A Short History of Nearly Everything


Bill Bryson




Date Reviewed:

February 10, 2020

ill Bryson is a wonderful writer. I have read a number of books now; A Walk in the Woods is still my favorite, but a Short History of Nearly Everything is probably second best. This is not to downgrade his other books that I read: At Home: A Short History of Private Life, In a Sunburned Country, One Summer: America, 1927; and The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. Everyone of those is a great read. Bryson has a knack for making things interesting; he is the proverbial author who could make a phone book interesting (not that anyone has phone books any more)

Despite the title, this is really a short history of science. Even paring down the subject matter from Everything to "just" Science still covers an extraordinary amount of material. Going as far back as Newton, Bryson ranges over many of the sciences - plate tectonics, genes, astronomy, human origins, the discovery of the elements, Einstein and on and on. Bryson moves fast, but it is enthralling. He specializes in clear and concise explanations of each discovery, while also give quick portraits of the scientists who figured out the new science. And, since it is Bryson, all the material is enlivened with humor and fascinating factoids such as: if the earth were perfectly smooth, then the oceans would cover the entire planet to a depth of 4 Km.

Here is a typical Bryson paragraph: And then there was Dr. James Parkinson, who was an early socialist and an author of many provocative pamphlets with titles like "Revolution without Bloodshed". In 1794, he was implicated in the fairly lunatic-sounding conspiracy called the "Pop-gun Plot", in which it was planned to shoot King George III in the neck with a poison dart while he sat in his box at the theater. Parkinson was hauled before the Privy Council for questioning and came within an ace of being dispatched in irons to Australia before the charges before him were quietly dropped. Adopting a more conservative approach to life, he developed an interest in geology and became one of the founding members of the Geological Society and the author of the important text, Organic Remains of the Former World, which remained in print for half a century. He never caused trouble again. Today, however, we remember him for his landmark study of the affliction then called "shaking palsy" but known ever since as Parkinson's Disease.

If that passage doesn't delight you, then maybe Bryson isn't your cup of tea. I have to marvel at the amount of research that went into writing this book. How many hours does it take to look up all that material about James Parkinson, just to write one paragraph about him? How does Bryson even know to research Parkinson and not ten other scientists? I assume 90% of what he learned never made it into the book. Bryson must employ a huge team of researchers and have access to many libraries. Sometimes he quotes from conversations he had with scientists who are still living, so obviously Bryson did more than just read books, he went out to meet these scientists and ask questions in his unique manner.

Did you know Manson, Iowa - which looks like flat featureless prairie, is actually an impact crater from a huge meteorite? Scientists briefly wondered if this was the killer comet that killed the dinosaurs, but they determined it was too small and nine million years too soon.

Read this book! Highly recommended. I see Bryson just released a new book about the human body, so that certainly goes onto my list of To Be Read Someday (Soon, I hope)