A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything

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...

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Title:A Short History of Nearly Everything
Author:Bill Bryson
Rating:
ISBN:076790818X
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Paperback
Number of Pages:544 pages

A Short History of Nearly Everything Reviews

  • Sarah
    Aug 28, 2007

    Bryson's dead serious: this is a history of pretty much everything there is -- the planet, the solar system, the universe -- as well as a history of how we've come to know as much as we do. A book on science written by a non-scientist, this a perfect bridge between the humanities and the natural sciences. A course in the history of science should be mandatory for every teenager, and this should be the textbook.

    Yes, it's a big, chunky book. No, it can't be trimmed down any further: when you're ad

    Bryson's dead serious: this is a history of pretty much everything there is -- the planet, the solar system, the universe -- as well as a history of how we've come to know as much as we do. A book on science written by a non-scientist, this a perfect bridge between the humanities and the natural sciences. A course in the history of science should be mandatory for every teenager, and this should be the textbook.

    Yes, it's a big, chunky book. No, it can't be trimmed down any further: when you're addressing cosmology, earth science, ecology and zoology, with healthy doses of chemistry and physics, plus the historical development of each, you're going to end up with a doorstop of a text, no matter how smoothly written. The wonder of Bryson's writing is that the reader doesn't get lost in these sweeping surveys. When name-dropping, Bryson always gives a short description of the person in question; if mentioned earlier in the book, he drops in a quick reminder to the reader. This is fabulously effective at giving the names some context, not to mention a little personality.

    And indeed, isn't that what science education needs most: more humanity and less intimidation? Those science-phobes out there who freely admit their near-complete ignorance of the subject should do themselves a favor and buy a copy of this book. No, don't get it from your library. There's so much here you'll want to have a copy on hand to refer to later.

    To those nerds in the audience -- myself included -- don't think your degrees mean you can pass this one over. As hyper-specialized as science has become, it's refreshing as hell to step back and take a look at things with new eyes. While there's not a lot here I haven't encountered before, there's a lot of information about how our current theories were developed that I didn't know.

    (Also? It's heartening to read about the social ineptitude, blind spots, and how utterly incompetent many of these scientist were in other aspects of life. Makes me feel better about never finishing that PhD -- at least I have a

    .)

    Thorough, humorous, engaging,

    educational: what's not to like?

  • Paul Bryant
    Oct 06, 2007

    Okay, so here's my Bill Bryson story. I was in The Gladstone, a public house not too far from this very keyboard, with my friend Yvonne, who will remain nameless. We had been imbibing more than freely. A guy approached our table and asked me in a sly surreptitious manner if I was him. Him who? Was I Bill Bryson? Now it is true that I bear a very slight resemblance

    but you could also say that about Bjorn from Abba

    and a zillion other white guys with beards and gently rounded fizzogs. Anyway, withou

    Okay, so here's my Bill Bryson story. I was in The Gladstone, a public house not too far from this very keyboard, with my friend Yvonne, who will remain nameless. We had been imbibing more than freely. A guy approached our table and asked me in a sly surreptitious manner if I was him. Him who? Was I Bill Bryson? Now it is true that I bear a very slight resemblance

    but you could also say that about Bjorn from Abba

    and a zillion other white guys with beards and gently rounded fizzogs. Anyway, without missing a beat I said yes, I was him. So the guy immediately asked me if I'd sign two of his books, and before I could say "Come on mate, I'm not actually American, can't you bleedin well tell?" he had zapped out of the pub. Only to zap straight back with two hardbacks of Bill's deathless works. What could I do? He opened them up reverentially and told me one would be for him and one for his mother. Friends, I signed them - "Best wishes, your friend Bill Bryson". He was so grateful, so very very pleased. We drank up and got the hell out of there. I look back on this disgraceful incident and shudder. That's the last time I'm impersonating a famous author.

    Short note on the book in question:

    There was no way our Bill could write a gently humorous book about the history of all of science without sounding like a fairly smirky know-it-all, so that's what he does sound like, which can be just a trifle wearing. LOTS of good info in here, but it's like being forced to live on Indian takeaways and nothing else, great for a while and then GET ME A SANDWICH! Or like being stuck on a long airplane ride with a very garrolous and opinionated fellow who thinks he is the very model of the modern travelling companion, regaling you with insightful and humourous anecdotes by the bucketful while you're wondering if it would be so bad if you faked a heart attack and you could whisper to the flight attendant "I'm okay really but GET ME AWAY FROM THIS GUY!"

  • Foster
    Oct 12, 2007

    This is one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read. There, I said it

    Bryson's book combines the best qualities of science writers like Attenborough, Diamond, Durrell, and Wilson; presenting the information with the wit he is most known for. It is an amazing achievement to condense the entire base of human scientific knowledge into 478 pages, but Bryson has done it. I completely agree with Tim Flannery, who writes on the jacket that "all schools would be better places if it were the core sci

    This is one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read. There, I said it

    Bryson's book combines the best qualities of science writers like Attenborough, Diamond, Durrell, and Wilson; presenting the information with the wit he is most known for. It is an amazing achievement to condense the entire base of human scientific knowledge into 478 pages, but Bryson has done it. I completely agree with Tim Flannery, who writes on the jacket that "all schools would be better places if it were the core science reader on the curriculum." I certainly would have gained much if I had read it when I was 15.

    This is one of the few books that has truly challenged what I had previously held to be conventional wisdom (at least in my own mind). Two main changes have come about:

    1. I had always been jealous of the "true" zoologists, such as Audubon and Darwin, who were around when the world was as yet unexplored, and discovering a species was as simple as being the first to walk into a patch of forest. I left science because the idea of being tied to a sterile lab held no interest for me. However, after reading Bryson's vignettes of early scientific/zoological exploration (much of which was both comic and tragic), I realize that those days weren't quite as idyllic as I had imagined.

    2. Bryson does a "good" job of scaring the hell out of you by showing just how precarious our daily existence really is. I probably shouldn't say this, but it puts such problems as global climate change into context when you read how an eruption of the supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park would wipe out most of the life on earth in a painfully slow manner; especially when Bryson describes how this eruption is overdue by 30, 000 years by historical average.

    Combined with those two new impressions, I am left with the following conclusions, and a slightly rearranged outlook on life.

    First off, it is clear that science benefits from a large degree of serendipity. We as a species/civilization have been lucky to have some truly great minds working on deciphering the way our world works. Some of these are household names [Newton, Halley, Einstein], some are not [Henry Cavendish, Rosalind Franklin]. However, as with everything that us humans put our hands on, this endeavor wasn't perfect. Egregious mistakes, pathological lying, childlike rivalries and tantrums - they all occurred. On balance, whether they helped or hurt the effort isn't clear. But what is clear is that our present level of understanding was by no means assured.

    Secondly, the fact that life is so tenuous makes one a little more philosophical. Since I've finished the chapter about Yellowstone and similar catastrophic threats, I find myself asking "what if today is the day?" It can be rough when you get on the bus at the end of a particularly annoying workday, when the disagreements were petty and you didn't get much done, and think "is that what I did on the last day of my life?"

    Thankfully, that attitude only lasted for a short while, until I was able to reframe it in a more productive way. Now I tell myself not to worry about big problems that might happen in the future, because I know that we will be hit by a meteor, we will experience a supervolcano eruption. It's best to just enjoy every day, doing what you really know to be what it is that you want to do. Does that mean that I won't recycle anymore, that I will leave the tap running while I brush my teeth? No! Because doing things to reduce my impact makes me feel good, that I'm thinking about society's needs - not just my own. It's what I want to do.

    So, in an incredible way (that even Bill Bryson probably didn't predict) this book can really change your life.

  • Jamie
    Apr 16, 2009

    Good grief if I had even one textbook half this enthralling in high school, who knows what kind of impassioned -ologist I would have grown up to be. I hereby petition Bryson to re-write all curriculum on behalf of the history of the world.

    I would run across things half-remembered from midterms and study guides and think, "You mean

    is what they were talking about? You have got to be kidding me." It's never condescending, always a joy.

    In fact, what I loved most is the acute, childlike sense o

    Good grief if I had even one textbook half this enthralling in high school, who knows what kind of impassioned -ologist I would have grown up to be. I hereby petition Bryson to re-write all curriculum on behalf of the history of the world.

    I would run across things half-remembered from midterms and study guides and think, "You mean

    is what they were talking about? You have got to be kidding me." It's never condescending, always a joy.

    In fact, what I loved most is the acute, childlike sense of wonder seeping through the pages. How fantastic little we know about the world in which we live. All the great scientific leaps fallen through the cracks, all the billions of leaps that will never be made, every scientist who with an amiable grin shrugs to say, "I don't know. We don't know. Who has any idea?" The world is a magically baffling, enchanting place, and after nearly everything there is infinitesimally more.

  • Grace Tjan
    Nov 30, 2009

    What I learned from this book (in no particular order)

    1. Phosphor was accidentally discovered when a scientist tried to turn human urine into gold. The similarity in color seemed to have been a factor in his conviction that this was possible. Like, duh. I’m no scientist, but shouldn’t it be obvious enough?

    2. “In the early 1800s there arose in England a fashion for inhaling nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, after it was discovered that its use ‘ was attended by a highly pleasurable thrilling’. For

    What I learned from this book (in no particular order)

    1. Phosphor was accidentally discovered when a scientist tried to turn human urine into gold. The similarity in color seemed to have been a factor in his conviction that this was possible. Like, duh. I’m no scientist, but shouldn’t it be obvious enough?

    2. “In the early 1800s there arose in England a fashion for inhaling nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, after it was discovered that its use ‘ was attended by a highly pleasurable thrilling’. For the next half- century it would be the drug of choice for young people.” How groovy is that?

    3. If you are an average-sized adult, you contain within you enough potential energy to explode with the force of THIRTY very large hydrogen bombs. Assuming, that is, that you KNOW how to actually do this and REALLY want to make a point. Talk about a monstrous temper tantrum.

    4. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that some of our atoms probably belonged to Shakespeare, Genghis Khan or any other historical figure. But no, you are NOT Elvis or Marilyn Monroe; it takes quite a while for their atoms to get recycled.

    5. When you sit in a chair, you are not actually sitting there, but levitating above it at the height of a hundredth millions of a centimeter. Throw away those yoga mats, your ARE already levitating without knowing it.

    6. The atomic particles that we now know as Quarks were almost named Partons, after you know who. The image of Ms. Parton with her, uh, cosmic mammaries bouncing around the atomic nuclei is VERY unsettling.Thankfully, that scientist guy changed his mind.

    7. The indigestible parts of a giant squid, in particular their beaks, accumulate in sperm whales’ stomachs into ambergris, which is used as a fixative in perfumes. The next time you spray on Chanel No. 5, you’re dowsing yourself in the distillate of unseen sea monsters. * Note to self: must throw away sea monster perfume collection*

    8. The ‘maidenhair’ in maidenhair moss does NOT refer to the hair on the maiden’s head.

    BUT SERIOUSLY,

    this is a fascinating, accessible book on the history of the natural sciences, covering topics as diverse as cosmology, quantum physics, paleontology, chemistry and other subjects that have bedeviled a science dolt like me through high school and beyond. Yes, it’s true, I failed BOTH chemistry and physics in high school. I can't judge how accurate Mr. Bryson represents the sciences in this book, but it surely beats being bogged down in

    and their ilk.

  • Patrick
    May 17, 2011

    Picked this up on audiobook when I was on tour and listened to it in my car.

    I found it fascinating and informative. Kinda like a reader's digest version of the history of science. And even though I knew a fair chunk of what was mention, there was a lot of material I'd never even had a glimmer of before.

    Fair warning: If you are prone to worry about, say, the end of the world. This probably isn't the book for you.

  • Manny
    Jan 02, 2013

    It's easy to nitpick

    . Bryson, by his own cheerful admission anything but a scientist, makes a fair number of mistakes. He says that all living creatures contain hox genes; he omits Alexander Friedmann and George Gamow from his description of how the Big Bang theory was developed; when talking about Darwin and Paley, he doesn't seem to be aware that

    was one of Darwin's favorite books and had a huge influence on him. Those are just a few of the

    It's easy to nitpick

    . Bryson, by his own cheerful admission anything but a scientist, makes a fair number of mistakes. He says that all living creatures contain hox genes; he omits Alexander Friedmann and George Gamow from his description of how the Big Bang theory was developed; when talking about Darwin and Paley, he doesn't seem to be aware that

    was one of Darwin's favorite books and had a huge influence on him. Those are just a few of the glitches I happened to notice. I'm sure a real expert would have spotted many more.

    But so what? The author is incredibly entertaining, and I came across dozens of great stories from the history of science. He has done a fantastic job of tracking down details that you won't find in the other books! Continuing with Darwin, everyone's heard about the evolution debate between T.H. Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce; this was the dozenth time I'd seen Huxley's contemptuous reply to Wilberforce's question about whether he claimed descent from a monkey though his grandmother or his grandfather. But I'd never before read that Lady Brewster fainted, or that one of Darwin's

    colleagues wandered through the crowd, holding a Bible aloft and shouting "the Book, the Book!" Similarly, everyone tells you that Newton only published the

    after Halley persuaded him to do it. But I hadn't heard that Newton intentionally made it as difficult as possible to read because he didn't want amateurs bothering him, or that Halley's reward was to be told by the Royal Society that since they could no longer afford to pay his salary in pounds sterling, he would instead be given remaindered copies of

    .

    And there were numerous other stories I'd never seen at all. If you don't find plenty here to amuse and instruct, you're either encyclopedically well-read in all branches of science or you have no interest in it whatsoever.

  • Manny
    Oct 21, 2013

    Surveys show that nearly 40% of all Americans believe the history of literature started in 2007, when Amazon sold the first Kindle; indeed, Amazon Fundamentalists hold it as an article of faith that Jeff Bezos actually

    all the world's e-books over a period of six days. This is, of course, nonsense. It has been conclusively demonstrated that literature is far older than the Kindle; books already existed thousands of years ago, which were the direct ancestors of t

    Surveys show that nearly 40% of all Americans believe the history of literature started in 2007, when Amazon sold the first Kindle; indeed, Amazon Fundamentalists hold it as an article of faith that Jeff Bezos actually

    all the world's e-books over a period of six days. This is, of course, nonsense. It has been conclusively demonstrated that literature is far older than the Kindle; books already existed thousands of years ago, which were the direct ancestors of today's e-publications. For example, careful examination reveals that

    and

    are primitive versions of

    and

    . Similar relationships have been shown to obtain for all modern books.

    Problems arise, however, from the fact that these archaic protobooks still exist today; indeed, some have adapted to the e-reader environment and begun to thrive there. It is entirely too easy for an unsuspecting internet shopper to purchase a copy of

    , incorrectly believing that it is part of the Twilight series. From the standpoint of formal literary theory, it is admittedly incorrect to say that

    is "worse" than Twilight. They are simply different; neither one is "worse" than the other, since they have developed in different environments.

    From a practical point of view, however, a person who buys a Jane Austen novel is almost certain to be disappointed. There are no vampires or werewolves; sex is barely even hinted at; most upsettingly of all, the book will be full of long sentences and difficult words. The combination of these factors can only lead to an intensely unpleasant reading experience, which may discourage the reader from making new Amazon purchases for days or even weeks afterwards. Particularly given the fragile state of the US economy, this is evidently not an acceptable state of affairs.

    People have always exchanged recommendations and warnings with their friends, but it became clear that a more systematic approach was needed. There had to be a place where book-consumers could post advice and help each other avoid these infuriating mistakes, so that everyone could be sure of reading nothing but up-to-the-minute YA erotic paranormal romances.

    Thus was born Goodreads.

    This work by

    is licensed under a

  • Dan Schwent
    Dec 27, 2014

    A Short History of Nearly Everything is Bill Bryson's summation of life, the universe, and everything, a nice little easy-reading science book containing an overview of things every earthling should be aware of.

    As I've repeatedly mentioned over the years, every time one of the casual-readers tells me I have to read something, like Harry Potter or the DaVinci Code, I dig my feet in deeper and resolve to never read it. This is one of the occasions I should have shaved a decade off of my stubbornne

    A Short History of Nearly Everything is Bill Bryson's summation of life, the universe, and everything, a nice little easy-reading science book containing an overview of things every earthling should be aware of.

    As I've repeatedly mentioned over the years, every time one of the casual-readers tells me I have to read something, like Harry Potter or the DaVinci Code, I dig my feet in deeper and resolve to never read it. This is one of the occasions I should have shaved a decade off of my stubbornness and caved in right away.

    Bryson covers a wide range of topics, from the formation of the universe to the evolution of man for our apelike forebears, and all points in between. Atoms? Cells? These are just stops along the enlightenment highway that Bill Bryson has paved! He touches upon quantum physics, geology, the size of our solar system, the year without a summer, and other topics innumerable.

    The writing style is so accessible that I have to think I'd be some kind of scientists if my high school and college text books were written by Bill Bryson. His easy, breezy style makes even the most complicated topics easier to digest.

    It's not often that I come away from a book having felt like I learned something new, criminal techniques from my usual reads excepted. Bryson has succeeded where many have failed before him. He has used chicanery to get me to read nonfiction and enjoy myself while doing it. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

  • Andrew Smith
    Feb 27, 2017

    I was never any good at science. At the grammar school I attended we were shepherded into laboratories for lessons on physics, chemistry and biology. These were scary places; I’d never been anywhere like this before. The physics lab had gas taps and Bunsen burners and the walls were filled with incomprehensible charts. The chemistry lab held rows of specimen jars, more gas taps and burners and an underlying smell of something unpleasant and vaguely dangerous. The biology lab displayed pictures a

    I was never any good at science. At the grammar school I attended we were shepherded into laboratories for lessons on physics, chemistry and biology. These were scary places; I’d never been anywhere like this before. The physics lab had gas taps and Bunsen burners and the walls were filled with incomprehensible charts. The chemistry lab held rows of specimen jars, more gas taps and burners and an underlying smell of something unpleasant and vaguely dangerous. The biology lab displayed pictures and diagrams of human body parts and there were constant rumours of creature dissections and other nasty things to come. Beyond the physical fears it was clear that each subject had its own language. I was fluent in none of them. I ceased study on all of these subjects at the earliest opportunity.

    But I left school feeling that I’d missed out on part of my core education. And I had. So I’d had my eye on this book for some time. I’ve long been a fan of Bryson’s insightful yet amusing take on the world. Surely his commentary of all things scientific couldn’t be too painful, could it? The book walks through just about every significant scientific discovery from the creation of the universe to the present day. Well, not quite the present day, given this book was published some fourteen years ago. But given the universe is currently thought to be some 13.7 billion years old, I’m comfortable it covers the mother lode.

    The list of sciences included is exhaustive, I spotted whole bunch but I’m also convinced I missed a few. My list comprises:

    Anthropology

    Astronomy

    Botany

    Cosmology

    Chemistry

    Ecology

    Geology

    Human Biology

    Meteorology

    Oceanography

    Physics

    Zoology

    It’s fascinating stuff – staggering, in fact. I’d heard of the Big Bang theory, of course, but I’d never delved into the detail of it. The explanation here is clear and concise - it’s still mind bending, but I was able to follow most of the explanation. There were some sections where the detail did become a little heavy – the account of plant life being categorised lumbered on interminably – but on the whole the pacing felt spot on. It’s also very well structured, with relevant topics being grouped together. It flowed well and told a compelling story.

    As I worked my way through this book, the thought that kept leaping to the fore was that these brilliant theories and discoveries came about largely as a result of scientists and non-scientists working something out via observation, association and calculation – the kicker being that nearly all of these milestone events predate computers, email and the internet. It’s incredible. In one example twenty years was spent on a calculation using pencil, paper and a slide rule. The same calculation could now be completed using a computer in a single day.

    Yes, because of its publication date there are a few recent finds that aren’t included - confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson particle in 2012 is one example – but I really don’t think it missed out too much of any significance. For anyone looking for a comprehensive but easy to follow history of scientific discovery, from the very beginning, look no further. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.