Book Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly EverythingA Short History of Nearly Everything

by Bill Bryson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So often scientific books lose us lay people with their PhD language. Not Bill Bryson. Using his infamous skill as a story-teller, he approaches the history of science with the same non-threatening approach John McPhee applied to the geology of America. Technicalities are dispensed with broad, non-pedagogic strokes while the surrounding humanity draws the reader into the intellectual excitement that is science. Readers can’t fail but want to read more.

Here are some of the topics he covers:

  • the Cosmos
  • how to build the Universe
  • Welcome to the Solar System
  • Elements
  • Einstein’s Universe
  • the mighty atom
  • quarks
  • the troposphere
  • the rise of life
  • small world
  • the richness of being
  • cells
  • Darwin’s singular notion
  • the road to man

Here are some of the chapter beginnings:

  • If you had to select the least convivial scientific field trip of all time, you could certainly do worse than the French Royal Academy of Sciences’ Peruvian expedition f 1735.
  • …Hutton calculated the mass of the Earth at 5,000 million million tons… Hutton had assumed that the mountain had the same density of ordinary stone, about 2.5 times that of water…
  • Buckland was a bit of a charming oddity…. He was particularly noted for… his desire to eat his way through every animal in creation…
  • ┬áHe became the leading authority on coprolites–fossilized feces…
  • Chemistry as an earnest and respectable science is often said to date from 1661 when Robert Boyle of Oxford published The Skeptical Chymist
  • The nineteenth century held one last great surprise for chemists
  • As the nineteenth century drew to a close, scientists could reflect with satisfaction that they had pinned down most of the mysteries of the physical world…
  • While Einstein and Hubble were productively unraveling the large-scale structure of the cosmos, others were struggling to understand something closer to hand…
  • in 1911, a British scientist named CTR Wilson was studying cloud formations by tramping regularly to the summit of Ben Novis…
  • People knew for a long time that there was something odd about the earth beneath Manson, Iowa.
  • in the 1960’s while studying the volcanic history of Yellowstone National Park, Bob Christiansen of the USGS became puzzled about something that, oddly, had not troubled anyone before: He couldn’t find the park’s volcano.

Don’t they make you want to read on?

While I have studied most of Bryson’s topics at some foggy point in my academic career, by the time I finished this book, he had me living them. If all students read this book, we’d have more female (and male) scientists to solve the world’s problems.

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4 Responses to “Book Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything”

  1. April 28, 2011 at 8:36 am

    I recall reading this book with fondness. Bryson is a wonderful writer, it was the first of his books that I had read and I have accumulated a small collection of his work since. He has a gift for scientific writing that you would not necessarily take away from his travel work, he should write more titles like this one as they do wonders in terms of exposing non-scientists to the workings of the world.

    The problem with scientists is that they (well many of them) enjoy perpetuating the esoteric image that surrounds them. I guess it helps them feel ‘special’ or something, I’ve had so many lecturers that were like that. I often feel that the way scientific research is written is purposefully alienating the uninitiated. Another terrific writier, the great neurologist Oliver Sacks, has often mentioned this. That is why he chose to write books instead of publish papers, he thought that the wider world would love to know about his area of science, if only they were given the information in an ejoyable and digestable way.

  2. April 29, 2011 at 6:51 am

    Ah, Oliver Sachs–The Man Who Thought His Wife Was a Hat. Great book. I read that and then read many more of Dr. Sachs. Yes, I am constantly on the look-out for readable science. John McPhee is another. Then there’s Stephen Hawking–brilliant man, but I couldn’t get through his books.

    You write like you’ve had some training in science. Mine’s in Economics, Russian, Business, but my science is self-taught. You have a nice down-to-earth approach.

    • April 29, 2011 at 11:55 am

      Wow, studying Russian would have been interesting. I started a double degree in business and psych when I finished high school but it wasn’t my thing, I wound up taking a short course in English instruction and teaching in Tokyo. I’m now back in Australia and about to start graduate studies in biological anthropology after doing a bachelor of science majoring in biomedical science and minoring in multidisciplinary science.

      • April 30, 2011 at 6:19 am

        Well that’s a plateful. I took a junior college class in biological anthropology and loved every hour of it. Please share how that course goes. I’d love to enlarge my list of readable scientists. My sidebar has most of my list–as well as Jane Goodall, the major primatologists (they all seem to be good writers) and the Leakey’s. Christopher Wills does an excellent job with Runaway Brain.

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