Book Review – A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything
By Bill Bryson
Broadway Books / 2003 by Bill Bryson

If you’ve read any of Bill Bryson’s previous best-selling books it won’t come as a surprise to know that his latest work is funny, thought-provoking, and immensely entertaining. All his books are like that. What may come as a surprise is, rather than his usual fare of travel writing, Bryson has turned his attention to a rather “un-Bryson-like” topic: science.

In “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” Bryson attempts to give us precisely that: a book about life, the universe, and how we as a species managed to get to where we are today. From the “nothingness” preceding the Big Bang, to today, Bryson’s new book is nothing if expansive in scope.

Bryson himself confesses that his motivation for writing this hefty 400+ page tome was not to demonstrate his expertise in the realm of science, but rather to learn it himself. Dedicating three years to research, Bryson set about tackling the “who, what, when, and why” of science. He confesses that he really didn’t know much about science until undertaking this project. “I didn’t know a quark from a quasar,” he admits. But he set about to absorb the wisdom (and sometimes the wit) of some of the most influential minds in science, both living and dead. The result is a funny, profound, wry, and revealing portrait of our scientific heritage, and where today’s scientists are headed in their quest for knowledge.

But why would a noted humorist and travel writer attempt something so daunting as a history of “nearly” everything? As he says in the Introduction: “The idea was to see if it isn’t possible to understand and appreciate–marvel at, enjoy even–the wonder and accomplishments of science at a level that isn’t too technical or demanding, but isn’t entirely superficial either.”

As usual, Bryson succeeds on every level. The driving force of Bryson’s odyssey is an almost childlike curiosity about the world; I have no doubt that, as a child, Bryson insisted on knowing just why the sky was blue and the ocean wet. Perhaps the most endearing aspect of his style is his ability to infect the reader with the same sense of wonder and awe he has for his topic. It makes for sparkling prose; none of it is tedious (I frankly found myself sacrificing sleep to read just a few more pages before bedtime), and his presentation accomplishes that rare feat of simultaneously educating and entertaining his readers.

Some readers may cringe at the notion of reading a book about geology, particle physics, paleontology, and–gulp!–biology. How many of us found no thrill in dissecting frogs and watching mold grow in petri dishes in high school science classes? I assure you, Bryson has something much different in mind. Bryson points out that many people today find science either intellectually intimidating or altogether too elitist to bother with, so it’s refreshing to experience science through his down-to-earth, conversational style. Simply put, this is a fun book to read.

Bryson’s look at the individual scientists and contributors to scientific advancement is particularly engaging. He does not deify great minds like Einstein, Darwin, Newton and the like. Rather, he humanizes them and reveals much of the personal conflicts, professional challenges, and intrigue that exist behind-the-scenes of the public stolid façade science seems to uphold. From the tragic to the hilarious, getting to know the personal stories of the individuals responsible for our scientific heritage through Bryson’s colloquial style is a real joy.

It is true that this book will not likely appeal to those serious scientific minds who revel in statistics, formulae, and calibrating telescopes. However, this is not a satirical or clownish jaunt, lightly skimming the surface of science. Bryson must be credited for producing a significant contribution to our understanding of the history of what we know, how we know it, and who figured it all out. And in a way, perhaps, Bryson is more qualified to write about science than those whose careers are so dependent on its own pristine reputation. He is not bothered with precedent, nor encumbered by sciences “sacred cows.” In other words, Bryson isn’t vested in the politics of science and takes great pleasure in “telling it like it is.”

His instincts as a travel writer do come through here; but this time the territory is not Australia (“In a Sunburned Country”), Africa (“Bill Bryson’s African Diary”) or the Appalachian Trail (“A Walk in the Woods”). This time, the map of Bryson’s travels takes him through geology, astronomy, particle physics, and chemistry. And traveling these hills and valleys of science with Bryson as the guide is an absolute treat.

Most books on science attempt to convey just how much we know about the universe. They emphasize the knowledge gained, strides made, and mysteries solved. Bryson reminds us that there is, in fact, much we do not know about this rather large place we call “the universe.” There is, for that matter, a lot we don’t know about the very planet we inhabit. I found this comforting in a way–that there are still the mysteries to explore, riddles to solve, and enigmas to ponder. All the work is not yet done.

The universe continues to enthrall, inspire, and sometimes confound our best attempts to unravel it all. And Bill Bryson’s newest book is itself an inspiring reflection of the history of our most basic drive to understand ourselves and the world around us.


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