A Short History of Nearly Everything

by Bill Bryson
I really, really liked this book – although it’s not ‘nearly everything.’ This is a great history of the progress of scientific thought, particularly scientific thought in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. It gives readers a really good, layman’s terms, idea of what we think about the universe, the planet and the life thereon.

Essentially, the idea is that Bryson went out and found a bunch of scientists and said “OK, explain this to me.” Then he explains it to us. He gives a good, in-a-nutshell’ idea of the actual science, with plenty of contextual history – biographical sketches of the scientists, interdisciplinary rivalries, political pressure at various levels, and so on.
Bryson writes really well – not only are his nutshells easy to crack, but the nuts are tasty (sorry, when I find a good metaphor, I just have to go with it). His synopses of scientific progress in various areas are thorough, but concise and easy to grasp. Best of all, he has a great sense of humour, and gives it free reign:
“The second half of the eighteenth century was a time when people of a scientific bent grew increasingly interested in the physical properties of fundamental things – gases and electricity in particular – and began seeing what they could do with them, often with more enthusiasm than sense. In America, Benjamin Franklin famously risked his life by flying a kite in an electrical storm. In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one’s face.”
At 575 pages, this is a fairly comprehensive history of major scientific thought in recent times – but as the title implies, it’s not complete. One glaring omission for me was Galileo – no mention whatsoever. There is also no mention of Copernicus. Given that Bryson devotes 20 index entries to Newton, one would think that Galileo and Copernicus deserve at least a passing mention, but apparently not.
Other (minor) complaints: Bryson tends to adopt an overbearing moral tone toward the end, a la “the planet is our responsibility,” which, while perhaps utterly true, undermines the objectivity of the rest of the book and leaves the reader feeling a little preached at. Also, in the latter half of the book, Bryson tends to focus rather a lot of attention on microbiology (which at the very least sent me into a mad whirl of pillow laundering), before moving on to paleoanthropology, where he spends most of his energy explaining that we don’t seem to know much at all about our pre-historic ancestry. While this point is worth making, it’s not necessarily worth making repeatedly.
Having said that, I absolutely enjoyed this book, especially the sections on cosmology, physics and chemistry, which comprise more than half the book. At least half of what makes this fascinating reading are the scientists themselves – some of these people were ruthless, underhanded, scheming bastards – and really, really smart ones, at that.
Recommendation – absolutely. This is a great book; it’s fun to read, and you’ll learn stuff.

5 Replies to “A Short History of Nearly Everything”

  1. 1) Have you read Guns, Germs and Steel? I haven’t (yet) but I often hear ASHONE mentioned in the same breath as GGS.
    2) Can I borrow this book? I’ve been meaning to read it. I, too, would like to enjoy Bill Bryson’s tasty nuts.

  2. 1) Nope, never heard of it, actually. Let me know if and when you read it!
    2) Of course! Consider it reserved in your name. If you and Tasha wanted, you could come by for a chat and a cuppa tea this very evening, in fact.
    2a) Ewwwwwww.

  3. Another good scientific read that is not too demanding of us lay people is “The Dating Game” by Cherry Lewis (you can’t make up these names!). It is a history of how the geological community struggled to determine the age of the earth during the first half of the last century.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *