! Being able to share and spread my enthusiasm about great books is one of the best parts about blogging… I just hope that you wind up loving it just as much!

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