A Short History of Nearly Everything

ISBN: 076790818X
ISBN 13: 9780767908184
By: Bill Bryson

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About this book

In Bryson's biggest book, he confronts his greatest challenge: to understand -- and, if possible, answer -- the oldest, biggest questions we have posed about the universe and ourselves. Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining.From the Hardcover edition.

Reader's Thoughts

F.R.

A sign that a book is really, really, really gripping you is when you find yourself talking to people about it. And by ‘talking to people about it’, I don’t just mean recommending that they read it, but actually spouting out things you’ve read in its pages, developing arguments from what you’ve learnt and generally just crow-barring whole tracts of knowledge into conversations which, left to their own devices, would have happily meandered elsewhere.Such a book is Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Everything’.For the last week or so I’ve been reading it I’ve felt a little like E.L.Wisty, talking in Peter Cook’s boring, nasal voice about this marvellous book I’ve read and how it contains all these interesting facts.This is a book which tries, and for the most part succeeds, in making very complex areas of science meaningful to a layman such as I. So we have the creation of the universe, the vastness of space, the dawn of life, the changing environments of our planet, the development of life, various extinctions and the complex evolution of man. It’s incredibly illuminating stuff, an array of complex theories broken down and put into reach of those of us who don’t have PHDs (although I’m only slightly more au fait with quantum physics than I was before I started reading that section – but then there are quantum physicists who freely admit they don’t properly understand it.) Bryson grabs the attention by turning it almost into a history lesson of discoveries , so we have thumbnail sketches of Darwin, Halley, Einstein and other great pioneers – many of whom I’d never heard of. That combined with Bryson’s eye for the outstandingly curious, then this ends up as constantly amusing and astounding read.Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to bother some passers-by, I’m in possession of some facts that they might find very interesting.

Ioana Johansson

This book has inspired in me an almost continuous sense of wonder and awe. I am not a science buff, I would have been enthusiastic were it not for the dry and antiquated way some of the subjects presented in the book were taught during my day. Bill Bryson is not actually trying to "teach" anything, more like presenting it all as a good story. One of questions, curiosities, tons of work and research, misunderstandings, arguments, meanness, almost always of some kind of genius and being human all around. He did manage though to make me understand, in the way of a lay person of course, what string theory is, how would it be were I to visit a cell, what quantum leap refers to and many more other things which were dwelling in the realm of mystery. And he did all this in a fun and engaging manner. I also loved all the information about the people who discovered most of these things. I guess that was the most entertaining part for me.This book sets out to give a glimpse into the how and why of things and I think it does a wonderful job of whetting ones appetite for more information. It is the kind of book which will probably inspire kids to want to know physics, to want to become astronomers or marine biologists.

Manny

A Short History of GoodreadsSurveys show that nearly 40% of all Americans believe the history of literature started in 2007, when Amazon sold the first Kindle; indeed, Amazon Fundamentalists hold it as an article of faith that Jeff Bezos actually wrote all the world's e-books over a period of six days. This is, of course, nonsense. It has been conclusively demonstrated that literature is far older than the Kindle; books already existed thousands of years ago, which were the direct ancestors of today's e-publications. For example, careful examination reveals that The Odyssey and The Gospel according to Saint Mark are primitive versions of Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters and Bared to You. Similar relationships have been shown to obtain for all modern books.Problems arise, however, from the fact that these archaic protobooks still exist today; indeed, some have adapted to the e-reader environment and begun to thrive there. It is entirely too easy for an unsuspecting internet shopper to purchase a copy of Pride and Prejudice, incorrectly believing that it is part of the Twilight series. From the standpoint of formal literary theory, it is admittedly incorrect to say that Pride and Prejudice is "worse" than Twilight. They are simply different; neither one is "worse" than the other, since they have developed in different environments. From a practical point of view, however, a person who buys a Jane Austen novel is almost certain to be disappointed. There are no vampires or werewolves; sex is barely even hinted at; most upsettingly of all, the book will be full of long sentences and difficult words. The combination of these factors can only lead to an intensely unpleasant reading experience, which may discourage the reader from making new Amazon purchases for days or even weeks afterwards. Particularly given the fragile state of the US economy, this is evidently not an acceptable state of affairs.People have always exchanged recommendations and warnings with their friends, but it became clear that a more systematic approach was needed. There had to be a place where book-consumers could post advice and help each other avoid these infuriating mistakes, so that everyone could be sure of reading nothing but up-to-the-minute YA erotic paranormal romances. Thus was born Goodreads.This work by Manny is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Dave Gaston

First off, this is a huge departure from Bryson's breezy, excellent travel logs. Secondly, this book should be read with some frequency. It is so densely packed with valuable insight, and sound bites of discovery that you could not possibly absorb it all with one pass. This is my second time reading it and I plan on doing it again next year. The organizational structure is a wonderful series of loosely connected cameos covering several essential and enlightened discoveries of man. As an added bonus, the book actually attempts to pay off on the cheeky title. Bryson's light, common man’s writing style “scats” from universal, to global, to biological with a loosely constructed cause and effect outline. His books (thankfully, including this one) are all peppered with wit and charm and a heavy snatch of sarcasm. Further and maybe more importantly, he has the good sense to skip over heavy deep dives into mathematics, theories or anything at an ivy graduate level. I love this guy. I feel like he wrote this book for me and I hope he writes 10 more just like this. 10/4/07I abhor cliches, but in honor of Bryson's incredible achievement I'll indulge in one. I might very well choose "A Short History" as the ONE book I'd choose over all others ...if ...I was stranded on the proverbial desert island. Bryson has created a true encyclopedic kaleidoscope. Imagine the fun he had writing this book as he allowed his mind to logically wormhole through and across time!

Riku Sayuj

Stunning in scope and execution. Loved every page of it, even geology was made exciting. That really is some feat.

Grumpus

This is based upon the audio download from [www.audible.com].Narrated by: Richard MatthewsDon’t let the 3 star rating mislead you. This was an awesome book and I’m certain others will think more highly of it. It is a great introduction for those not into the biography of the universe and the history of science. However, if you watch the Science Channel, History Channel, PBS, etc., then you’ll already know much of what’s covered. It is the true "Once upon a time. . ." story. As someone with an interest in all things science, I was still impressed with the witty style of the writing and use of analogies to drive home various points. It’s a very entertaining listen and the narrator does an excellent job in reading it.The most salient point of the book for me was the human paradox of how we are changing the world through our presence but at the same time how precarious our existence on it is. A favorite quote from the book for me is, “All life is one, is one of the most profound true statements there is.” Think about this, for you to get where you are today, all of your ancestors had to survive long enough to find someone willing to pair up with. Not an easy task surviving disease, war, or just being eaten. One break in the chain, one moment sooner or later in the conception process anywhere along the line and you don’t exist. It’s a miracle you’re here. And yet you are despite the odds against it. Just when you think you were meant to be here, you have to remember we could all be wiped out by a meteor strike at any moment.Humans have been apart of only 0.0001% of Earth’s history and yet we have been chosen. As the author states, “We are the least there is. We may be all there is. We are the living universe’s supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously.” One last quote to end with comes from Edward O. Wilson in his book, The Diversity of Live, “One planet, one experiment."

Vasia

This should be mandatory reading. Bill Bryson not only makes science cool effortlessly and with style but he also gives away some of the quirks of the great minds that will definitely make you laugh.

David

I am a scientist, and I found much of this book quite fascinating. The book certainly isn't comprehensive in any sense of the word--in fact it seems to roam in a semi-random sort of way; but the author's sense of humor and attention to colorful historical facts kept my interest from beginning to end.One of the themes of this book, is that when someone comes up with with a new discovery, there are three stages before it is accepted:1) Nobody believes it. 2) Nobody thinks it is important3) It gets attributed to the wrong person.These three stages come up again and again in this book. I guess it can be attributed to the fact that most scientists--and most people--are, at heart, conservative in nature.

Marian

You're probably looking at this book thinking it is so far off my normal path. And it is. I'm chalking it up to penance for doing so poorly in every science class I ever attended. I truly gave this book an honest effort, but at 2/3 of the way through I cannot continue. In all honesty, the book probably deserves a 5-star rating given there is no fault to be found with either the research or the writing. The problem here is this reader has a 1-star IQ. So I split the difference with 3 stars.Bryson does have the ability to take mind numbing topics such as hiking the Appalachian Trail and, with this book, all things science yet keep your interest with snarky insights and funny details. So, yes, there were parts that peaked my interest such as the lunatic scientist who thought he could distill human urine into gold, instead stumbling onto the element phosphorus. The part about all the bickering paleontologists was especially interesting. And its always nice to be reminded that at any given moment we're carrying around about a trillion bacteria on our person. But as for the rest, I'll save it for those of you who do not feel you want to shove a hot poker in your eye while learning about the earth's crust. I like my eyes. So I quit.

Jamie

Good grief if I had even one textbook half this enthralling in high school, who knows what kind of impassioned -ologist I would have grown up to be. I hereby petition Bryson to re-write all curriculum on behalf of the history of the world.I would run across things half-remembered from midterms and study guides and think, "You mean this is what they were talking about? You have got to be kidding me." It's never condescending, always a joy.In fact, what I loved most is the acute, childlike sense of wonder seeping through the pages. How fantastic little we know about the world in which we live. All the great scientific leaps fallen through the cracks, all the billions of leaps that will never be made, every scientist who with an amiable grin shrugs to say, "I don't know. We don't know. Who has any idea?" The world is a magically baffling, enchanting place, and after nearly everything there is infinitesimally more.

Martine

I know virtually nothing about science, so it was with some trepidation that I began reading this introduction to life, the universe and everything, which deals with questions such as "How did the universe originate?" and "How much does planet Earth weigh?". I ended up enjoying the hell out of it, as Bryson's writing style is so witty and accessible that it frequently made me laugh out loud. He has a knack of telling you not just about major developments in the history of the universe, but also about the scientists who made the discoveries he describes, who were frequently larger-than-life characters leading very tragic lives. To be honest, I enjoyed the asides on the scientists more than the science itself, but that didn't stop me enjoying reading all the bits about the Big Bang, early life forms and quarks. It also gave me an understanding of how random and unpredictable life really is, and how little mutations can lead to massive changes. Impressive stuff.

Emilian Kasemi

If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here-- and by "we" I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp.We have arrived at this position of eminence in a stunningly short time. Behaviorally modern human beings-- that is, people who can speak and make art and organize complex activities-- have existed for only about 0.0001 percent of Earth's history. But surviving for even that little while has required a nearly endless string of good fortune.We really are at the beginning of it all. The trick, of course, is to make sure we never find the end. And that, almost certainly, will require a good deal more than lucky breaks.Bill Bryson.

Manny

It's easy to nitpick A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson, by his own cheerful admission anything but a scientist, makes a fair number of mistakes. He says that all living creatures contain hox genes; he omits Alexander Friedmann and George Gamow from his description of how the Big Bang theory was developed; when talking about Darwin and Paley, he doesn't seem to be aware that Natural Theology was one of Darwin's favorite books and had a huge influence on him. Those are just a few of the glitches I happened to notice. I'm sure a real expert would have spotted many more.But so what? The author is incredibly entertaining, and I came across dozens of great stories from the history of science. He has done a fantastic job of tracking down details that you won't find in the other books! Continuing with Darwin, everyone's heard about the evolution debate between T.H. Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce; this was the dozenth time I'd seen Huxley's contemptuous reply to Wilberforce's question about whether he claimed descent from a monkey though his grandmother or his grandfather. But I'd never before read that Lady Brewster fainted, or that one of Darwin's Beagle colleagues wandered through the crowd, holding a Bible aloft and shouting "the Book, the Book!" Similarly, everyone tells you that Newton only published the Principia after Halley persuaded him to do it. But I hadn't heard that Newton intentionally made it as difficult as possible to read because he didn't want amateurs bothering him, or that Halley's reward was to be told by the Royal Society that since they could no longer afford to pay his salary in pounds sterling, he would instead be given remaindered copies of The History of Fishes. And there were numerous other stories I'd never seen at all. If you don't find plenty here to amuse and instruct, you're either encyclopedically well-read in all branches of science or you have no interest in it whatsoever.

Dayanand Prabhu

I finished this book in little over a week. 570 Pages of pure unadulterated trivia. One might argue that this isn't a science book. You see Bill is no scientist, but he is a storyteller, a very good one at that. So in this book Bryson has with all his might presented us a story of how science came to be. A story of how over the centuries our knowledge of the world and beyond has evolved and how different personalities have contributed and fought for it. That itself makes it a very important book. This book made me realize that we know so much yet are so far away from knowing it all.

Bookshop

Bill Bryson is one of my favourite travel writers. He is immensely funny. He's an American married to a Brit and lives in the UK now. That has an influcence is his writing: he has taken up the dry, self-depreciating humour of the Brits while, at times, remained blunt and straight-forward, as Americans do.This is his first attempt to write something other than travelling. The book is about science, general science for general public. It covers everything from astronomy to zoology, from the universe to whatever -the-name-is -for-things-smaller-than-atoms in its 573 pages. Notes, bibliography, and index occupy another 113 pages. Thus, as you can imagine, it is very brief and general for each of the topics.But the book is suprisingly well arranged and deeply reseached. That's the amazing thing about this book: it is brief but not shallow; it explains without going into unnecessary techinal details; and it flows smoothly from one branch to another. He must have understood the subjects very well in order to be able to do that and thus, this book is invaluable in term of education.In term of readibility, he peppers the content with human-interest stories. For example, little-known facts about scientists (do you know that Einstein worked as the Swiss patent clerk for seven years and that he was denied a promotion, a job as a university lecturer and then, as a high-school teacher?), simple explanation (" On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with the Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over 300 meters away and Pluto would be two and a half kilometers distant ..."), etc.I cannot recommend this book enough: both for its educative content and for its fine writing style. This is definetely the book to enjoy and to keep.

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