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.
Glance at the night sky and what you see is history and lots of it – not the stars as they are now but as they were when their light left them.
I’ve been on a non-fiction kick lately, and A Short History of Nearly Everything was an excellent addition to my repertoire. Bryson is skilled at explaining difficult or very technical concepts in a manner that is accessible and easy to understand – no mean feat indeed.
It’s the kind of book you can’t really read in one sitting, considering the really dense subject matter. It’s pretty impressive that he managed to fit as much as he did – namely the history of the earth – into 550 or so pages. Of course, it’s not the entire history, naturally – he had to pick and choose the elements he considered relevant. Still, it’s an incredibly fascinating read.
“One of the hardest ideas for humans to accept is that we are not the culmination of anything. There is nothing inevitable about our being here. It is part of our vanity as humans that we tend to think of evolution as a process that, in effect, was programmed to produce us.”
It’s books like these that have really gotten me interested in all things science again – why don’t they make us read things like this in school? It would have livened up my physics and chemistry lessons considerably. There are so many fascinating facts contained in this volume. Ones that particularly tickled me:
When you sit in a chair, you are not actually sitting there, but levitating above it at a height of one angstrom (a hundred millionth of a centimetre), you electrons and its electrons implacably opposed to any closer intimacy.
Your skin cells are all dead. It’s a somewhat galling notion to reflect that every inch of your surface is deceased.
One aspect that impressed me was the fact that Bryson included mention of the wives and female colleagues of the male scientists who got all the fame and glory. Since the contributions of women have been written out of history for so long, it was excellent that their efforts here were acknowledged.
Finally, amongst all the science-ing and anecdotes, the subject matter is surprisingly profound and astoundingly beautiful at times.
So we are all reincarnations – thought short-lived ones. When we die, our atoms will disassemble and move off to find new uses elsewhere – as part of a leaf or another human being or drop of dew.