Book Reviews Short History of nearly everything by Bill Bryson

I have been a fan of Bryson’s travel writing for years, his wit and observational skills make his books interesting and funny. I expected more of the same from him in this book, and in some respects I got it, but generally I found it a harder read than most of his other stuff. The copy I have is a hardback with 423 pages plus almost a further hundred pages dedicated to notes, bibliography and the index. This made it a bit to bulky to take on journeys thus I really only read the book at home and don’t often find the time to sit and read at home, making for a disjointed reading experience. This is combined with the fact that the subject matter does not always make for easy reading and is somewhat heavier (and not just physically) than his more lightweight travel books. Bryson is an inquisitive person and goes into a great deal of detail in this book, but his observational skills have not been dulled and he is able to discover the absurd and ridiculous where it is apparent (which is quite often). The book is divided into five parts which are broken down as follows:

I. Lost in the Cosmos

There is no place to start like the beginning, thus Bryson does just that and begins his book with the creation of the Universe. The sheer number of figures with many zeros in them is a bit daunting, but Bryson does try and explain what these figures mean. The book was first published in 2003, and the solar system chapter deals with the currently topical issue of Pluto and its dubious planetary status but does not mention the new kids on the block Ceres, Xena and Charon. However this chapter (as indeed are all the chapters) is informative without being patronising, so even scanning it briefly again for the purpose of this review, I still feel I am learning something. This section also covers the stars and some of the unique personalities that have been involved in astronomy over the last few hundred years.

II. The Size of the Earth

In his look at the planet Earth, Bryson manages to find us some more eccentrics and writes of their theories on the size (and shape) of our planet. There is an emphasis on geology in this section also, a topic I have never really enjoyed, but Bryson made it as interesting as he could. He also talks about early dinosaur discoveries and how they assisted (or were ignored) by the scientists trying to gauge the age of Earth. Chemistry (another school subject I never got to grips with) is also discussed and quite frankly, in spite of reading some paragraphs about three times, mostly went over my head.

III. A New Age Dawns

Come the end on the nineteenth century physicists thought they had pretty much discovered everything. Bryson is, of course, delighted to prove them wrong. He writes of turn of the century physicists, especially Albert Einstein and how he managed to buck the trend in making new discoveries such as gravity and the theory of relativity, which initially confused and baffled his contemporaries. Elsewhere in this section Bryson also discusses atoms, lead and CFCs and particle physics. I can assure you that this is not as daunting as it may sound. I understood most of it. The last chapter in this section deals with the movement of the Earth and examines some of the theories why the land masses are shaped as such, and why some animal fossils appear on opposite sides of an ocean. I found this one of the more interesting chapters and led perfectly into the next section.

IV. Dangerous Planet

This is essentially a geology section, and although I have very little prior geological knowledge it kept my interest and I felt I learnt more about the impact of asteroids and subsequent volcanoes and tsunami and the effects they had on the geology of our planet. He also writes about what is known of the Earth’s core and an interesting chapter on volcanoes and earthquakes.

V. Life Itself

This was probably my favourite section and discusses how humans (and other species) manage to survive on Earth and how we evolved. Bryson doesn’t just start with man, but with early ocean species, and many species that died out before we arrived (not to mention the numerous species who have disappeared around the time of man arriving in their part of the world and mucking up the eco-system). There is a slightly complicated chapter dealing with cells, one on the ice age and the penultimate chapter entitled The Curious Bi-Ped which debunks various myths and theories that attempt to explain how we got to where we are today. The last chapter in appropriately entitled Goodbye and deals with some of the species that we have lost and how we managed to, quite successfully, lose them in spite of our best intentions. It is quite a sad chapter when you realise how man mistreats his fellow planetary residents and even fails to record accurately what some creatures (such as the dodo) were like.

You don’t really need to have a particular interest or any form of background knowledge on the topics discussed. Although I am not particularly scientifically minded I found with a little bit of perseverance (and re-reading of a few paragraphs) I got to grips with most topics. Not all chapters and sections will appeal equally, the diversity of the book means that there will soon be something else along than can grab your attention, although some threads are interlinked with other parts of the book, so you cannot skip too much.

I would recommend this book for people who are interested in learning a taster about subjects that don’t know a great deal about, as an alternative to heavier, more intellectual texts. This is very much a scientific (and historical) book for the layman.