Author: Bill Bryson
Genre: Non-fiction; Science
In Bryson’s biggest book, he confronts his greatest challenge: to understand — and, if possible, answer — the oldest, biggest questions we have posed about the universe and ourselves. Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining. (from Goodreads)
Thoughts: I read this book as part of a group read and I enjoyed it immensely! I’ve read a couple of Bryson books before and liked them so I was happy to finally have a chance to read this one! As the title says, this book is a short history of nearly everything in the known universe in relation to science. From the creation of the universe, our solar system, and earth, to the beginning of physics and the discovery of dinosaur bones, to the weather and ocean currents, to the creation of life up to the evolution of us, homo sapiens, this book covers it all (albeit briefly) in an easy to read format.
The book is divided into 6 parts of different subject matter: space, earth, the beginning of modern science, earth disasters (earthquakes, volcanoes, etc.), the beginning of life, and the evolution of man. The first half the book is really about the history of science in relation to space and the earth; what we knew, what we thought we knew (which later turned out to be wrong), and the big advances in the these fields. He also relays some of the personalities and backstories of some of science’s biggest stars, such as Newton and Einstein, and some lesser known figures as well, such as the endearingly eccentric Reverend William Buckland, who nevertheless made important contributions to scientific knowledge. I took an astronomy and a physical science class in college so many of the material in the first half of the book was familiar to me. However, they were still interesting topics to revisit and I was actually surprised by how much I remembered!
One of the things that made a real impression on my was the fact that, once a scientific discovery was made that challenged current thought, it took the scientific community years, sometimes over a century, for the new information to be accepted. Many of those who made important contributions were labeled as crackpots and their research dismissed. For the longest time scientist simply refused to believe that the earth was as old as it actually was simply because their beloved Lord Kelvin had come up with a much younger age for the earth. Of all the disciplines, you would think science would most readily accept change but this is apparently not the case.
About halfway through one section, I think it was the third, the book stops being a narrative on the history of science. For the rest of the book the focus is the present time; what we know about volcanoes, the inner structure of the earth, the possibility of their being another ice age in the future, what we know about how life evolved from nothing, etc. Although he sometimes briefly talks about science in the past, such as the discovery of the Java Man in the 1890s, for the most part he stays within the framework of today’s present knowledge. I must confess that I found this transition a little jarring; no explanation was given for the change and for the next chapter or so I was a bit preoccupied with wondering why he decided to go in a different direction. I must say that at one point I thought that perhaps he just got lazy or was tired of writing the book that way and wanted to change things up. The writing was still interesting, and I was soon quickly absorbed in the book, but for a time I was a bit preoccupied and confused.
In Bryson’s introduction he mentions how as a kid he always wondered how scientist knew the things they knew and that this was one of the reasons he decided to research and write this book. How do they know how old the universe is? How do they know how small atoms are? How do they know that all the continents were once one huge landmass? I have often wondered these things too, so I was excited to maybe find about how scientist know some of the things that they do. Unfortunately, in this I was disappointed. Bryson doesn’t actually tell us how scientist figure things out, he just tells out what they know. He does tell us how we know about the weather and temperature of ancient times using ice cores but this is the only instance.
Despite these few complaints I really enjoyed reading this book. I learned a ton about a lot of different things and learned some really interesting facts along the way. If you are looking for an indepth look at any of the topics that I already mentioned, I would suggest you look elsewhere. A Short History of Nearly Everything brushes the surface of many different subjects, just whetting your appetite. However if you are looking to learn something new and still be entertained this could be a great choice.
This book has made me curious about somethings that I wasn’t before; if a book can get me interested about something and make me want to looking into a topic further then I consider the book a success. Because of this book I actually added one of the works he mentioned onto my TBR pile- A Gap in Nature: Discovering the Word’s Extinct Animals by Tom Flannery and Peter Schouten. Flannery is a scientist and Shouten an artist; for 4 years they rummaged through museum archives looking for information on extinct animals. This wasn’t an easy task as available information was relatively scarce for many animals. For instance, besides a few crude drawings, we only have one head and part of a limb (both stuffed) of a dodo to extrapolate what these birds actually looked like. For any animal which they could reasonably deduce their appearance, Shouten made a life-size painting of the animal and Flannery wrote up what information regarding the extinct animal they had. It seems that for most of the animals that have gone extinct in modern times very little is actually known about them.
As I said before, this book has some really cool and interesting facts. I love weird facts of all kinds so I thought I would list some of them here so that I wouldn’t forget them. If you’re thinking of reading this book I would suggest that you don’t read the list below, if only because every once in a while reading this book you’re cruising along, minding your own business, and suddenly your draw drops because of what you’ve just read. If you don’t want to ruin the fun, don’t peak!
Here’s what I found particularly weird, fascinating, or just plain amazing:
• about a billion of each of our atoms once belongs to Shakespeare
• it is estimated that there could be as many as 30 million species of animals living in the sea, most still undiscovered
• at any moment there are about one trillion bacteria on your body, about 100,000 of them for every square centimeter of skin
• the quickest reproducing bacteria reproduce at such a rate that they could theoretically produce more offspring in two days then there are protons in the universe
• lichens are so slow growing that it can take half a century for them to attain the size of a shirt button; those that are the size of dinner plates are likely to be hundreds if not thousands of years old
•350 million years ago dragonflies grew as big as ravens and for a time there were guinea pigs as big as rhinos and raccoons the size of bears
• some early English names for plants included mare’s fart, naked ladies, twitch-ballock, hound’s piss, open arse, and bum-towel
• cells are so small that gravity doesn’t meaningfully apply at their level, which means that there is no up or down inside a cell
• your heart pumps 75 gallons of blood an hour, 1,800 gallons every day, 657,000 gallons in a year, enough to fill four Olympic-sized swimming pools
• about half the chemical functions that take place in a banana are fundamentally the same as the chemical functions that take place in you
• the background rate of extinction on earth throughout biological history has been one species lost every 4 years on average; according to one recent calculation, human -caused extinction now may be running as much as 120,000 times that level
Have you read this book? What did you think? What’s your favorite science book?