A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Publisher: Bantam, 2004
Where I Got It: Bought it ages ago and just now got around to reading it
Why I Read It: One of the few Bryson books I haven’t read
My Rating: 4.5 stars
What The Book Is About
As the title says, the book really is a short history of nearly everything. (Of course, that doesn’t make it a short book.) Bryson covers everything from the beginnings of the universe to the formation of planet Earth to how life on Earth began and what makes us us. In typical Bryson fashion (that is to say, conversational, folksy, down-to-earth and with gentle humor), this brick of a book provides a basic primer on everything from physics to geology to paleontology to biology to astronomy to chemistry and everything in between. It was educating and fascinating, as Bryson’s books tend to be. It was, at times, also somewhat chilling when you realize just how miraculous and precarious our existence on this planet really is. So, given that Bryson has written a book about nearly everything, what did I learn from it?
Seven Things I Learned While Reading This Book
- We are all one. This may sound like a hippie mantra, but Bryson makes the case, over and over again, that everything on Earth (and even the universe) is made of the same basic stuff. For living creatures, the similarities are even more pronounced, with Homo sapiens sharing almost 99% of our DNA with every other living thing on Earth.
- We (and by “we” I mean the entire human race) are always on the knife-edge of destruction. From the eruption of a supervolcano (like the one sitting right under Yellowstone Park) to the unannounced appearance of a huge meteorite that we would never see coming, Bryson makes the unsettling case that life is always hanging by a thread. After all, mass extinction is the “natural way” of things, and our very very short history of life on Earth will not be an exception. It just depends on what form our extinction will take and whether it will be slow or fast. (Personally, I’d rather never know what hit us.)
- Some of the biggest mysteries of the Universe are those closest to us. Bryson talks about how little we actually know about the center of our own Earth and the workings of our own bodies. Despite all the scientific knowledge we’ve accumulated, for all we actually know, the middle of the earth could be filled with dwarves or rainbows or ping-pong balls. No one has actually seen it. In addition, exactly how proteins and cells and DNA function are still kind of mysterious.
- The 1700s and 1800s were awesome times to be a scientist. Throughout the book, Bryson sprinkles in accounts of eccentric gentlemen scientists who basically had the world at their fingertips to explore and figure out. It must have been a heady time, and I found it amazing how much these folks were able to figure out with their relatively crude instruments. Bryson’s accounts of the lives of these various scientists were one of the most enjoyable parts of the book.
- I am not cut out to understand science beyond the most basic level. Despite Bryson’s ability to clearly convey complex scientific explanation in layperson’s terms, I was still befuddled by much of the information presented in the book. However, I don’t think it is just me. As Bryson says, the scientific numbers used to understand the very big (such as 4.6 x 109) or very small (1.66 x 10-27) are just really beyond our comprehension. When you get into a field like physics, it started to seem like perhaps the physicists themselves don’t really understand what they are talking about. Suffice it to say, I still don’t really “get” the Big Bang and I don’t really comprehend what a quark is.
- The Big Bang Theory (the TV show) does a pretty good job of tossing around real physics terms. During the section on physics, I was tickled to see quite a few terms (Higgs-Boson particles, Large Hadron Collider) that are regularly referenced on what is fast becoming my favorite TV show—not that I’m any closer to understanding any of it than Penny is.
The Bottom Line
Readable, fascinating and with just enough science to make you feel like you’re getting a basic education, A Short History of Nearly Everything is a must read for anyone seeking to better understand the world around them. I was amazed at the various things I learned and awed by the miracle of events that caused us humble humans to come into being. Well done, Mr. Bryson! A great kick-off to my month of non-fiction reading.
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