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A Short History of Nearly Everything Paperback – September 14, 2004
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From primordial nothingness to this very moment, A Short History of Nearly Everything reports what happened and how humans figured it out. To accomplish this daunting literary task, Bill Bryson uses hundreds of sources, from popular science books to interviews with luminaries in various fields. His aim is to help people like him, who rejected stale school textbooks and dry explanations, to appreciate how we have used science to understand the smallest particles and the unimaginably vast expanses of space. With his distinctive prose style and wit, Bryson succeeds admirably. Though A Short History clocks in at a daunting 500-plus pages and covers the same material as every science book before it, it reads something like a particularly detailed novel (albeit without a plot). Each longish chapter is devoted to a topic like the age of our planet or how cells work, and these chapters are grouped into larger sections such as "The Size of the Earth" and "Life Itself." Bryson chats with experts like Richard Fortey (author of Life and Trilobite) and these interviews are charming. But it's when Bryson dives into some of science's best and most embarrassing fights--Cope vs. Marsh, Conway Morris vs. Gould--that he finds literary gold. --Therese Littleton --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
As the title suggests, bestselling author Bryson (In a Sunburned Country) sets out to put his irrepressible stamp on all things under the sun. As he states at the outset, this is a book about life, the universe and everything, from the Big Bang to the ascendancy of Homo sapiens. "This is a book about how it happened," the author writes. "In particular how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since." What follows is a brick of a volume summarizing moments both great and curious in the history of science, covering already well-trod territory in the fields of cosmology, astronomy, paleontology, geology, chemistry, physics and so on. Bryson relies on some of the best material in the history of science to have come out in recent years. This is great for Bryson fans, who can encounter this material in its barest essence with the bonus of having it served up in Bryson's distinctive voice. But readers in the field will already have studied this information more in-depth in the originals and may find themselves questioning the point of a breakneck tour of the sciences that contributes nothing novel. Nevertheless, to read Bryson is to travel with a memoirist gifted with wry observation and keen insight that shed new light on things we mistake for commonplace. To accompany the author as he travels with the likes of Charles Darwin on the Beagle, Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton is a trip worth taking for most readers.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Bryson is not a scientist, but rather a curious and observant writer who, several years ago, realized that he couldn't tell a quark from a quasar, or a proton from a protein. Bryson set out to cure his ignorance of things scientific, and the result was "A Short History of Nearly Everything," which was originally published in 2003.
For readers who are new to science and its history, "A Short History of Nearly Everything" contains one remarkable revelation after another. It is amazing how enormous, tiny, complex and just plain weird the universe is. Learning about "everything" is a humbling experience, and I kept thinking of Stephen Crane's blank verse: "A man said to the Universe: 'Sir, I exist!' 'However,' replied the Universe, 'the fact has not created in me a sense of obligation.'"
Just as engaging as Bryson's story of what we know is the parallel story of how we know it--from the first clever experiments to figure out how much the earth weighs to today's ongoing efforts to describe the origins of the universe itself, it becomes obvious that science is not an answer but a process, a way of learning about a world that always seems to have one more trick up its sleeve.
Whatever else may be said about the universe, Bryson explains that learning about its mysteries is a very human endeavor. The book is peppered with tales of the odd turns, like Percival Lowell, the astronomer who saw canals on Mars when in fact there are none (and whose initials figured in the naming of "Pl"uto, the ninth planet); the Askesian Society, a learned 19th century body devoted to the study of laughing gas; and the knock-down, drag-out personal battles between scientists whose genius was rivaled only by their lack of civility.
This is a superb book and a quick read despite its length. The illustrated edition makes the journey all the more enjoyable.
The author says he didn't do very well in science when he was in school because the teachers and texts seemed to be hiding all the good stuff. Now, as an adult, he's gone after the good stuff. And he's the guy to write it so the rest of us can understand. Not only does he write clearly, but he's very good at explaining as much as a normal person can understand (of relativity, for example), while pointing to the stuff that's weird, and setting aside the stuff that you have to be a specialist to understand.
He also is very good at giving credit to people who thought of things but were ignored until someone else came along and took credit. This has happened all too frequently, and it's good for the record to be set straight.
If you too were afraid of science, this is a wonderful book. If you already know a lot of this but just like to read enjoyable writing--it's also a wonderful book.
The organization of the book is partly chronological, partly thematic. It is divided into six parts and thirty relatively short chapters. The earlier parts focus on the physical sciences, including astronomy, cosmology, geology, physics and physical chemistry. The latter half of the book deals primarily with the life sciences - biology, ecology, botany, zoology, oceanography, organic chemistry and so on. It's a considerable challenge to organize such a large amount of material dealing with so many distantly-related subjects, and Bryson pulls it off quite well. I can make no criticism of his large-scale organization.
However, the devil is in the details, and many of the details Bryson chooses to include in his "Short History" have little if anything to do with what he's supposedly writing about. He has a persistent tendency to head off on irrelevant tangents and lose himself in anecdotes about some of the curious characters that have walked the halls of science. Bryson wastes far too much ink relating bizarre factoids picked up in the course of his research, from William Buckland's dining habits to Gideon Mantell's twisted spine. He especially loves recounting the details of feuds and squabbles between scientists - the more intense, underhanded, unreasonable and destructive, the better. In all of this, the material we picked up the book to explore can get somewhat lost. Chapter 10, for instance, is "an important and salutary tale of avarice, deceit, bad science, several needless deaths, and the final determination of the age of the Earth" - in that order of importance.
Reading "A Short History of Nearly Everything", I did greatly appreciate Bryson's ability to make clear how much scientists don't know and are still working to figure out. However, I was disappointed that despite his promise to explore "how scientists work things out", Bryson often just quotes results and conclusions without further explanation. Sometimes he doesn't even do that - modern physics is largely dismissed as wacky and incomprehensible.
Even worse, Bryson makes several glaring errors in his discussion of physics (and perhaps also in other areas that I'm not so familiar with), far worse than any I've seen in other popular science books I've read. For example, he suggests particles with "spin" are actually spinning about an axis (which they are not) and presents entanglement as a violation of relativity (which it is not). Bryson also incorrectly claims that the production of black holes within future particle accelerators would destroy the world. In fact, these microscopic black holes would evaporate in a fraction of a nanosecond - something that would have been very nice to learn in "A Short History of Nearly Everything".
I enjoy reading popular science, and much of what I've read I've found better than Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything". I would especially recommend Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, Alan Guth and Martin Rees for physics, astronomy and cosmology, and Richard Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould for biology. However, I know of no other work that attempts to cover nearly as many fields as Bryson's "Short History". Even though Bryson's book wasn't able to live up to its initial promise, it was a decent read - one I recommend, though with some reservations.