Review of A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
A Short History of Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson
Third Review: March 5, 2019
Has it really been nearly 9 years since I re-read this? No. But I guess it has. A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of those formative books that has stuck with me for a long, long time.
I have little to add to this review. I thought I had lots to say, but re-reading my review from 2010 below … I already said it there. I was going to talk about Bryson’s repetitive phrasing, praise how he explains how much we don’t know, and remark on how good this book is at just … luxuriating in the knowledge we have.
I will add that I think this book, by and large, holds up even 15 years on. Our scientific knowledge certainly has advanced since then. Some of the mysteries that Bryson mentions here have been solved—while others have deepened. Moreover, reading this now with a more critical eye than I did in 2010, I’ll acknowledge there’s a pinch of Western gaze going on here. At one point, in the last chapter, Bryson comments how it was such a shame that the Chinese were grinding up bones for medicines instead of studying the bones to learn more about our past. Hello, casual racism. It might seem like I’m nitpicking now, especially considering how Bryson wryly highlights the racism and sexism of our past, but that’s exactly why I don’t want to let him slide on something like that.
That being said, for the most part this book remains just so damn energizing. It inspires me to think big, to think about and marvel at the incredible world we inhabit. I honestly haven’t craved any of Bryson’s other works—I liked one, didn’t like the other, and have a few more on my to-read list but can’t be bothered to jump on them. But there’s something about the way he writes about this stuff, about this history of science, that just works for me. If it doesn’t work for you, I get it, this book will be a bit plodding and boring. But if it works for you … oh, wow, will it ever work for you.
Read Kara from 2010’s opinions to find out why!
Second Review: May 7, 2010
I cannot recommend this book enough. No word of hyperbole: this is a book that everyone should read. Bill Bryson takes the span of human existence and produced a popular history of science that's both accurate and moving. A Short History of Nearly Everything is a celebration of science, but it also evokes the sense of wonder about the universe that science makes available to us. And, almost inevitably, it underscores how much we still have yet to learn about our world.
Throughout history, one of the common arguments against the expansion of science has been something to the effect of "science removes the mystery" of the universe. Well, yes, that's kind of the point. But what opponents to scientific investigation usually mean to say, explicitly or not, is that because we know more about the universe, somehow that makes the universe less wonderful. Somehow a universe of quarks and gluons is less romantic than a universe powered by God. Thus, the argument goes, we shouldn't get too serious about this science stuff—it's depressing.
My response: Are you on crack?
I have just as much trouble fathoming how opponents of science find science depressing and nihilistic as they have trouble fathoming how I find science awesome. It seems self-evident to me that science is wonderful, that it is truly the most appropriate vehicle we have for appreciating our existence. But maybe that's just me, and obviously it's not everyone. So what A Short History of Nearly Everything does is level the playing field, extend the olive branch, if you will. Just as this review isn't an anti-religion diatribe, A Short History barely mentions religion. It doesn't talk about Galileo's persecution by the Church or the rise of creationism and intelligent design in the United States. Bryson and his book are above that. They reaffirm a sentiment I already have, and one I hope you share, either prior to or after reading this book.
Science is fucking awesome.
Sure, one can't understand every scientific concept that one comes across. But that's to be expected. Wave-particle duality is tricky stuff. Just as anyone can become a good handyman with some common sense and little experience, anyone can learn a little bit about quantum mechanics—but if you want to build a quantum house, you'll need many years of experience under your belt.
Even we amateurs, however, can appreciate how cool it is that, for example, our bodies are made of stardust. The heavier elements, of which we are mostly composed, were forged in the crucibles of supernovae light-years away. We're here because some star died for us, and all the atoms managed to travel to Planet Earth. We're here because the Sun pumps out photons that heat our atmosphere, so we don't freeze, and the ozone layer reflects some of the photons away, so we don't fry. Our existence is temporal and transitory and tentative. But we do exist. And regardless of one's stance toward religion, this simple fact is a miracle.
So science can give us miracles too. What Bryson does is take bits and pieces of science, put them in a historical context, and show us the miracles they contain. The result is an appreciation and a better understanding of how the world works.
This is a rather long book—my edition is over 400 pages—and I have to admit it took me a longer time to re-read it than I had anticipated. It's worth the time. Every section is informative and interesting. Although I have a soft spot for physics, the chapters on relativity and quantum mechanics aren't my favourite—perhaps because I've already learned about the concepts elsewhere, so it felt a little redundant. Instead, I really enjoyed reading about the rise of geology, chemistry, and taxonomy. From this book I've learned that fossilization is a risky business; there's way more species hiding everywhere on and underneath the planet than we'll probably ever find; and if I happen to still be alive in a few thousand years, I should probably get volcano insurance.
Even while educating us, Bryson emphasizes how much we don't know. Sometimes the media likes to portray science or scientific theories as "complete" when they are anything but. Perhaps here is where that niggling nihilism starts to rear its head for some people, for Bryson makes it clear that with some things, we probably just can't know, at least not in a timely fashion. On the macroscopic level, once we get out to about the range of Pluto, the distances are so vast as to be almost insurmountable. On the microscopic level, Planck and Heisenberg ensured there would always be a little uncertainty. But I'm OK with that. Preserves the mystery, after all. And provides yet more challenges.
Our ignorance also carries with it a sense of helplessness. We aren't very good at tracking near-Earth objects, for instance, which means if an asteroid does strike us sometime in the near future, we probably won't see it until it hits the atmosphere. Then it will be too late. And even if we did, we don't have the capability to destroy or divert it. Still, lifting the veil of ignorance on one's ignorance is essential to improving one's ability to think critically about science. Who knows: maybe A Short History will inspire some kid to go into astronomy or engineering and invent better asteroid detection equipment.
The upshot of this—as Bryson likes to put it, because his writing style is peppered with repeated phrases like this—is that Bryson presents both the good and the bad of science. As much as science is wonderful, it's also a human enterprise, and we humans are notoriously fallible instruments. Scientists are not immune—indeed, practically prone—to taking credit for another person's work; Bryson is quick to interject anecdotes about the personalities, quirks, and flaws of the persons of interest in the book.
On that note, I wish I kind of had some sort of fact-checking utility for this book. Of course there are references and a bibliography, and Bryson claims in the acknowledgements that various reputable experts have reviewed the material. As much as I love A Short History, however, it is popular science and prone to simplification. So take the anecdotal parts with a grain of salt—for example, contrary to what Bryson claims, NASA didn't destroy the plans for the Saturn V lander (the real problem is trying to find enough reliable vintage parts to construct the thing).
Overall the quality of A Short History of Nearly Everything is just so brilliant that I can't condemn Bryson for his enthusiasm. And I still have several adjectives left, so I can also say that this book is fabulous and stupendous, and you should definitely buy a copy or hold up your local library until it produces one. And if you don't have a local library, you should construct a doomsday device and hold the Earth hostage until such an edifice is constructed in a town near you. Got it? Good.
It's a book worth reading and a book worth remembering; A Short History of Nearly Everything is science and history wrapped in a nutshell of wonder.
I cannot recommend this book enough to people.
Bill Bryson manages to convey a technically detailed history of the planet while maintaining a readable, comprehensible writing style. His tone is engaging, and his tales are captivating—I particularly enjoyed the discussions on physics and on the development of archaeology and the theory of evolution.
A Short History of Nearly Everything is to books what Bill Nye the Science Guy is to television. This is a book for science lovers and a book for those who swore they'd never take a science class again. I'm a fairly intelligent person; I learned a lot from this book, but at the same time I was already at least acquainted with much of the material it presents. However, that did not stop me from having, "whoa!" moments throughout the book, moments of realization at how complex and wonderful our universe is—and how special it is that we, humans, can strive to understand such a phenomenon.