Book Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

Book cover for Bryson's book has a solid blue background and a picture of the Earth from space with a large yellow asterisk next to it. Below that is the Author's name in large letters. At the bottom of the cover, we find the yellow asterisk and the book title in much smaller print.

A Short History of Nearly Everything
By Bill Bryson
Random House/Broadway Books, 2003

In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson says that his goal is to chronicle “…how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since.”

Bryson’s simple description of his ambition to condense geology, chemistry, paleontology, astronomy, and particle physics into something readable and comprehensible for non-scientists reminds me of Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, which I last saw ten months ago disappearing into my twelve-year-old’s room. In Thing Explainer, Munroe uses the thousand (“ten hundred”) most common words to provide simple explanations for how complicated things like tectonic plates (“the big flat rocks we live on”), the International Space Station (“the shared space house”), and washer/dryers (“boxes that make clothes smell better”) work.

Bryson doesn’t limit himself to the ten hundred most common words, but he effectively uses humor and a companionable curiosity to entice readers to follow along on his scientific journey.

What I thought about it

It’s tempting to describe Bryson’s book as a survey of the history of science from the Big Bang to 2003, but that’s not quite right. Bryson talks about the Big Bang and scientists’ evolving understanding of it, of course, but he’s really exploring the history of science from the time humans started documenting our questions about various aspects of the universe around us. In some areas, that means starting the survey of scientific ideas with Aristotle. In other areas, Bryson might start with Darwin or Einstein.

No matter where you start, surveying the various scientific disciplines from their inception until 2003 is a massive undertaking. But it doesn’t feel that way while you are actually reading it. When I was trying to explain to my daughter why Bryson’s book was so easy to read despite its size and subject, I told her that A Short History of Nearly Everything feels very much like something Douglas Adams might have written, if only he’d written books about the history of science instead of science fiction.

For me, it was also fascinating not only to catch a glimpse of where scientific thought was back in 2003, but also to learn how scientists got there. And while it was disconcerting to hear Pluto spoken of as an actual planet, and to have Bryson look forward to learning the results of NASA expeditions planned for 2006, it was also fun to place the smattering of lay science headlines I’ve read recently in context of the discoveries that led to them.

Who might enjoy this book

  • People looking for an entertaining and accessible refresher course on the major scientific developments before 2003. 
  • My 12-year-old. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky and she’ll swap me Thing Explainer for it.

And now it’s your turn. What are you reading this week?

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