Bryson, Bill: Short History of Nearly Everything, A

I read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything at bedtime during the time when I was still trying to convince myself that I was going to re-read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Like the rest of his books, it works very well for bedtime reading. Unlike the rest of his books, however, it’s neither about travel nor language. Instead, it’s an attempt to provide, well, a short history of nearly everything. Bryson says in the introduction,

 . . . So I grew up convinced that science was supremely dull, but suspecting that it needn’t be, and not really thinking about it at all if I could help it. This, too, became my position for a long time.

Then much later—about four or five years ago—I was on a long flight across the Pacific, staring idly out the window at moonlit ocean, when it occurred to me with a certain uncomfortable feeling that I didn’t know the first thing about the only planet I was ever going to live on. I had no idea, for example, why the oceans were salty but the Great Lakes weren’t. Didn’t have the faintest idea. I didn’t know if the oceans were growing more salty with time or less, and whether ocean salinity levels was something I should be concerned about or not. (I am very pleased to tell you that until the late 1970s scientists didn’t know the answers to these questions either. They just didn’t talk about it very audibly.)

And ocean salinity of course represented only the merest sliver of my ignorance. . . . I became gripped by a quiet, unwonted urge to know a little about these matters and to understand how people figured them out. That to me remained the greatest of all amazements—how scientists work things out. . . .

So I decided that I would devote a portion of my life—three years, as it now turns out—to reading books and journals and finding saintly, patient experts prepared to answer a lot of outstandingly dumb questions. The ideas was to see if it isn’t possible to understand and appreciate—marvel at, enjoy even—the wonder and accomplishments of science at a level that isn’t too technical or demanding, but isn’t entirely superficial either.

As you might guess from that introduction, the resulting book is a broad, layperson’s view of physics, astronomy, biology, geology, meteorology, chemistry, and probably a few I missed, told largely with a focus on the historical process of discovery.

There are two principal strengths of this book. The first is Bryson’s colorful descriptions of the people and events behind scientific progress. I must admit that I have a terrible memory for names, meaning that most of the anecdotes washed right over me, in one eye and out the other without sticking—but in an enjoyable manner, to be sure. However, one lesson did stick: no matter who gets credit for a discovery, someone else found it or thought of it first. Period. The passage Chad quotes at his booklog is just one good example of this apparently iron-clad rule.

The book also is also really good at sense-of-wonder, in the best SFnal sense. Bryson comes to science new, and he does an excellent job at conveying how cool all this is—on one hand, our knowledge of how things work, and the fact that they work at all, let alone work well enough that we can sit here and write and read books about it; and on the other, how much we still have left to learn.

There are a few mis-steps here and there; for instance, the book passes on the persistent “old glass flows” myth. But in the areas that I’m familiar with, the book generally seems to do a creditable job. And in the areas I wasn’t familiar with, there’s some really striking information; I found the section about Yellowstone particularly interesting. Anyway, I really enjoyed this book and recommend it.

(If you want more excerpts, part of the first chapter is at the New York Times’ website.)

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