I love works of popular science and works of popular history, so naturally I love works of popular science history. One of my favourite books of all time is A Short History of Nearly Everything, but it is getting on in years and could use some updating. I rather naively hoped that The Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything (Abridged) might be a worthy spiritual successor to that volume. Both Hannah Fry and Adam Rutherford have written books I have enjoyed in the past: Hello World and How to Argue With a Racist, respectively. I was delighted to be approved for this eARC through NetGalley and publisher W.W. Norton & Company. Alas, the book didn’t quite live up to my lofty expectations—and that is probably on me.
Although the title makes it sound like Rutherford and Fry are taking on the (admittedly daunting) task of explaining everything, the subtitle, Adventures in Math and Science, is a more accurate description of this book. The chapters are a meandering, sometimes unfocused exploration of topics that feel picked somewhat out of a hat, or perhaps through the authors’ interest in them. Through a mixture of history, philosophy, science, and geeky pop culture references, the authors deliver a wonderful backgrounder on the age of the universe (and how we know it), the history of measuring (and defining) time, biases in perception and cognition, human (and animal) emotions, and more.
As I said in the introduction, it’s my fault for wanting this book to be something it isn’t, so I don’t want to be too harsh on it as a result. This book does not take us through the history of life, the universe, and everything with delightful anecdotes from the scientists we meet along the way. Yes, there are delightful anecdotes, and there are also plenty of facts—I definitely learned from this book, including that Charles Darwin had a third work on evolutionary theory, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, that no one else has ever mentioned in my presence! There are plenty of allusions and stories about scientific contributions I was familiar with, as well as ones I was not.
But I just couldn’t enjoy the organization of this book. Partly, reading the eARC on a Kindle was hell because there are a bunch of sidebars that don’t get rendered properly, so halfway through a paragraph of the main text it jumps inexplicably to a different topic for three paragraphs before resuming the original topic. This isn’t the authors’ fault, but it did seem emblematic of their writing style in general, which is frenetic and conversational in a way that is meant to be approachable but doesn’t work for me. Again, I’ve enjoyed their writing separately, so I guess it’s the particular combination of their voices that didn’t work.
It’s also important to remember that any book as general and broad as this can be susceptible to mistakes. Fry is a mathematician, Rutherford a geneticist, yet they seek to explicate topics as intense as radiological dating and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle—and in the latter case, they actually perpetuate a common yet incorrect explanation (they repeat misconception #2 in this wonderful video from Looking Glass Universe should you be curious, which is how I recognized this explanation as incorrect). That was just a particular nuance that jumped out at me; I am sure there are more.
So in this way, The Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything (Abridged) is likely going to be a big hit with some readers. It certainly has the potential to introduce you to a wide range of very interesting topics, which I hope will lead people to read more specialized books about those topics. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy the writing style or how the book was organized, which made it difficult to appreciate the book as a whole. While I therefore can’t enthusiastically recommend it, I’m also not panning it either—just not my particular cup of tea, which honestly surprised me a great deal.