A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (Broadway Books, 2003)
When I first heard of this book, I imagined it should probably reside on my humor shelf between Bill Cuppy’s The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody and the slender Dr. Fegg’s Encyclopedia of All World Knowledge, by Palin and Jones of the Monty Python team. After all, Bill Bryson is the author of those jocular travel books in which the author’s chirpy, irreverent self is ever-present, and the ambitious title of his latest offering would surely require a similarly satiric vein. But Mr. B. is serious. After a sudden realization that he didn’t have the faintest understanding about the planet Earth and its history, he spent three years researching what scientists know about it, and how they derive that knowledge. The result is this illuminating and highly engaging best-seller.
Bryson casts his net wide – from genetics to geology, from physics to paleontology, from electromagnetism to evolution. His is a story of scientific discoverers (mainly male), the eccentrics and the family-men, the lordly and the lonely, many who faced ridicule, some who died before their contributions were recognized, others who clung on to the precepts that defined them even when contradictory evidence appeared. It is a tale of theories, of how painstaking work and remarkable insights allowed hypotheses to be developed, which in turn raised new questions. Even today, scientists, as they delve more deeply into the microcosm and the macrocosm, are in disagreement over many issues, such as the how the universe began, or the lineage of the humanoid fossil record. The author recounts all this in a refreshing manner, using analogies and comparisons shrewdly – especially when it comes to grappling with unimaginable dimensions, large or small. Next time you ask yourself why your golf opponent is taking an eternity to line up a putt, remind yourself that, if the estimated age of the universe were compressed into three days, the seven thousand years of man’s recorded history would start a fraction of a second before midnight on the third day.
Occasionally, Bryson’s breezy folksiness jars. He is irritatingly vague when using “you” and “us”, as if the reader were in the next sentence identifiable with the primeval creatures that first moved from ocean to land, and such habits lead to other illogical constructions. His math is once or twice unsound, and his authorities are sometimes unlisted. Like many other writers, he presents an erroneous role of purpose in evolution, and confuses the fortunes of the individual animal with the development of the species. What is more, when the going gets really tough, he backs off from trying to explain concepts, either leaving a trail of technical terms (which he probably doesn’t understand himself), or merely suggesting that his readers should return to night-school. So those of you still struggling with the notion of eleven dimensions, or having sleepless nights trying to imagine exactly what reactions occurred in the universe’s first ten-millionth of a second, this volume will not provide the solace you are looking for.
One of the observations that Bryson makes is how wide-scale the popular interest in new scientific theories was in previous eras: for example, some of Darwin’s lesser-known works sold thousands on the first day. The fact that this History has been on the New York Times best-seller list for months is encouraging, as it suggests that there is a market for popular, but not distorted, scientific books. Today, the hungry amateur can gain a solid understanding of the state of scientific knowledge from such media as the Discovery channel, the New York Times Science Section, Nature, and so forth, but an integrative account of disparate disciplines has been lacking. While not as solemn as The Science of Life (by the Wellses and Huxley), Bryson’s contribution expertly fills the gap, fully deserves its broad success, and will sit beside that 1930s classic on my serious shelf.