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

Marvin

This is without a doubt the finest science book I have ever read. Nobody can doubt Bryson for his audacity, attempting to describe what we know, and how we know it, of nearly every aspect of our universe. How did life begin, How did the universe begin, what are we made of, are only a few of the question he attempts to answer in a way that the non-science types can understand. And he does this with an abundance of entertaining stories making this one of those books you can put down until the last page. This should be the required text book for basic science classes.

Riku Sayuj

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

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.

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!

Paul

Okay, so here's my Bill Bryson story. I was in The Gladstone, a public house not too far from this very keyboard, with my friend Yvonne, who will remain nameless. We had been imbibing more than freely. A guy approached our table and asked me in a sly surreptitious manner if I was him. Him who? Was I Bill Bryson? Now it is true that I bear a very slight resemblancebut you could also say that about Bjorn from Abbaand a zillion other white guys with beards and gently rounded fizzogs. Anyway, without missing a beat I said yes, I was him. So the guy immediately asked me if I'd sign two of his books, and before I could say "Come on mate, I'm not actually American, can't you bleedin well tell?" he had zapped out of the pub. Only to zap straight back with two hardbacks of Bill's deathless works. What could I do? He opened them up reverentially and told me one would be for him and one for his mother. Friends, I signed them - "Best wishes, your friend Bill Bryson". He was so grateful, so very very pleased. We drank up and got the hell out of there. I look back on this disgraceful incident and shudder. That's the last time I'm impersonating a famous author.Short note on the book in question:There was no way our Bill could write a gently humorous book about the history of all of science without sounding like a fairly smirky know-it-all, so that's what he does sound like, which can be just a trifle wearing. LOTS of good info in here, but it's like being forced to live on Indian takeaways and nothing else, great for a while and then GET ME A SANDWICH! Or like being stuck on a long airplane ride with a very garrolous and opinionated fellow who thinks he is the very model of the modern travelling companion, regaling you with insightful and humourous anecdotes by the bucketful while you're wondering if it would be so bad if you faked a heart attack and you could whisper to the flight attendant "I'm okay really but GET ME AWAY FROM THIS GUY!"

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.

Foster

This is one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read. There, I said itBryson's book combines the best qualities of science writers like Attenborough, Diamond, Durrell, and Wilson; presenting the information with the wit he is most known for. It is an amazing achievement to condense the entire base of human scientific knowledge into 478 pages, but Bryson has done it. I completely agree with Tim Flannery, who writes on the jacket that "all schools would be better places if it were the core science reader on the curriculum." I certainly would have gained much if I had read it when I was 15.This is one of the few books that has truly challenged what I had previously held to be conventional wisdom (at least in my own mind). Two main changes have come about: 1. I had always been jealous of the "true" zoologists, such as Audubon and Darwin, who were around when the world was as yet unexplored, and discovering a species was as simple as being the first to walk into a patch of forest. I left science because the idea of being tied to a sterile lab held no interest for me. However, after reading Bryson's vignettes of early scientific/zoological exploration (much of which was both comic and tragic), I realize that those days weren't quite as idyllic as I had imagined. 2. Bryson does a "good" job of scaring the hell out of you by showing just how precarious our daily existence really is. I probably shouldn't say this, but it puts such problems as global climate change into context when you read how an eruption of the supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park would wipe out most of the life on earth in a painfully slow manner; especially when Bryson describes how this eruption is overdue by 30, 000 years by historical average.Combined with those two new impressions, I am left with the following conclusions, and a slightly rearranged outlook on life.First off, it is clear that science benefits from a large degree of serendipity. We as a species/civilization have been lucky to have some truly great minds working on deciphering the way our world works. Some of these are household names [Newton, Halley, Einstein], some are not [Henry Cavendish, Rosalind Franklin]. However, as with everything that us humans put our hands on, this endeavor wasn't perfect. Egregious mistakes, pathological lying, childlike rivalries and tantrums - they all occurred. On balance, whether they helped or hurt the effort isn't clear. But what is clear is that our present level of understanding was by no means assured.Secondly, the fact that life is so tenuous makes one a little more philosophical. Since I've finished the chapter about Yellowstone and similar catastrophic threats, I find myself asking "what if today is the day?" It can be rough when you get on the bus at the end of a particularly annoying workday, when the disagreements were petty and you didn't get much done, and think "is that what I did on the last day of my life?"Thankfully, that attitude only lasted for a short while, until I was able to reframe it in a more productive way. Now I tell myself not to worry about big problems that might happen in the future, because I know that we will be hit by a meteor, we will experience a supervolcano eruption. It's best to just enjoy every day, doing what you really know to be what it is that you want to do. Does that mean that I won't recycle anymore, that I will leave the tap running while I brush my teeth? No! Because doing things to reduce my impact makes me feel good, that I'm thinking about society's needs - not just my own. It's what I want to do.So, in an incredible way (that even Bill Bryson probably didn't predict) this book can really change your life.

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.

Sandy Tjan

What I learned from this book (in no particular order)1. Phosphor was accidentally discovered when a scientist tried to turn human urine into gold. The similarity in color seemed to have been a factor in his conviction that this was possible. Like, duh. I’m no scientist, but shouldn’t it be obvious enough?2. “In the early 1800s there arose in England a fashion for inhaling nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, after it was discovered that its use ‘ was attended by a highly pleasurable thrilling’. For the next half- century it would be the drug of choice for young people.” How groovy is that? 3. If you are an average-sized adult, you contain within you enough potential energy to explode with the force of THIRTY very large hydrogen bombs. Assuming, that is, that you KNOW how to actually do this and REALLY want to make a point. Talk about a monstrous temper tantrum.4. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that some of our atoms probably belonged to Shakespeare, Genghis Khan or any other historical figure. But no, you are NOT Elvis or Marilyn Monroe; it takes quite a while for their atoms to get recycled.5. When you sit in a chair, you are not actually sitting there, but levitating above it at the height of a hundredth millions of a centimeter. Throw away those yoga mats, your ARE already levitating without knowing it.6. The atomic particles that we now know as Quarks were almost named Partons, after you know who. The image of Ms. Parton with her, uh, cosmic mammaries bouncing around the atomic nuclei is VERY unsettling.Thankfully, that scientist guy changed his mind.7. The indigestible parts of a giant squid, in particular their beaks, accumulate in sperm whales’ stomachs into ambergris, which is used as a fixative in perfumes. The next time you spray on Chanel No. 5, you’re dowsing yourself in the distillate of unseen sea monsters. * Note to self: must throw away sea monster perfume collection*8. The ‘maidenhair’ in maidenhair moss does NOT refer to the hair on the maiden’s head.BUT SERIOUSLY,this is a fascinating, accessible book on the history of the natural sciences, covering topics as diverse as cosmology, quantum physics, paleontology, chemistry and other subjects that have bedeviled a science dolt like me through high school and beyond. Yes, it’s true, I failed BOTH chemistry and physics in high school. I can't judge how accurate Mr. Bryson represents the sciences in this book, but it surely beats being bogged down in A Brief History of Time and their ilk.

Yomna hosny

Something is very wrong with the world when this book is not required reading for high schoolers!If we'd had this back when I was in high school, who knows what I would've done with my life! It certainly would have made things a lot less dreary. It's just one of those books where you know, upon reading the very first page, that you're getting into something incredible !I'm only 28 pages in and I'm already squirming in my seat with nerdy excitement. This won't be the last of Bryson's books that I pick up, either.

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.

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.

Mrs Sarah

Not everyone is a science geek. Bill knows that.I am a science geek. Not that I took a lot of science courses, but it's a source of fascination for me. There was a lot of stuff I already knew -- if you've read A Brief History of Time the first two chapters are a wash -- but there was also a lot of stuff I didn't. It is miraculously accessible and funny, like all of Bryson's work.This is a textbook on its face, but at its heart is the diary of a grown man coming home every evening for a year with the words "Guess what I learned today" sparkling on his lips. It's fun to get excited about dinosaurs and asteroids and sub-atomic physics.My favorite bit, though, it less cheerfully indulgent. In every chapter he peels up a little piece of unpleasantness about our world. How we've poisoned ourselves with lead for four generations with the American government barely batting a lash. How naked we are in the path of an asteroid belt, and how microscopic is our knowledge of them. More compelling -- how every century has had its known truths about the nature of the universe, and how frequently they're wrong.This is my fourth Bryson book, after A Walk in the Woods, In a Sunburnt Country, and I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away. He's originally from Iowa, worked in England for most of his adult life, and now lives in Hanover, New Hampshire where I once played D&D every Sunday for three months.

Misha

ბილ ბრაისონის "ყველაფრის მოკლე ისტორია" საინტერესო წიგნია ყველა სახის ცნობისმოყვარე მკითხველისთვის, რომელიც non fiction-ს კითხულობს და ზოგადად აინტერესებს საიდან მოვედით, სად ვხცოვრობთ, როგორ აღმოაჩინეს ახირებულმა მეცნიერებმა რა არის დედამიწის გულში, როგორ ანთია მზე და ა.შ.ავტორისთვის რომელიც არათუ მეცნიერი და მკვლევარი არაა, არამედ რომელმაც წიგნის დაწერამდე თითქმის არაფერი იცოდა მეცნიერების შესახებ,ასეთი წიგნი ნამდვილად შესანიშნავია.მან არ იცოდა რა არის პროტონი,რატომაა ჩრდილოეთ ამერიკის დიდი ტბები მტკნარი ვერ არჩევდა კვარკსა და კვაზარს ერთმანეთისგან და ა.შ. მწერალს, რომელიც მოგზაურობებზე წერს ტრანსოკეანური ფრენისას ზემოთ აღნიშნული კითხვები დაებადა და გადაწყვიტა ჩვენ პლანეტაზე უფრო მეტი გაეგო ვიდრე აქამდე იცოდა. ასე დაიბადა ამ წიგნის იდეა. როგორც წიგნიდან ჩანს ამისთვის ის არა მარტო კითხულობს, არამედ ინტერვიუს იღებს მეცნიერებისგან, დადის საბუნებისმეტყველო მუზეუმებში და ა.შ. რაც რეზულტატში აძლევს არაპროფესინალის კვალობაზე საკმაოდ კარგ წიგნს. სამყაროს ისტორიის მოკლე ჩანახატს. ეს არის ისტორია დიდი აფეთქბიდან, ჰომო საპიენსის განვითარებამდე. ისტორია იმის შესახებ თუ როგორ მივიდნენ ადამიანები აღმოჩენებამდე რომელიც დღეს ჩვენი ცოდნის მნიშვნელოვანი ნაწილია. როგორ აწონეს დედამიწა, როგორ გაიგეს მისი ასაკი. როგორ გაიგეს მანძილი მზესა და დედამიწას შორის. როგორ ჩაწვდნენ მიზიდულობის ძალას. ციური სხეულების მოძრაობის მიზეზს, როგორ გაიგეს ჩვენი წარმოშობა, როგორ აღმოაჩინეს ატომი, პროტონი, ელექტრონი. გარდა იმისა რომ ეს თემები ჩემი აზრით ძალიან საინტერესოა. წიგნის მნიშვნელოვანი ღირსება ისაა რომ ძალიან კარგადაა დაწერილი. დინამიურობასთან ერთად ძალიან ადვილად გასაგები და საინტერესოა თხრობა. 540 გვერდის ერთბაშად წაკითხვას დიდი დრო რომ არ ჭირდებოდეს. შეიძლება ისე წაიკითხო რომ არ დაიღალო, არ მოგბეზრდეს. აღსანიშნავია ისიც რომ წიგნში ცოტაა მეცნიერული შეცდომები. რაც არაპროფესიონალისთვის ტრიუმფია.ამ ყველაფრის ფონზე საკვირველი არაა რომ წიგნმა დიდი ყურადღება და ძირითადად დადებითი "რევიუები" დაიმსახურა. მცირე შეცდომები და არასაკმარისი ხაზსგასმა მნიშვნელოვან სახკითხებზე ნამდვილად საპატიებელია. თუმცა ერთ-ერთ რევიუში ჩემი ყურადღება მიიქცია ძალზედ ნეგატიურად განწყობილი მკითხველის შენიშვნებმა, რომლის გასწორებაც განვიზრახე: "გრავიტაცია, რომ სულ ცოტა მეტად ძლიერი ყოფილიყო, სამყარო ალბათ მცირე ხანში ისე შეანელებდა გაფართოებას რომ შეიკუმშებოდა" ამბობს ბრაისონი. მკითხველის აზრით აქ შეცდომაა, გრავიტაცია კი არა ბნელი ენერგია. გრავიტაციას არაფერი ესაქმება სივრცე დროის გაფართეობასთან!როგორ არ ესაქმება! ბნელი ენერგიაც ბევრი მეცნიერის აზრით, გრავიტაციის უცნაური სახეა, განმზიდავი გრავიტაცია. თუ სივრცე დრო გაჯერებულია ერთგვაროვანი ენერგიით, რისი კანდიდატიც ბნელი ენერგიაა, მაშინ ამ ენერგიას განზიდვის ეფექტი ექნება. ასეც რომ არ იყოს კლასიკური დიდი აფეთქების თეორიიდან გამომდინარე ძლიერი გრავიტაცია შეანელებდა გალაქტიკების და მატერიის გატყორცვნას და სამყაროს არ მიცემდა გაფართოების საშუალებას. ასე რომ ბილი 1 მკითხველი 0."ასტრონომები დღეს ისეთ საოცარ რამეებს აკეთებენ, ვინმემ მთვარეზე ასანთი რომ აანთოს, ისინი ალს დააფიქსირებენ" ამბობს ბილიადვილი გამოსაცნობია ალბათ რაზე ბრაზობს მკითხველი. ვაკუუმში, ჟანგბადის გარეშე ასანთს ვერ აანთებთ! ეს მართალია. მაგრამ აქ მკითხველს ფანტაზია აკლია და მხოლოდ შეცდომებს ხედავს. შესაძლოა ავტორი ამ შემთხვევაში მხოლოდ ხაზს უსვამს ასტრონომების შესაძლებლობებს და ყურადღებას არ აქცევს მაგალითის ფიზიკურ აკურატულობას. საკითხი მთვარეზე არსებულ გარემო პირობებს რომ ეხებოდეს ნამდვილად შეცდომას მივაწერდი, მაგრამ ჰიპოთეთური მაგალითის მოყვანა, თუნდაც ფიზიკურად არაკორექტულის გავრცელებული პრაქტიკაა. თუმცა როცა კორექტული მაგალითის მოყვანა შეიძლება მაშინ ჯობია ამ უკანასკნელს მიმართო. ბილს შეეძლო ჯიბის ფანარით ჩაენაცვლებინა ასანთი. თუმცა არც ეს ქმნის მნიშველოვან დისკომფორტს.მოკლედ წიგნი რეკომენდირებულია ყველასთვის, ვისაც ცნობისმოყვარეობა გააჩნია ყველაფრის მიმართ.

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.

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