Customer Reviews: A Short History of Nearly Everything
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on May 28, 2003
I picked this one up expecting "good". Instead, I got one of the most delightful reading experiences in science that I have ever had. What a wonderful surprise.
Bryson tries to do what most school textbooks never manage to do, explain the context of science in a way that is relevant to the average person. At the beginning of the book, he recalls an event from his childhood when he looked at a school text and saw a cross-section of our planet. He was transfixed by it, but noticed that the book just dryly presented the facts ("This is the core." "This part is molten rock." "This is the crust.", etc.), but never really explained HOW science came to know this particular set of facts. That, he quite correctly points out, is the most interesting part. And that is story he sets out to tell in this book.
Bryson obviously spent a great deal of time and effort developing and checking his facts and presentation. He obviously enjoyed every minute of it too, and it shows. Never have I read a book where the author conveyed such joyful awe of what we have learned as a species (with the possible exception of some of Richard Feynman's books).
My benchmark for this kind of book is usually; How well does it explain modern physics? There are few books out there that manage to explain relativity, quantum mechanics and string theory in a way that doesn't make your eyes glaze over. The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav is the best of the lot in my opinion. While this book did not change my opinion, Bryson's explanations of these mind-bending theories are not only lucid and sensible, they are also full of his telltale tongue-in-cheek side comments and therefore are just plain fun to read. However, Bryson goes way beyond Zukav, focusing not only on physics, but on the full panoply of scientific disciplines. He also focuses more on the discoverers themselves, and the process of discovery.
One of the things I like about this book is that Bryson again and again makes sure credit is given where credit it due. For many discoveries, he tells us the "official" story, but also tells us the often untold story of the small-time scientist who got the idea first but, for whatever reason, never got credit. This happens a great deal in science, and Bryson appears to be on a quest to set the record straight when he can. The result is not only charming storytelling, it's got a certain justice that just feels good.
I didn't have huge expectations for this book, but I am delighted to report that it is one of the best of its kind. Hurrah to Bryson for writing it, and hurrah to me for stumbling on it.
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on November 13, 2005
Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is beautifully written, very entertaining and highly informative--and now, it is lavishly illustrated as well.

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.
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on May 11, 2003
I am a big fan of Bill Bryson's travelogues. I was therefore surprised when I cam across this, somewhat more weighty, tome. But I am pleased that I picked it up.
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.
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on October 31, 2003
This book is the type of book that would inspire you to become a biologist or a geologist or an astronomer. From this book you are able to see bits and pieces of famous scientists lives and get a feeling by the end that its not all fun and games but at the same time it soooo very worth it to dedicate your life to the pursuit of furthering the knowledge of your fellow human beings and in some small way pushing our species in a positive direction. From reading this book you find out how all the knowledge from hundreds of years ago has become the basis of where we are today. This is conveyed extremely well to the audience. The other thing which is conveyed so very well is the power and destructive force of mother nature here on earth and in space. Parts of this book read better than seeing an end of the world movie because the author is so good at getting a vivid picture drawn in the reader's minds eye.
This book is so good and so comprehensive I can see myself reading this over again.
Thank you Bill Bryson for your hard, extensive research! Quite remarkable.
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on July 13, 2005
Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" has a lot of good points. It is above all a very entertaining and engaging read. Bryson writes in an informal, chatty style that at times reminded me of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. His subject is, essentially, life, the universe and (nearly) everything. Bryson aims to explore the history of science in general, summarizing not only what we know, but also how we know it - he sets himself the wonderful goal of trying to explain "how scientists work things out". It's a big task, and had Bryson accomplished it, this would have been an incredible book. As it is, "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is still a worthwhile read, despite its flaws, which I will soon discuss.

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.
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I was first acquainted with Bill Bryson through his works on the English language and various travelogue types of books. In these books he proved to be an entertaining writer, witty and interesting, with just the right amount of I'm-not-taking-myself-too-seriously attitude to make for genuinely pleasurable reading. Other books of his, 'Notes from a Small Island' and 'The Mother Tongue', are ones I return to again and again. His latest book, one of the longer ones (I was surprised, as most Bryson books rarely exceed 300 pages, and this one weighs in well past 500), is one likely to join those ranks.

Of course, a history of everything, even a SHORT history of NEARLY everything, has got to be fairly long. Bryson begins, logically enough, at the beginning, or at least the beginning as best science can determine. Bryson weaves the story of science together with a gentle description of the science involved - he looks not only at the earliest constructs of the universe (such as the background radiation) but also at those who discover the constructs (such as Penzias and Wilson).

A great example of the way Bryson weaves the history of science into the description of science, in a sense showing the way the world changes as our perceptions of how it exists change, is his description of the formulation, rejection, and final acceptance of the Pangaea theory. He looks at figures such as Wegener (the German meteorologist - 'weatherman', as Bryson describes him) who pushed forward the theory in the face of daunting scientific rejection that the continents did indeed move, and that similarities in flora and fauna, as well as rock formations and other geological and geographical aspects, can be traced back to a unified continent. Bryson with gentle humour discusses the attitudes of scientists, as they shifted not quite as slowly as the continents, towards accepting this theory, making gentle jabs along the way (Einstein even wrote a foreword to a book that was rather scathing toward the idea of plate tectonics - brilliance is no guarantee against being absolutely wrong).

Bryson traces the development of the universe and the world from the earliest universe to the formation of the planet, to the growing diversity of life forms to development of human beings and human society. Inspired by Natural History (the short history refers more to natural history than anything else), this traces the path to us and possible futures. Bryson juxtaposes the creation of the Principia by Isaac Newton with the extinction of the dodo bird - stating that the word contained divinity and felony in the nature of humanity, the same species that can rise to the heights of understanding in the universe can also, for no apparent reason, cause the extinction of hapless and harmless fellow creatures on earth. Are humans, in Bryson's words, 'inherently bad news for other living things'? He recounts many of the truly staggering follies of species-hunting, particularly in the nineteenth century, calling upon people to take far more care of the planet with which we have been entrusted, either through design or fate.

Bryson's take on things is innovative and his narrative is interesting, but there is a point to it, just as there is with most of his writing. He writes not merely to entertain, or to inform, but to persuade. Bryson is intrigued by science, having a joy that comes across the page of someone who essentially did not know or understand a lot of the background of science and how it worked in the world until recently, and now wants to share that joy with everyone! He definitely has points to argue - for starters, the need for open-mindedness, even among (perhaps particularly among) those who are supposed to have the open and searching intellects, the scientists themselves. He also wishes others to know more about science, professionals and laypersons, and more about our own origins as a people, both in terms of where we've come from, and how we've come to know about it.

This is a new version of his already-published text, this time with graphics, paintings, pictures, maps and other things that make the history come alive in new and interesting ways. This is a good revision, adding quite a bit to Bryson's already interesting text. Unique among Bryson's writing in many ways, this is in some ways a travelogue through geology, paleontology, cosmology and evolution. A fun and fascinating read!
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on June 11, 2003
I've spent the past few days devouring Bill Bryson's latest work: A Short History of Nearly Everything. It's an incredible read and reinforces how amazing the history of the earth really is. Bill's wit and comedic timing that has made all his previous travel books instant classics is absent, but it has been replaced with an enthusiastic and somber tone that is just as interesting to read. I've enjoyed all his previous books, but I like this one just as much, even though it's a bit of a departure.
Bryson took three years to research the book by conducting interviews and reading lots of history and it comes through in the text. You almost feel like you were in the room with Bill, following prominent scientists around, asking newbie questions. Bryson comes off as genuinely enthralled by the subjects at hand and you learn new things along with him. The narrative reminds me a great deal of James Burke's books and Connections TV series. Bryson not only tells the tales of how things came to be, but he's constantly weaving a link between all the various stories and pulling similar themes out.
It's a fantastic book and reminds me why I was so enamored by science in school. It also drives the point home many times that we are very, very lucky to be standing here, doing what we do everyday. The chances that the universe came together to enable it are insanely slim for all sorts of reasons as you will quickly find out.
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on November 15, 2003
When I picked up "A Short History of Nearly Everything" I had abosolutely no idea what to expect. As a travel junkie who can rarely afford to travel myself, I grab Bill Bryson's books whenever I can with great enthusiasm. His keen wit in presenting characters and scenes is unparalleled, and in this new romp (in which he narrates a journey through not just a county but through the scientific world as well as space and time) he is in top form.
Bryson's everyman prose makes the mysteries of scientific thought interesting, understandable, and funny. The book begins with the building blocks of the universe and works its way slowly down through the smaller mysteries such as life on earth and why human beings even exist. However, the science of the work does not become overwhelming to the lay-reader and Bryson maintains an admirable sense of wonder and joy throughout.
And, of course, the text is delightfully littered with anecdotes about the men and women who have dedicated themselves to discovering and defining these mysteries. Both living and dead, these men and women take on life that leaps off the pages, making them feel like old friends. And from the comfort of your favorite reading spot, you feel like you could be sharing a pint with them and Bill in a cozy pub somewhere.
I recommend this book to anyone who has a inclination for pondering the large questions of life but who is equally interested in keeping his or her sense of humor and sanity in tact.
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VINE VOICEon July 14, 2003
Bill Bryson has done something exceedingly useful: written a book that explains the major tenants of science in a form that non-scientists can understand and enjoy.
This is a smart and intelligent book that retains Bryson's charming and witty voice in the telling of the broad range of natural history. It is interesting that this author can retain his appeal across mediums -- he is known as a witty travel writer and has also produced fun and intelligent books on the history of the English language. Now, he goes far afield and explains natural philosophy, as the sciences were once called, in a way that textbooks have avoided ever since there have been science textbooks.
Bryson tackles space, the origins of the universe, geology, the formation of the Earth, physics, the beginning and development of life, cells, DNA and humans in this natural world round-up. Each chapter follows a similar format. A fascinating tidbit is introduced to draw the reader in, the history of understanding in each field is discussed and the evolution of thinking to the current state of understanding explained. This format is enlivened by the personalities past and present (including science's crackpots, iconoclasts and geniuses).
Besides the Bryson wit, what makes this a phenomenally good read is the author's ability to relate scientific principles with examples that laymen can understand and that clarify often confusing scientific knowledge and theories.
For example, I was floored to learn that our solar system is so vast, that it literally could not be drawn to scale on any size in a meaningful way. Neptune is five times farther from Jupiter than Jupiter is from Earth. On a scale drawing with Earth the size of a pea, Jupiter would be a thousand feet away and Pluto a mile and a half (and the size of a bacterium). Now that illustrates space in our immediate environs better than I've every seen it described before.
What is the largest concentration of magma waiting to blow? (and possibly blow us out of existence) It's under Yellowstone National Park. Ten percent of the weight of a six year old pillow is dead skin flakes, mites and mite dung. Most physicists think Einstein wasted the second half of his life pursuing a unified theory instead of thinking about other useful things. Every human cell contains DNA strands that are six feet long if laid end to end. The core of the Earth is as hot as the surface of the sun - and solid because of the immense pressure compacting that mass. Only three percent of the Earth's water is fresh, and almost all of this is in ice sheets - only a scanty .03% of the total is available to us a fresh, flowing water.
Interesting tidbits like the above abound. So do dire stories about past volcanic activity, changes in magnetism, changes in atmospheric conditions and asteroid impacts that have periodically befell Earth and helped move species development forward (usually by wiping out most species existing at the time). Could they/ would they happen in the future? Sure. However, the scale of time over which the next cataclysmic event may occur could be so far removed that we will have evolved into something else (or have found a way to blow up or steer threatening asteroids out of our way).
This book fascinates and amuses. If science textbooks had a bit of this ability to relate and engage during my time in school, I'd bet today there would be a lot more scientists working to figure out the remaining mysteries of our world.
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VINE VOICEon August 13, 2003
I think this book should replace the texts used in most high school science courses. If it did, I think we would see more kids pursuing science careers, because Bryson does a wonderful job of conveying the joy and excitement of doing science as well as a sense of awe that our world evolved as it did.
Sure, given a book of this nature, there is plenty people could quibble with. Bryson's writing style is amusing and entertaining, though it doesn't come close to matching "A walk in the woods," (but then again, not much could...). Readers expecting the humor quotient of that book or Bryson's other travel books will be disappointed, however. And although one can tell Bryson struggled valiantly to make the chapter on quantum physics understandable, he didn't succeed (at least for me). For example, he relates a study showing that one atomic particle can affect another atomic particle 70 miles away, simultaneously. I still don't understand how that can happen and wish somebody could explain it to me.
But those are minor complaints compared to what this book is able to accomplish, which is to provide a broad, yet admirably detailed, education in the physical and biological sciences. I am overjoyed to see this book on the bestseller lists, because if enough people read it, we can no longer be accused of being the scientific ignoramuses that we largely have been. I think it could also work to serve more effectively as an environmental wake-up call than the wide array of existing polemical books that are read only by the already convinced.
Lastly, perhaps the aspect of the book I admired and enjoyed the most is the way Bryson provides the human side of science through his frequent character sketches of the quirks and foibles of the many scientists whose work is reviewed. I may soon forget, once again, all three of Newton's laws of motion, but I will never--for the rest of my life--forget that he once inserted a rod behind his eyeball and stirred it around "just to see what would happen." This book is worth reading just for the anecdotes, and along the way you will learn an incredible amount of science.
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