MEDIA REVIEW - A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Author:  Selby Cull
Institution:  Hampshire College
Date:  May 2006

A recent study found that 79% of American high school seniors do not like math. More than half dislike chemistry, earth sciences, and physics. On the up side, only one in three cannot stand biology.

I would like to propose a fairly radical solution: discard every science textbook in America, and instead, issue every school-child a copy of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. I can say without reservation that this is the best science history book I have ever had the joy to pick up. It is enough to teach anyone to love science.

Figure 1

Bill Bryson is the well-loved author of A Walk in the Woods, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, and other books about his wanderings. In one of his many, interminable plane trips over the Atlantic Ocean, Bryson describes how he suddenly realized that despite his travels and his deep grasp of a number of wonderful topics – like, for instance, how to run away from a bear – he knew absolutely nothing about the planet on which he lives.

"I had no idea, for example, why the oceans were salty but the Great Lakes weren't. Didn't have the faintest idea," he writes in his introduction. "And ocean salinity of course represented only the merest sliver of my ignorance. I didn't know what a proton was, or a protein, didn't know a quark from a quasar, didn't understand how geologists could look at a layer of rock on a canyon wall and tell you how old it was, didn't know anything really."

With all of his characteristic good humor and wit, he sets out to remedy this, and - thank heavens - brings us along for the ride. But instead of merely regurgitating what we know about the world, as most textbooks do, Bryson illustrates how we figured all this stuff out in the first place. How do we know how big the Earth is or what is inside it? How do we know how old dinosaur bones are or where a comet comes from? Most of us have a basic idea of what the world is like, but not how we figured it out in the first place.

He begins, as one should when recounting the history of everything, with the beginning. He recounts the story of the discovery of the cosmic background radiation, a kind of cosmic warmth left over from the Big Bang, then talks about the Big Bang itself, how the elements formed, then galaxies, stars, our Sun and the planets. He covers the basics of astronomy, including supernovae, quasars, and the planets, and then moves on to how we figured out how big the Earth is (not as simple as it seems), and how old the Earth is (even more difficult). From there, it is on to radioactive decay, our understanding of the atom, Einstein, relativity, quarks, and the age of the Universe. After that whirlwind-like, but strangely connected tour, he dives into plate tectonics, the rise of life on Earth, the history and odd turns of life, and finally the rise and success of us as humans. It is, in fact, a short history of nearly everything.

One of the reasons this book is so enjoyable and readable is that Bryson tells us these tales of discovery through the lives of the scientists who made them. All of these scientists were entertaining, sometimes tragic, but usually quirky. "Buckland was a bit of a charming oddity," he writes of one 18th-century geologist. "He was particularly noted...for his desire to eat his way through every animal in creation. Depending on whim and availability, guests to Buckland's house might be served baked guinea pig, mice in batter, roasted hedgehog, or boiled Southeast Asian sea slug. Buckland was able to find merit in them all, except the common garden mole, which he declared disgusting."

No subject or field of inquiry is left without a colorful character, or at least a colorful remark, so that even if the reader is completely uninterested in the science, the story is still enormously entertaining. In addition, for those of us who are interested in the science, and have read the accounts of discovery a dozen times, the quirky characters provide a new and fascinating twist that keeps us even more interested.

Bryson's subject matter is fascinating, his asides intriguing, his characters colorful, and his prose easy to read. However, the best element of Bryson's writing style is the element of surprise. You will be reading, casual as can be, and suddenly along comes a statement like this: "Now the question that has occurred to all of us at some point is: what would happen if you traveled out to the edge of the universe and, as it were, put your head through the curtains?.The answer, disappointingly, is that you can never get to the edge of the universe. That's not because it would take too long to get there – though of course it would – but because even if you traveled outward and outward in a straight line, indefinitely and pugnaciously, you would never arrive at an outer boundary. Indeed, you would come back to where you began (at which point, presumably, you would rather lose heart in the exercise and give up)."

Bryson is one of the only authors who can write a book for which I can honestly say I have no issues. Not once did I find myself thinking, "Hey, that's not the way it happened!" or "How can he say that?". I searched in vain for historical inaccuracies and was delighted to find none. Though, I imagine, somewhere out there, a dutiful and serious scholar of the history of science is deeply offended by some obscure bit of Bryson's account – I cannot find it. I soon gave up looking for faults and just went along for the ride.