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Short History Of Nearly Everything Paperback – January 1, 2004
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Be prepared though to being overwhelmed because there is a lot of information in this book, with references to other works. This book is best read in sections allowing yourself some time to think about what you have learned; and I'm sure you are going to learn at least a few things.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to understand what an amazing place our planet is and life that exists on it.
Bryson moves seamlessly from one sweeping topic to the next with great ease. Whether he is expounding upon thermodynamics, paleontology or cosmology, he helps us to grasp, to the extent that seems possible, the interrelatedness of all physical phenomona. He is particularly skillful at putting into perspective concepts of size and dimension within the universe, whether mind-bogglingly vast expanses or minuscule marvels of life’s building blocks. He not only teaches us what is known, but humbles us by emphasizing how much we do not know.
Bryson also brings us biographical sketches of the greatest names in science as only an enormously talented humorist could do. Intellectual giants like Newton, Einstein, and many others, are brought to us with all their eccentricities. So many brilliant individuals were quite odd, which makes them much more human and accessible to the Bryson’s reader.
There is also a moral underpinning to Bryson’s book which becomes most evident in the final chapter. Our species has, in essence, become the extinction event for so many others with which we have shared the planet. Beginning with the unsuspecting and gentle dodo bird, Bryson outlines how we have systematically brought about the termination of thousands of creatures, intentionally or through ignorance. This sobering reality makes one a bit more respectful of current efforts to save endangered species.
No species, and indeed no human being, is anything other than a miracle of chance, a reality in which Bryson rejoices from his opening chapter. He congratulates each of us for surviving the cut and coming into existence against all odds. His book is humbling and thought-provoking, leaving one with a sense of awe at the grandeur of, well, nearly everything.
The book is organized into 6 parts: Lost in the Cosmos; the Size of the Earth; A New Age Dawns; Dangerous Planet; Life Itself; and The Road to Us.
The first part: Lost in the Cosmos is about the big bang and the elemental beginnings of the Universe. Part 2 The size of the Earth discusses the early attempts to determine the size of the Earth in the 17th century. Part 3 A New Age Dawns is about is about Einstein’s universe and the atom and plate tectonics. Part 4 Dangerous Planet is about the interior of the planet and what lies below the surface. Chapter 5 Life Itself is the largest section comprising 161 pages. It covers the rise of life beginning after the formation of the Earth up through the Cambrian explosion. The chapter also discusses Darwin’s work on Evolution. The final chapter The Road to Us is about the rise of humans.
My only issue with the book is that is a bit dated. The history sections are great, but the discussion on current events and science are out of date. This book needs an update.
It’s short – although it’s actually quite long, but Bryson writes so fluidly. It’s a history – Bryson tells us what he knows or believes happened, but doesn’t hesitate to point out what he doesn’t know. It’s nearly everything – okay it’s really not nearly everything but it gets into astronomy, Neanderthals and volcanoes. Some information may have been revised in the decade since the book went into print and some science may eventually be proved shaky, but I have not come across a better rough guide to essential human knowledge.
Top international reviews
The book's title is very apt.The breadth of history covered by this book is massive (as well as weighty!) – from the first fraction of a second of the Universe’s existence to the recent discoveries of the 20th century. Obviously there are certain gaps (hence the "nearly"), but Bryson readily points out what he does not know. It is an honest history of the scientific accomplishments since the earth's inception. It is a must read for every human, as it hands you a feeling of bursting pride - being a participant in humanity's great journey. Although the most surprising feature is the balance between the roles played by chance in many of these discoveries, and the unyielding human determination to identify a grey area, and seek knowledge accordingly.
The book’s strength lies in its ability to convey the wonder (and complexity) of science to the average layman - mainly because Bryson, himself, has no scientific background and only recently familiarised himself with these wonders. More than just a condensed text of salient, factual information - Bryson brings this to life whilst describing the surrounding imperfect scientific process (why the information was sought after, how scientists honed their approaches from producing wildly incorrect estimations to the precisely calculated figures we use today, and why information or possibilities lie outside our grasp), as well as amusing anecdotes.
The other strength of this book is that by approaching it from the POV of a non-scientist, Bryson nourishes our wonderment and understanding to grow as information fluidly disguised in Bryson’s energetic, quirky, familiar and humorous prose seep out each chapter, letting us journey alongside some of the most prominent (and some of the less prominent but equally brilliant) scientists in their obsessive pursuits. In fact, I found information that I loosely remembered from my schooldays and now find that the little bit of context and intrigue that Bryson adorns them with has left them impressed in my mind forever.
Bryson ambles the pathways of science, observing the remarkable scientific phenomena along the way, without feeling particularly deeply about anything, as he searches out more anecdotes of human discovery. The whole thing washes over him without ever really getting passionately engaged. Of course, the facts are pretty amazing, so there’s definitely a sense of “TA DAAAAA!”, like watching a magician pull more rabbits out of hats.
However, the general sense of detachment leaves the book feeling shallow and uninspired. There’s a stream of interesting facts is one thing after the other without anything really grasping our guide on a personal, emotional level, beyond a blip. He’s never inspired to look for something new within himself, only to observe and move on. It’s as if he is casually observing scenes through a train window, without ever really caring about what is taking place, beyond a simple “well, that really is amazing, isn’t it.”, then moving on to the next “really interesting” thing.
One day, AI will write books like this. Or maybe it already did. I thought I would finish the book, the way one finishes a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, but now I’m not sure I can face ever picking it up again, in case my brain turns to mush.
Surprisingly, a lot of the discoveries we now take for granted were very controversial at their time. Some were so far ahead of their time that nobody cared much and the facts were re-discovered a century later.
For me, the book was a great way to appreciate the existence of the universe, the earth and life. It was also very inspiring to see that over the centuries, there were always a few people with focus and dedication. Some spent decades on a problem until they finally made a breakthrough. We owe a lot to these people.
Also recommend the book if you have a kid in high-school, around the age of maybe 15. The book might make school more interesting.
This book gives science a human face, and a humorous one at that. You will not come out of this being a great scientist, but you will certainly have gained a great overview of a good many scientific topics, and via an enjoyable route rather than an overly stuffy textbook. Like me, you will also likely feel the constant urge to share some newly read gem along the way.
I read this from cover to cover over the course of a few months. Thoroughly enjoyed the factual science aspects. Bryson however does attempt to weave in an evolutionary explanation for most things in this book. This makes for a rather disconcerting journey as he often refers in the book to selfish scientists bickering and fighting away in order to further their name and reputations.
Bill takes you on a jovial joyride of breathtaking facts. His unique, humorous way of writing has you hooked from the word go. So many incredible facts that your head spins and you feel desperately the need to repeat certain passages to another person in order to share the knowledge!
He has a talent like no other, enables you to visualise an otherwise overwhelming fact and with a sprinkling of light heartedness.
This book makes subjects that would otherwise be very serious and heavy an absolute joy to read.
Best book in years.