A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 544 pages (including 65 pages of notes, bibliography and index), 2003

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: In a Sunburned Country, the first book of Bryson’s I read, was full of fun science-related facts, and I loved his sense of humour. I’ve always liked science, so long as it doesn’t involve math calculations.

Synopsis: Bryson takes a detour from his usual travel literature writing and walks us through the world of science. Everything, in this case, includes biology, geology, chemistry, physics, and several other fields of science. Unlike a typical science book, however, Bryson is as interested in how we got to know what we know as much as what it is we actually know, resulting in gleefully quirky stories and the kinds of offbeat tidbits Bryson is renowned for.

Why you should read this book: Any author who can update a reader in current science theories, making it fun and understandable, deserves kudos. Bryson makes the reader understand how lucky we are to even exist in our vast (and almost entirely empty) universe, putting a lot of effort into making oft-skimmed-over scientific phrases have meaning to the non-scientist. It is also made deliciously clear by Bryson that our knowledge of the universe is very small, and that almost anything could happen at any time, leaving us with the same fate as the dinosaurs.

Why you should avoid this book: While Bryson writes in a highly comprehensible manner, those lacking a science background may find themselves wishing for pictures to illustrate some of the harder-to-grasp concepts; however, Bryson uses no visual aides in the book, relying instead on his own eloquent words.

Opening paragraph:

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 intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence.

Fabulous quotes:

We don’t know precisely the circumstances, or even year, attending the last moments of the last dodo, so we don’t know which arrived first, a world that contained a Principia or one that had no dodos, but we do know that they happened at more or less the same time. You would be hard pressed, I would submit, to find a better pairing of occurrences to illustrate the divine and felonious nature of the human being – a species of organism that is capable of unpicking the deepest secrets of the heavens while at the same time pounding into extinction, for no purpose at all, a creature that never did us any harm and wasn’t even remotely capable of understanding what we were doing to it as we did it. Indeed, dodos were so spectacularly short on insight, it is reported, that if you wished to find all the dodos in a vicinity you had only to catch one and set it squawking, and all the others would waddle along to see what was up.

It starts with a single cell. The first cell splits to become two and the two become four and so on. After just forty-seven doublings, you have ten thousand trillion (10,000,000000,000,000) cells in your body and are ready to spring forth a human being. And every one of those cells knows exactly what to do to preserve and nurture you from the moment of conception to your last breath.
You have no secrets from your cells. They know far more about you than you do. Each one carries a copy of the complete genetic code – the instruction manual for your body – so it knows not only how to do its job but every other job in the body. Never in your life will you have to remind a cell to keep an eye on its adenosine triphosphate levels or to find a place for the extra squirt of folic acid that’s just unexpectedly turned up. It will do that for you, and millions more things besides.

Also recommended: E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis.

Also by this author: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir; In a Sunburned Country; A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail; Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe; The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way; Notes From a Small Island; Bill Bryson’s African Diary; Notes From a Big Country; Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America; I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away; Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words.

Author’s website: randomhouse.com

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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