Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Hardcover: 560 pages
Publisher: Broadway; 1 edition (May 6, 2003)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0767908171

genre: non-fiction, popular science 


A Short History of Nearly Everything tries to present the history of our material world and life from primordial nothingness before the Big Bang to this very moment. A really daunting task but also a very exciting one. The author uses hundred of available sources covering roughly the same material as every science book, summarizing not only what we know, but also how we know it and how long we’ve been known it. The organization of the book is partly chronological, partly thematic – each chapter is devoted to a topic like the age of our planet or how cells work, and these chapters are grouped into larger sections such as “The Size of the Earth” and “Life Itself.” The latter half of the book deals primarily with the life sciences – biology, botany, ecology, zoology, oceanography, organic chemistry etc.

What I liked:

The book, although quite bulky, is very readable, you can almost forget you are reading about science and other heavy topics. As it was written by Tim Flannery in “The Times Literary Supplement”: “It represents a wonderful education, and all schools would be better places if it were the core science reader on the curriculum.” I might only add that this position can be treated as a kind of litmus paper – if you, after reading it, still say that you don’t want to have anything in common with any science you might be right after all (and the same can be true if this book is read by your kids).

For me the best part of the book was that it relates how little we actually do know about our world, its history, atomic structure, and really practically every scientific field. After reading it you will think differently about the challenges before an average scientist. “The facts we know tell us how much we don’t know” – such a saying can summarize our knowledge pretty well.

What I didn’t like:

As usually with such ambitious undertakings the devil is in the details. I am not a scientist myself but I do like checking this and that independently. Let me just say the author not always presents the facts correctly. For example he makes several glaring errors in his discussion of physics, suggesting that particles with “spin” are actually spinning about an axis (which they are not) and presents entanglement as a violation of relativity (which it is not). These two were suggested to me by my physicist friend after just a superficial skimming of the text. Further on the author implies that the Hawaiian islands are part of the mid oceanic ridge system (p226) when clearly they are not – the archipelago is physiographically and ethnologically part of the Polynesian subregion of Oceania.. What a pity no trained scientist was hired to edit this book – after all the author interviewed some of them so he could have asked them to have a look at this or that.

In my humble opinion Bryson wastes far too much ink relating strange facts picked up in the course of his research, from William Buckland’s dining habits to Gideon Mantell’s twisted spine. They might enliven the narration at first but after a while you get tired of them and you start asking yourself what this book is really about.

Finally Bryson often just quotes results and conclusions without further explanation. Generally the text is permeated by a very conservative, and often, contradictory bias – you can easily say which theories/beliefs appeal to the author and which are written off by him as wacky. I suppose if you deal with science you should be a tad more objective yourself.

The final verdict:

The book, despite its flaws, is still a worthwhile read, particularly suited for average, non-scientific people (which were, in fact, its main target audience). However more incisive readers or those of a higher technical level might be disappointed.

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2 Responses to Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

  1. Blodeuedd says:

    Sounds ok, with flaws and everything. Sometimes I do go for non fiction, but it mostly seems to be about royal mistresses and fun things like that, lol

  2. anachronist says:

    Well nobody says everybody should like non-fiction books. Royal mistresses had their role in history and even promoted scientists (Madame Pompadour e.g.)

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