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A Short History of Nearly Everything

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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 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 himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining.


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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 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 himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining.

30 review for A Short History of Nearly Everything

  1. 4 out of 5

    Manny

    A Short History of Goodreads 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 wrote 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 A Short History of Goodreads 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 wrote 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 The Odyssey and The Gospel according to Saint Mark are primitive versions of Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters and Bared to You. 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 Pride and Prejudice, incorrectly believing that it is part of the Twilight series. From the standpoint of formal literary theory, it is admittedly incorrect to say that Pride and Prejudice 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 Manny is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jamie

    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 this 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 this 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.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Paul Bryant

    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!"

  4. 4 out of 5

    Grace Tjan

    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 A Brief History of Time and their ilk.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    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 life.) Thorough, humorous, engaging, and educational: what's not to like?

  6. 4 out of 5

    Manny

    It's easy to nitpick A Short History of Nearly Everything. 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 Natural Theology 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 A Short History of Nearly Everything. 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 Natural Theology 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 Beagle colleagues wandered through the crowd, holding a Bible aloft and shouting "the Book, the Book!" Similarly, everyone tells you that Newton only published the Principia 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 The History of Fishes. 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.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Patrick

    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.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Dan Schwent

    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.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Foster

    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.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Smith

    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.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Miranda Reads

    Want a whirlwind worldwide romance adventure minus the romance? This is the book for you. This book really does cover nearly everything. From the Big Bang to current life on earth, Bill Bryson does wonderful job of breaking down complex theories and concepts to their essential message: Protons give an atom its identity, electrons its personality. Though, sometimes he gets a bit wordy. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wou Want a whirlwind worldwide romance adventure minus the romance? This is the book for you. This book really does cover nearly everything. From the Big Bang to current life on earth, Bill Bryson does wonderful job of breaking down complex theories and concepts to their essential message: Protons give an atom its identity, electrons its personality. Though, sometimes he gets a bit wordy. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result -- eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly -- in you. This was such an interesting book to read and I walked away learning so much. This is the sort of book that requires two or three times reading through it to fully understand and digest everything. I can barely comprehend how much time and effort went into research. Truly a masterpiece. Audiobook Comments: While he did not narrate his own book, the Richard Matthews does a great job of reading it. Though, this is one of those books that you cannot tune out on without missing something crucial. This is a great big-picture book. For a fun microhistory, I'd recommend At Home: A Short History of Private Life also by Bill Bryson. Blog | Instagram | Twitter

  12. 4 out of 5

    Dem

    2.5 Stars This is probably going to make me sound as thick as two short planks but I didn't like it, I knew going into this book that it was going to be a challenge as Science is not really my preferred bedtime reading but I do think its good to try new things but unfortunately yes this was just hard work for me and I struggled through this one. But on the plus side I did learn some STUFF just dont ASK me to EXPLAIN it to you and it did encourage discussion with my Nerdy other half which cant b 2.5 Stars This is probably going to make me sound as thick as two short planks but I didn't like it, I knew going into this book that it was going to be a challenge as Science is not really my preferred bedtime reading but I do think its good to try new things but unfortunately yes this was just hard work for me and I struggled through this one. But on the plus side I did learn some STUFF just dont ASK me to EXPLAIN it to you and it did encourage discussion with my Nerdy other half which cant be a bad thing and there are quite a few amazing facts in the book and some entertaining stories. I will probably tell the other half that I gave it 5 stars :-) This book is extremely well written and researched and for those interested in science I am sure this is an amazing read as Bill Bryson travels through time and space to explain the world, the universe and everything. I don't regret picking it up this book and giving it a go and my rating only reflects my reaction to the book and certainly not the quality of the information or how it is presented. I would like to read something else (less challenging) by this author so perhaps I will pick up another one of his books sometime in the future.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Olive (abookolive)

    Well deserving of its popularity and praise, this book manages to be fun even though it contains a massive amount of information delivered at a rapid rate. The title is hyperbolic; this is an introduction to scientific building blocks that will give the reader a basic understanding about the world, our place within it, and of the history behind major scientific discoveries. Though it has the ability to make one feel overwhelmed, I think it has an equal potential to be a good kicking off point fo Well deserving of its popularity and praise, this book manages to be fun even though it contains a massive amount of information delivered at a rapid rate. The title is hyperbolic; this is an introduction to scientific building blocks that will give the reader a basic understanding about the world, our place within it, and of the history behind major scientific discoveries. Though it has the ability to make one feel overwhelmed, I think it has an equal potential to be a good kicking off point for further readings about science.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Greta

    A short history of nearly everything This is a remarkable accomplishment. From the author, of course, but also from me, to have read it. I'm not a scientist, so when I started reading this book, I expected that I would skip some parts. But I didn't ; I read every single page of this highly readable and enjoyable book. I won't bother you with all the scientific stuff I learned. Instead, I compiled a top 5 list of the frightful fates of some scientists. 1. Max Planck (1858-1947) was a German theore A short history of nearly everything This is a remarkable accomplishment. From the author, of course, but also from me, to have read it. I'm not a scientist, so when I started reading this book, I expected that I would skip some parts. But I didn't ; I read every single page of this highly readable and enjoyable book. I won't bother you with all the scientific stuff I learned. Instead, I compiled a top 5 list of the frightful fates of some scientists. 1. Max Planck (1858-1947) was a German theoretical physicist whose work on quantum theory won him the Nobel Prize in physics in 1918. Max Planck had to deal with many tragedies in his life. His beloved first wife, Marie, died at a young age in 1909, probably from TBC. They had four children (with his second wife Magda he had a fifth child Hermann). During the first world war, his son Erwin was taken prisoner by the French in 1914, while his other son Karl was killed in action at Verdun. His daughter Grete died in 1917 while giving birth to her first child, and two years later her twin sister Emma died the same way, after having married Grete's widower. In February 1944 his home in Berlin was completely destroyed by an air raid, annihilating all his scientific records and correspondence. In 1945, Erwin was sentenced to death by the Nazi Volksgerichtshof and executed, because of his participation in the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in july 1944. His death destroyed much of Max Planck's will to live. Tragic 2. Doctor Thomas Midgley Jr. (1889 – 1944) was an American mechanical engineer and chemist. He was a key figure in a team of chemists that developed the lead additive to gasoline (TEL) as well as some of the first CFCs. His work led to the release of large quantities of lead into the atmosphere as a result of the large-scale combustion of leaded gasoline all over the world. Thomas Midgley Jr. died three decades before the ozone-depleting and greenhouse gas effects of CFCs in the atmosphere became widely known. Bill Bryson remarked that Midgley possessed "an instinct for the regrettable that was almost uncanny". In 1940, at the age of 51, Midgley contracted poliomyelitis, which left him severely disabled. This led him to devise an elaborate system of strings and pulleys to help others lift him from bed. This system was the eventual cause of his own death when he was entangled in the ropes of this device and died of strangulation at the age of 55. Horrible 3. Gideon Mantell (1790 – 1852) was an English obstetrician, geologist and paleontologist. He and his wife discovered several large teeth of an Iguanodon in 1822, but they were dismissed as belonging to a fish or mammal or rhinoceros, by other scientist. Mantell was mocked by his peers, and especially sir Richard Owen (the coiner of the word "dinosaur") made his life a hell. Mantell became financially destitute and his wife left him in 1839. His son emigrated to New Zealand that same year, and his daughter died in 1840. In 1841 Mantell was the victim of a terrible carriage accident in London. Somehow he fell from his seat, became entangled in the reins and was dragged across the ground. Mantell suffered a debilitating spinal injury. He became bent, crippled and in constant pain. Richard Owen took advantage from this and tried to ruin Mantell's reputation as an important contributor to the science of paleontology. In fact, Owen even transferred claim of a number of discoveries from Mantell to himself. Mantell could no longer bear the pain of his spine and the burden of Owen’s hatred and on 10 November 1852, Mantell took an overdose of opium and later lapsed into a coma. He died that afternoon. An anonymous obituary appeared shortly afterwards in the Literary Gazette, which denigrated Mantell’s achievements and claimed his scientific work was no more than mediocre at best – although anonymous, the style of the obituary quickly identified it as coming from Owen’s pen. Then, as a final act of indignity, Owen had a section of Mantell's spine removed and displayed his pickled spine in a jar in his museum. Dreadful 4. Alfred Wegener (1880-1930) was a German polar reseacher, geophysicist and meteorologist. Today he is most remembered as the originator of the theory of continental drift by hypothesizing in 1912 that the continents are slowly drifting around the Earth. Wegener's fourth and last Greenland expedition was in 1930. The 14 participants under his leadership were to establish three permanent stations from which the thickness of the Greenland ice sheet could be measured and year-round Arctic weather observations made. Success depended on enough provisions being transferred from West camp to Eismitte ("mid-ice") for two men to winter there, and this was a factor in the decision that led to his death. On 24 September, although the route markers were by now largely buried under snow, Wegener set out with thirteen Greenlanders and his meteorologist Fritz Loewe to supply the camp by dog sled. During the journey, the temperature reached −60 °C (−76 °F) and Loewe's toes became so frostbitten they had to be amputated with a penknife without anesthetic. Twelve of the Greenlanders returned to West camp. On 19 October the remaining three members of the expedition reached Eismitte. There being only enough supplies for three at Eismitte, Wegener and Rasmus Villumsen took two dog sleds and made for West camp. They took no food for the dogs and killed them one by one to feed the rest until they could run only one sled. While Villumsen rode the sled, Wegener had to use skis, but they never reached the camp: Wegener died and Villumsen was never seen again. Wegener died probably of a heart attack (Bill Bryson wrote he froze to death). Villumsen buried Wegener’s body in the snow and marked the grave with skis. Villumsen then resumed his journey, but did not complete it. His body was never found. In May 1931, after a search, Kurt Wegener discovered his brother’s grave. He and other expedition members built a pyramid-shaped mausoleum in the ice and snow, and Alfred Wegener’s body was laid to rest in it. The mausoleum has now, with the passing of time, been buried under Greenland’s ice and snow. Terrible 5. Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) was an American astronomer who is known for playing a vital role in the development of extragalactic astronomy. What became of Edwin Hubble after his death at his home on the 28th of September 1953, is a mystery. The whereabouts of his body were known only to his widow. It is not known whether he was buried or cremated or where his remains now lie. This secret his widow took to her own grave. His wife who adored him, devoted years of her life to writing an almost mythical account of her husband's life, much of which is evidently false. Creepy 9/10

  15. 5 out of 5

    Otis Chandler

    A fascinating history of science. Ever curious how everything we know about the world came to be - read this! I loved reading about what old greats like Darwin thought about the world - they were all right about most things, but also very wrong about some things - makes you wonder how much we are wrong about today! Another interesting piece was how many of the world's prominent scientists had the time to do their research because they came from rich families. Very different from todays notion of A fascinating history of science. Ever curious how everything we know about the world came to be - read this! I loved reading about what old greats like Darwin thought about the world - they were all right about most things, but also very wrong about some things - makes you wonder how much we are wrong about today! Another interesting piece was how many of the world's prominent scientists had the time to do their research because they came from rich families. Very different from todays notion of 'trust funders'.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Ashleigh

    The best thing about this book is that it introduces other books you would like. It showed me that I should probably read more about Newton and Einstein, and that astronomy is something that I am still interested in. I did find myself scanning through certain sections because I already understood them well (the vastness of the universe) or I don't think I will ever understand them (complicated aspects of biology). Like all science book, they get outdated fast but this one is still holding up, at The best thing about this book is that it introduces other books you would like. It showed me that I should probably read more about Newton and Einstein, and that astronomy is something that I am still interested in. I did find myself scanning through certain sections because I already understood them well (the vastness of the universe) or I don't think I will ever understand them (complicated aspects of biology). Like all science book, they get outdated fast but this one is still holding up, at least for now.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Riku Sayuj

    Stunning in scope and execution. Loved every page of it, even geology was made exciting. That really is some feat.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Dave Gaston

    First off, this is a huge departure from Bryson's breezy, excellent travel logs. Secondly, this book should be read with some frequency. It is so densely packed with valuable insight, and sound bites of discovery that you could not possibly absorb it all with one pass. This is my second time reading it and I plan on doing it again next year. The organizational structure is a wonderful series of loosely connected cameos covering several essential and enlightened discoveries of man. As an added bo First off, this is a huge departure from Bryson's breezy, excellent travel logs. Secondly, this book should be read with some frequency. It is so densely packed with valuable insight, and sound bites of discovery that you could not possibly absorb it all with one pass. This is my second time reading it and I plan on doing it again next year. The organizational structure is a wonderful series of loosely connected cameos covering several essential and enlightened discoveries of man. As an added bonus, the book actually attempts to pay off on the cheeky title. Bryson's light, common man’s writing style “scats” from universal, to global, to biological with a loosely constructed cause and effect outline. His books (thankfully, including this one) are all peppered with wit and charm and a heavy snatch of sarcasm. Further and maybe more importantly, he has the good sense to skip over heavy deep dives into mathematics, theories or anything at an ivy graduate level. I love this guy. I feel like he wrote this book for me and I hope he writes 10 more just like this. 10/4/07 I abhor cliches, but in honor of Bryson's incredible achievement I'll indulge in one. I might very well choose "A Short History" as the ONE book I'd choose over all others ...if ...I was stranded on the proverbial desert island. Bryson has created a true encyclopedic kaleidoscope. Imagine the fun he had writing this book as he allowed his mind to logically wormhole through and across time!

  19. 5 out of 5

    D'Argo Agathon

    Oh my gods, what a waste of perfectly good paper! I am flabbergasted that this has such consistently high reviews... Three problems with this tripe: 1. falsity of the science (most blatantly around cosmology, but not limited to any one field) and misunderstanding of scientific principles; 2. a focus more on "biography" rather than on real "history"; 3. trivial worthlessness of the information. Number 1 is briefly chronicled below. Within just the first 20 pages or so, there are ridiculous factual er Oh my gods, what a waste of perfectly good paper! I am flabbergasted that this has such consistently high reviews... Three problems with this tripe: 1. falsity of the science (most blatantly around cosmology, but not limited to any one field) and misunderstanding of scientific principles; 2. a focus more on "biography" rather than on real "history"; 3. trivial worthlessness of the information. Number 1 is briefly chronicled below. Within just the first 20 pages or so, there are ridiculous factual errors and misrepresentations of scientific knowledge. Even in 2003 when the book was published, these errors would have been unforgivable. Where the bloody hell were the editors?! Apparently the author came out later to mention his "lack of scientific chops," or the like. How can a book about the history of science fuck up the science?! Number 2 is just downright sad. Apparently the author felt that if he could spend about a page per scientist, he would make the material more interesting. No, man, I want science and history, not abbreviated and hackneyed biography. He doesn't even move smoothly between people... it's just a meandering of random scientific endeavors, somewhat brought into chronology. Number 3 is a difficult criticism, because with this kind of book, it is hard to get away from misc. trivia. And I'll even acknowledge that I learned a lot of trivia... and that the book does a great job of showing us just how much we don't know. But as I reached page 360 and realized (for the fifth or so time) that this was info that I could get in a quick google search, I just couldn't do it anymore. What a gods awful waste. What's more disappointing than the book though, is the overwhelming praise the book has gotten. I don't even want to sell this book back, but throw it away (and I thought I would never say something like that)! I'd rather have someone go slightly ignorant than have them be fed this mess of misinformation and dredge. Below were reactions I had when reading was "in progress." Start (05/08/11): Okay, so the "approachable textbook"... does it live up to the hype? Every review I have seen is about how great this book is. Let's see. So far, this book shows its 2003 date by providing currently inaccurate data; I also did not realize the author would assume zero scientific knowledge on the part of the reader... this could be interesting. Finally, the Introduction is full of annoying straw men and non-sequitors that really make me wonder if the author has learned much about scientific inquiry at all. He really doesn't understand probability. Eh, I'm only on page 16. Let's see if this improves. (05/09/11) Oh, bloody frak. "In the long term, *gravity* may turn out to be a little too strong, and one day it may halt the expansion of the universe and bring it collapsing in upon itself, till it crushes itself down into another singularity... On the other hand it may be too weak and the universe will keeping racing away..." (emphasis mine) NOTHING about those statements is correct. Gravity has nothing to do with the expansion of spacetime. Ugh, I thought this book had fantastic reviews! The term he is talking about here is "dark energy," NOT gravity. "Astronomers these days can do the most amazing things. If someone struck a match on the Moon, they could spot the flare." ... You have got to be fucking kidding me. A redox oxidation in a vacuum. Dude... Oh my frak. He just lost all respect from me. "...even with the most conservative inputs [in the Drake equation] the number of advanced civilzations... always works out to be somewhere in the millions." Fucking no. Dude, how the hell did this even get published?!

  20. 5 out of 5

    Diane

    I must admit that science is not my strong suit -- I've always been more of a Humanities gal. In high school, I had to work harder in my biology and chemistry classes, whereas English, history and social studies always came more easily to me. Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is a good overview of all the science classes I didn't take (or don't remember) in college. It's like Intro to Physics, Chemistry, Geology and Astronomy all in one wonderfully droll book. Since I read very I must admit that science is not my strong suit -- I've always been more of a Humanities gal. In high school, I had to work harder in my biology and chemistry classes, whereas English, history and social studies always came more easily to me. Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is a good overview of all the science classes I didn't take (or don't remember) in college. It's like Intro to Physics, Chemistry, Geology and Astronomy all in one wonderfully droll book. Since I read very few books about science, this was an enjoyable departure for me. Here is how the book begins: "Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn't easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize. To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and curiously obliging manner to create you. It's an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, co-operative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience this supremely agreeable but generally under-appreciated state known as existence." Some of my favorite sections were about the Big Bang, the debate about the age of the universe, plate tectonics, Darwin's research, and the extinction of different species. After sharing various stories of how humans have killed off who-knows-how-many species, Bryson interjects: "I mention all this to make the point that if you were designing an organism to look after life in our lonely cosmos, to monitor where it is going and keep a record of where it has been, you wouldn't choose human beings for the job." Sadly true, but also worth a HA! I listened to this on CD read by the author, and if you've been following my reviews for a while, you'll know that I have a brain crush on Bryson and his narration. Seriously, I wish I could invite him over for tea and scones and just listen to him read all afternoon. (Bryson is from my home state of Iowa, but he's lived in England for so long that he's adopted a charming accent. It's adorable.) I was also able to look through a copy of the special illustrated edition, which includes dozens of photographs and prints. If you can find it, I highly recommend reading the illustrated edition. "A Short History" was first published in 2003, and at the time, it was a big change from Bryson's previous travelogues. Since then, Bryson seems to have abandoned travel books and has been writing on different topics in history, such as the wonderful "At Home", "Shakespeare" and "One Summer: America 1927." While I enjoy his wry, humorous takes on history, I do miss his travel writing. If you're reading this, Bryson, please, take a trip somewhere. Have an adventure. Jot down a few notes and write another whip-smart travel book. Your fans will love it.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Maciek

    This is an immensely readable book with a truly monumental amount of information. While reading it, one might wish to remember all its content, but it's written in a way allowing the reader to pick up the volume and start reading at any point, according to his interests, though Bryson relays all subjects in captivating and available way, with a big dose of humor. This is a weighty book - 600 pages - but Bryson's not joking. He really tries to cover everything, from the beginning of the universe a This is an immensely readable book with a truly monumental amount of information. While reading it, one might wish to remember all its content, but it's written in a way allowing the reader to pick up the volume and start reading at any point, according to his interests, though Bryson relays all subjects in captivating and available way, with a big dose of humor. This is a weighty book - 600 pages - but Bryson's not joking. He really tries to cover everything, from the beginning of the universe and the nature of our solar system and planet, through biological evolution of our species and the effects of us being here, both on nature and other creatures. Needless to say, he does an extremely good job of captivating the reader's attention from the first page and has no difficulty laying out complex concepts in a way that every reader will understand. Also, aside from all the facts, the book is also full of trivia and anecdotes about the experiments and the scientists who performed them. In the introduction, Bryson recalls his childhood and remembers how he was fascinated by the image of a cross-section of our planet, but at the same time put down by the nature of the book that contained it. The dry presentation of the facts, that were accompanied only by a set of exercies to test the gained knowledge, puzzled him. How did these people know how our planet looks from the inside? And who exactly were they? In his book, he accomplishes an important thing, one of the most important things - he presents the data while at the same time never letting go of the terribly exciting feeling of discovery, and presenting information about the discoverers themselves. It's obvious that he did a lot of research, but it's also obvious that these things fascinated him, and he grabs the reader's hand and runs headlong into the unexplored. And it is a world full of wonders. If schoolteachers shared Bryson's joy and flair we might have ended up with a whole lot more of biologists, physicists, chemists and geologists. I don't know if it's the best book of it's kind, but it is certainly an achievement worth re-reading.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Paul E. Morph

    A really interesting book. Bryson succeeds in explaining some complex topics in such a way that they can be understood by the layman. I enjoyed this one a great deal. If I had one complaint it would be that some of the tangents were allowed to run on a bit too long, to the point where I almost forgot what the author was talking about in the first place.

  23. 4 out of 5

    David

    I am a scientist, and I found much of this book quite fascinating. The book certainly isn't comprehensive in any sense of the word--in fact it seems to roam in a semi-random sort of way; but the author's sense of humor and attention to colorful historical facts kept my interest from beginning to end. One of the themes of this book, is that when someone comes up with with a new discovery, there are three stages before it is accepted: 1) Nobody believes it. 2) Nobody thinks it is important 3) It gets I am a scientist, and I found much of this book quite fascinating. The book certainly isn't comprehensive in any sense of the word--in fact it seems to roam in a semi-random sort of way; but the author's sense of humor and attention to colorful historical facts kept my interest from beginning to end. One of the themes of this book, is that when someone comes up with with a new discovery, there are three stages before it is accepted: 1) Nobody believes it. 2) Nobody thinks it is important 3) It gets attributed to the wrong person. These three stages come up again and again in this book. I guess it can be attributed to the fact that most scientists--and most people--are, at heart, conservative in nature.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    “…Inevitably owe at least as much to supposition as to science.” “A Short History of Nearly Everything” is in a word fascinating…mostly. I found this text the most interesting when Bill Bryson turned his attention to the personalities in the science world as opposed to lots of the science itself. He is more comfortable writing on that human angle subject and it shows. For a book that deals with nonfiction (in as much as science is fact, this text makes clear that much science is really nothing mor “…Inevitably owe at least as much to supposition as to science.” “A Short History of Nearly Everything” is in a word fascinating…mostly. I found this text the most interesting when Bill Bryson turned his attention to the personalities in the science world as opposed to lots of the science itself. He is more comfortable writing on that human angle subject and it shows. For a book that deals with nonfiction (in as much as science is fact, this text makes clear that much science is really nothing more than conjecture) one section that will keep you on the edge of your seat is Part IV, called “Dangerous Planet”. Do not read it before bed, you will have bad dreams. It’s all about the cataclysmic ways the Earth can create (this is not induced by humans, just natural cycles) another extinction level event. At one point the text says about the planet, “For all the instability, it’s mostly remarkably and amazingly tranquil.” Understatement! Although Mr. Bryson appropriately does not explore or accept or reject the idea of a Creator (that is not the realm of science anyway) and after reading this book the myriad of improbable, impossible and /or unexplainable intricacies of the universe, nature on earth and life itself have only deepened my belief in a Creator who put all these processes in motion. As this quote from page 172 says, “We live in a universe whose age we can’t quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances we don’t altogether know, filled with matter we can’t identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don’t truly understand.” There is still so much (most things actually) that science cannot even begin to understand, but too often it is presented as fact. I am irritated that when I was in school it was presented in this infallible (and intellectually dishonest) manner. Bill Bryson mostly avoids that arrogance. This quote appears in some form continuously throughout the text, “In short, we don’t quite know where we came from.” If this book makes one thing abundantly clear, it is that science knows very little, and can prove nothing about the origins of anything! That astounds me! The quote I used as the title for this review is the recurrent theme of this text. As one scientist in the text states. “You can trust the studies well enough, generally speaking. What you can’t trust are the sweeping conclusion that people often attach to them.” Overall, I liked “A Short History of Nearly Everything”; some parts of it are immensely readable. Science and a bit of history thrown in is always interesting. However, by the last 100 pages or so I was more than ready for the book to be finished. I read it; I was intrigued, learned a lot. Moving on. Another great line from the text-“Sometimes the world just isn’t ready for a good idea.”

  25. 4 out of 5

    Mimi

    Hands down my favorite science text written by a non-scientist, although I should mention I don't make a habit of seeking out science books written by non-scientists for kicks. Like most (sensible? pragmatic? responsible?) people, I prefer to read about science from people who actually practice science. Bill Bryson is the only exception though because he's an exceptionally gifted writer who just happens to share my sense of humor--that the end is nigh and that maybe is not necessarily such a ter Hands down my favorite science text written by a non-scientist, although I should mention I don't make a habit of seeking out science books written by non-scientists for kicks. Like most (sensible? pragmatic? responsible?) people, I prefer to read about science from people who actually practice science. Bill Bryson is the only exception though because he's an exceptionally gifted writer who just happens to share my sense of humor--that the end is nigh and that maybe is not necessarily such a terrible thing. Terrible for humanity, sure, but not for the planet. We have worn out our welcome about a few thousand years ago, and now we're just too stubborn to admit our time is over. Just kidding...? But... If you don't walk away from this book believing humanity is doomed, because how can we possibly fix all we've ruined, then you are much more optimistic than I am. I read this book last year and liked it so much that I picked up the audio for a reread.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Ben Babcock

    Third review, March 5, 2019. Has it really been nearly 9 years since I re-read this? No. But I guess it has. A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of those formative books that has stuck with me for a long, long time. I have little to add to this review. I thought I had lots to say, but re-reading my review from 2010 below … I already said it there. I was going to talk about Bryson’s repetitive phrasing, praise how he explains how much we don’t know, and remark on how good this book is at ju Third review, March 5, 2019. Has it really been nearly 9 years since I re-read this? No. But I guess it has. A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of those formative books that has stuck with me for a long, long time. I have little to add to this review. I thought I had lots to say, but re-reading my review from 2010 below … I already said it there. I was going to talk about Bryson’s repetitive phrasing, praise how he explains how much we don’t know, and remark on how good this book is at just … luxuriating in the knowledge we have. I will add that I think this book, by and large, holds up even 15 years on. Our scientific knowledge certainly has advanced since then. Some of the mysteries that Bryson mentions here have been solved—while others have deepened. Moreover, reading this now with a more critical eye than I did in 2010, I’ll acknowledge there’s a pinch of Western gaze going on here. At one point, in the last chapter, Bryson comments how it was such a shame that the Chinese were grinding up bones for medicines instead of studying the bones to learn more about our past. Hello, casual racism. It might seem like I’m nitpicking now, especially considering how Bryson wryly highlights the racism and sexism of our past, but that’s exactly why I don’t want to let him slide on something like that. That being said, for the most part this book remains just so damn energizing. It inspires me to think big, to think about and marvel at the incredible world we inhabit. I honestly haven’t craved any of Bryson’s other works—I liked one, didn’t like the other, and have a few more on my to-read list but can’t be bothered to jump on them. But there’s something about the way he writes about this stuff, about this history of science, that just works for me. If it doesn’t work for you, I get it, this book will be a bit plodding and boring. But if it works for you … oh, wow, will it ever work for you. Read Ben from 2010’s opinions to find out why! Second reading review, May 7, 2010. I cannot recommend this book enough. No word of hyperbole: this is a book that everyone should read. Bill Bryson takes the span of human existence and produced a popular history of science that's both accurate and moving. A Short History of Nearly Everything is a celebration of science, but it also evokes the sense of wonder about the universe that science makes available to us. And, almost inevitably, it underscores how much we still have yet to learn about our world. Throughout history, one of the common arguments against the expansion of science has been something to the effect of "science removes the mystery" of the universe. Well, yes, that's kind of the point. But what opponents to scientific investigation usually mean to say, explicitly or not, is that because we know more about the universe, somehow that makes the universe less wonderful. Somehow a universe of quarks and gluons is less romantic than a universe powered by God. Thus, the argument goes, we shouldn't get too serious about this science stuff—it's depressing. My response: Are you on crack? I have just as much trouble fathoming how opponents of science find science depressing and nihilistic as they have trouble fathoming how I find science awesome. It seems self-evident to me that science is wonderful, that it is truly the most appropriate vehicle we have for appreciating our existence. But maybe that's just me, and obviously it's not everyone. So what A Short History of Nearly Everything does is level the playing field, extend the olive branch, if you will. Just as this review isn't an anti-religion diatribe, A Short History barely mentions religion. It doesn't talk about Galileo's persecution by the Church or the rise of creationism and intelligent design in the United States. Bryson and his book are above that. They reaffirm a sentiment I already have, and one I hope you share, either prior to or after reading this book. Science is fucking awesome. Sure, one can't understand every scientific concept that one comes across. But that's to be expected. Wave-particle duality is tricky stuff. Just as anyone can become a good handyman with some common sense and little experience, anyone can learn a little bit about quantum mechanics—but if you want to build a quantum house, you'll need many years of experience under your belt. Even we amateurs, however, can appreciate how cool it is that, for example, our bodies are made of stardust. The heavier elements, of which we are mostly composed, were forged in the crucibles of supernovae light-years away. We're here because some star died for us, and all the atoms managed to travel to Planet Earth. We're here because the Sun pumps out photons that heat our atmosphere, so we don't freeze, and the ozone layer reflects some of the photons away, so we don't fry. Our existence is temporal and transitory and tentative. But we do exist. And regardless of one's stance toward religion, this simple fact is a miracle. So science can give us miracles too. What Bryson does is take bits and pieces of science, put them in a historical context, and show us the miracles they contain. The result is an appreciation and a better understanding of how the world works. This is a rather long book—my edition is over 400 pages—and I have to admit it took me a longer time to re-read it than I had anticipated. It's worth the time. Every section is informative and interesting. Although I have a soft spot for physics, the chapters on relativity and quantum mechanics aren't my favourite—perhaps because I've already learned about the concepts elsewhere, so it felt a little redundant. Instead, I really enjoyed reading about the rise of geology, chemistry, and taxonomy. From this book I've learned that fossilization is a risky business; there's way more species hiding everywhere on and underneath the planet than we'll probably ever find; and if I happen to still be alive in a few thousand years, I should probably get volcano insurance. Even while educating us, Bryson emphasizes how much we don't know. Sometimes the media likes to portray science or scientific theories as "complete" when they are anything but. Perhaps here is where that niggling nihilism starts to rear its head for some people, for Bryson makes it clear that with some things, we probably just can't know, at least not in a timely fashion. On the macroscopic level, once we get out to about the range of Pluto, the distances are so vast as to be almost insurmountable. On the microscopic level, Planck and Heisenberg ensured there would always be a little uncertainty. But I'm OK with that. Preserves the mystery, after all. And provides yet more challenges. Our ignorance also carries with it a sense of helplessness. We aren't very good at tracking near-Earth objects, for instance, which means if an asteroid does strike us sometime in the near future, we probably won't see it until it hits the atmosphere. Then it will be too late. And even if we did, we don't have the capability to destroy or divert it. Still, lifting the veil of ignorance on one's ignorance is essential to improving one's ability to think critically about science. Who knows: maybe A Short History will inspire some kid to go into astronomy or engineering and invent better asteroid detection equipment. The upshot of this—as Bryson likes to put it, because his writing style is peppered with repeated phrases like this—is that Bryson presents both the good and the bad of science. As much as science is wonderful, it's also a human enterprise, and we humans are notoriously fallible instruments. Scientists are not immune—indeed, practically prone—to taking credit for another person's work; Bryson is quick to interject anecdotes about the personalities, quirks, and flaws of the persons of interest in the book. On that note, I wish I kind of had some sort of fact-checking utility for this book. Of course there are references and a bibliography, and Bryson claims in the acknowledgements that various reputable experts have reviewed the material. As much as I love A Short History, however, it is popular science and prone to simplification. So take the anecdotal parts with a grain of salt—for example, contrary to what Bryson claims, NASA didn't destroy the plans for the Saturn V lander (the real problem is trying to find enough reliable vintage parts to construct the thing). Overall the quality of A Short History of Nearly Everything is just so brilliant that I can't condemn Bryson for his enthusiasm. And I still have several adjectives left, so I can also say that this book is fabulous and stupendous, and you should definitely buy a copy or hold up your local library until it produces one. And if you don't have a local library, you should construct a doomsday device and hold the Earth hostage until such an edifice is constructed in a town near you. Got it? Good. It's a book worth reading and a book worth remembering; A Short History of Nearly Everything is science and history wrapped in a nutshell of wonder. First review. I cannot recommend this book enough to people. Bill Bryson manages to convey a technically detailed history of the planet while maintaining a readable, comprehensible writing style. His tone is engaging, and his tales are captivating--I particularly enjoyed the discussions on physics and on the development of archaeology and the theory of evolution. A Short History of Nearly Everything is to books what Bill Nye the Science Guy is to television. This is a book for science lovers and a book for those who swore they'd never take a science class again. I'm a fairly intelligent person; I learned a lot from this book, but at the same time I was already at least acquainted with much of the material it presents. However, that did not stop me from having, "whoa!" moments throughout the book, moments of realization at how complex and wonderful our universe is--and how special it is that we, humans, can strive to understand such a phenomenon.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Shaimaa Ali

    That was an Encyclopedia not a book! Bryson has taken us in a journey from "Cosmos" till we reached our Planet "Earth", then went into micro-details of almost all beings ..till he ended with us: Humans!! I'm thrilled by his knowledge & all the scientific facts & theories in this book. The only weak point would be the prolonged, unnecessary details sometimes ..

  28. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Bastian

    “Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result—eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly—in you.” A Short History of Nearly Everything is not as impossibly far-reaching as the title would indicate “Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result—eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly—in you.” A Short History of Nearly Everything is not as impossibly far-reaching as the title would indicate. An attempt to cram everything and the kitchen sink into a work intended for the general reader is surely a recipe for failure—or so one might think. Bryson marshals science, history and philosophy to present a big-picture understanding of our universe from past to present. Extraneous details are filtered out, and mysteries left unexamined, yet it somehow feels complete. Not unlike a film editor who can cut down 24 hours of production material into a feature-length film, he manages to pack a world of wonder and insight into an accessible and entertaining, though relatively lengthy (544-page) tome. Bryson's preoccupation is less with the rote repetition of facts (though there is that, too) than with conveying just how it is we know what we know. He takes us behind the curtain for a more intimate look at the process of discovery and the strokes of genius essential to that process. Lengthy and mildly scatterbrained it might be, ASHONE is a pure literary delight. The author's excitement and enthusiasm for the subject matter drip from every page. The sheer joy he receives from learning little gems he missed in high school or being reintroduced to information forgotten long ago is intoxicating. He meets with a wonderful cast of men and women to highlight the personalities behind the stories of discovery. Lone geniuses are a rarity in any field, and science is no exception. Bryson scratches below the surface to meet the individuals who played prominent roles yet went unrecognized. In taking the long view, Bryson engages some of science's toughest questions. Everything from the Big Bang to man's (relatively terse) evolutionary past is presented here, with a nod to some of the more eminent and intriguing figures from each field. I particularly appreciated that after a concept was explained, he immediately followed up with the most obvious question in response. It really helps the lay reader navigate these complex topics. Bryson spends a good amount of time on natural disasters, describing the many ways in which they shaped the history of our planet. His frequently humorous analogies help you understand their sheer scale and the havoc left in their wake. Ice ages, earthquakes, supervolcanoes and pandemics are each showcased in breathtaking detail in some of the most harrowing events on planetary record. Given all the chaos that has besieged our planet, it becomes soberingly clear by the book's end that we humans—or any life for that matter—are incredibly lucky to be here. In light of all that can go wrong and has gone wrong, it's remarkable there is any life left to comment on the tragedy and storied disarray. I commend Bryson for demonstrating how truly diminutive our time here on Earth is relative to the universe's imponderably vast history. Bryson should also be applauded for pointing out places where our inquiry has hit a brick wall or those areas that remain imperfectly understood. The fact that we have accumulated such vast storehouses of knowledge over the last few centuries does not mean there are no mysteries left to explore. Indeed, dozens of questions both big and small remain unanswered, and new discoveries have a tendency to open up several more. We can both be proud about what we have uncovered to date as well as humble about the many uncharted possibilities that surely await us. Fast and Loose with Science There are a few caveats, however, with respect to some of the finer details. In one place he describes particles with "spin" as actually rotating about an axis (they are not). This erroneous conception of elementary particles dates back to the 1920s, when George Uhlenbeck and Samuel Goudsmit interpreted the motion of electrons as self-rotation around their own axis. A few years later, Paul Dirac pointed out that electrons could not be spinning according to the rules of orbital angular momentum because the rate at which their surface would have to be spinning (to produce the magnitude of the magnetic moment) would have to exceed the speed of light, which would violate the special theory of relativity. In another place Bryson says that quantum entanglement is a violation of relativity (it is not). Relativity tells us that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and this applies even to things with zero mass, such as information or other electromagnetic radiation. Entanglement says that measuring a particle in one place can instantly affect a particle somewhere else. However, this effect is constrained by the cosmic speed limit. On p. 42 of his book What Is Relativity? , Jeffrey Bennett responds to this notion: "However, while laboratory experiments suggest that this instantaneous effect can really happen, current understanding of physics tells us that it cannot be used to transmit any useful information from one place to the other; indeed, if you were at the location of the first particle and wanted to confirm that the second had been affected, you'd need to receive a signal from its location, and that signal could not travel faster than light." Bryson also claims that the production of black holes within particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider could destroy the world, when in fact, these microscopic black holes would disintegrate in a fraction of a nanosecond thanks to Hawking radiation. On p. 154 of the same book, Bennett also debunks this largely media-driven fear: "Some physicists have indeed proposed scenarios in which such micro black holes could be produced in the Large Hadron Collider, but even if they are right, there's nothing to worry about. The reason is that while the LHC can generate particles from greater concentrations of energy than any other machine that humans have ever built, nature routinely makes such particles. Some of those particles must occasionally rain down on Earth, so if they were dangerous, we would have suffered the consequences long ago. In case you are wondering how a micro black hole could be "safe," the most likely answer has to do with a process called Hawking radiation...Hawking showed that the laws of quantum physics imply that black holes can gradually "evaporate" in the sense of having their masses decrease, even while nothing ever escapes from within their event horizons. The rate of evaporation depends on a black hole's mass, with lower-mass black holes evaporating much more rapidly. The result is that while the evaporation rate would be negligible for black holes with star-like masses or greater, micro black holes would evaporate in a fraction of a second, long before they could do any damage." He may have consulted with experts, but the manuscript could have benefited from additional fact-checking. That said, although the book was published in 2003, there is little that is out of date. The confirmed interbreeding between Neanderthals and Denisovans being one notable discovery of late that adds greater texture to the stories recounted here. Additionally, I feel there could have been a greater emphasis on climate change; Bryson chose to skirt over it whenever a related topic arose, perhaps intentionally. Closing Thoughts The content in ASHONE is something I think everyone should know and be exposed to, and it's hard to imagine the material presented with greater alacrity than it is here. The passion and sheer enthusiasm on display frequently approaches Sagan-esque proportions, in a style redolent of the signature series Cosmos, which is about the highest praise a work in this genre could hope to achieve. Though I found a few errors—and suspect the average grad student in one of a number of the subjects covered could find a few more—the book is nevertheless a praiseworthy stab at science writing for the layperson. Bryson set an ambitious task for himself and ultimately delivered a lively, accessible and mostly scientifically faithful, albeit cursory and swift, proem to the history of the universe as we know it today. “Even now as a species, we are almost preposterously vulnerable in the wild. Nearly every large animal you can care to name is stronger, faster and toothier than us. Faced with attack, modern humans have only two advantages. We have a good brain, with which we can devise strategies, and we have hands with which we can fling or brandish hurtful objects. We are the only creature that can harm at a distance. We can thus afford to be physically vulnerable.” (p. 447) Note: This review is republished from my official website.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Heather K (dentist in my spare time)

    *4.5 stars* Pretty brilliant, almost required reading. It took me over a month to listen, but the narrator is excellent and the content ranges from mildly engrossing to fascinating, depending on your areas of interest. I'd listen again and again.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Yomna hosny

    Something is very wrong with the world when this book is not required reading for high schoolers! If we'd had this back when I was in high school, who knows what I would've done with my life! It certainly would have made things a lot less dreary. It's just one of those books where you know, upon reading the very first page, that you're getting into something incredible ! I'm only 28 pages in and I'm already squirming in my seat with nerdy excitement. This won't be the last of Bryson's books that I Something is very wrong with the world when this book is not required reading for high schoolers! If we'd had this back when I was in high school, who knows what I would've done with my life! It certainly would have made things a lot less dreary. It's just one of those books where you know, upon reading the very first page, that you're getting into something incredible ! I'm only 28 pages in and I'm already squirming in my seat with nerdy excitement. This won't be the last of Bryson's books that I pick up, either.

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