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

John

Bill Bryson is excellent... so witty and funny. His writing makes me laugh out loud and cry with laughter - sometimes I can barely breathe.His research is also wonderful and the facts, presented in this book, are not only interesting, but also startling, fascinating and stimulating. The whole book is wonderfully assembled and a delight to read, re-read and simply to dip into.Indeed... I am re-reading again....It is, however, a severe worry to me that many of the facts that I am re-reading for the umpteenth time appear to be as new to me now as they must have been the first time I read them. Oh my... I'm turning into my parents! Where is my memory going?

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.

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.

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."

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.

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

Diane

I must admit that science is not my strong suit -- I've always been more of a Humanities gal. In high school, I had to work harder in my biology and chemistry classes, whereas English, history and social studies always came more easily to me.Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is a good overview of all the science classes I didn't take (or don't remember) in college. It's like Intro to Physics, Chemistry, Geology and Astronomy all in one wonderfully droll book. Since I read very few books about science, this was an enjoyable departure for me.Here is how the book begins: "Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn't easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize. To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and curiously obliging manner to create you. It's an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, co-operative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience this supremely agreeable but generally under-appreciated state known as existence."Some of my favorite sections were about the Big Bang, the debate about the age of the universe, plate tectonics, Darwin's research, and the extinction of different species. After sharing various stories of how humans have killed off who-knows-how-many species, Bryson interjects: "I mention all this to make the point that if you were designing an organism to look after life in our lonely cosmos, to monitor where it is going and keep a record of where it has been, you wouldn't choose human beings for the job." Sadly true, but also worth a HA!I listened to this on CD read by the author, and if you've been following my reviews for a while, you'll know that I have a brain crush on Bryson and his narration. Seriously, I wish I could invite him over for tea and scones and just listen to him read all afternoon. (Bryson is from my home state of Iowa, but he's lived in England for so long that he's adopted a charming accent. It's adorable.) I was also able to look through a copy of the special illustrated edition, which includes dozens of photographs and prints. If you can find it, I highly recommend reading the illustrated edition."A Short History" was first published in 2003, and at the time, it was a big change from Bryson's previous travelogues. Since then, Bryson seems to have abandoned travel books and has been writing on different topics in history, such as the wonderful "At Home", "Shakespeare" and "One Summer: America 1927." While I enjoy his wry, humorous takes on history, I do miss his travel writing. If you're reading this, Bryson, please, take a trip somewhere. Have an adventure. Jot down a few notes and write another whip-smart travel book. Your fans will love it.

Ben Babcock

Second reading review, May 7, 2010.I cannot recommend this book enough. No word of hyperbole: this is a book that everyone should read. Bill Bryson takes the span of human existence and produced a popular history of science that's both accurate and moving. A Short History of Nearly Everything is a celebration of science, but it also evokes the sense of wonder about the universe that science makes available to us. And, almost inevitably, it underscores how much we still have yet to learn about our world.Throughout history, one of the common arguments against the expansion of science has been something to the effect of "science removes the mystery" of the universe. Well, yes, that's kind of the point. But what opponents to scientific investigation usually mean to say, explicitly or not, is that because we know more about the universe, somehow that makes the universe less wonderful. Somehow a universe of quarks and gluons is less romantic than a universe powered by God. Thus, the argument goes, we shouldn't get too serious about this science stuff—it's depressing.My response: Are you on crack?I have just as much trouble fathoming how opponents of science find science depressing and nihilistic as they have trouble fathoming how I find science awesome. It seems self-evident to me that science is wonderful, that it is truly the most appropriate vehicle we have for appreciating our existence. But maybe that's just me, and obviously it's not everyone. So what A Short History of Nearly Everything does is level the playing field, extend the olive branch, if you will. Just as this review isn't an anti-religion diatribe, A Short History barely mentions religion. It doesn't talk about Galileo's persecution by the Church or the rise of creationism and intelligent design in the United States. Bryson and his book are above that. They reaffirm a sentiment I already have, and one I hope you share, either prior to or after reading this book.Science is fucking awesome.Sure, one can't understand every scientific concept that one comes across. But that's to be expected. Wave-particle duality is tricky stuff. Just as anyone can become a good handyman with some common sense and little experience, anyone can learn a little bit about quantum mechanics—but if you want to build a quantum house, you'll need many years of experience under your belt.Even we amateurs, however, can appreciate how cool it is that, for example, our bodies are made of stardust. The heavier elements, of which we are mostly composed, were forged in the crucibles of supernovae light-years away. We're here because some star died for us, and all the atoms managed to travel to Planet Earth. We're here because the Sun pumps out photons that heat our atmosphere, so we don't freeze, and the ozone layer reflects some of the photons away, so we don't fry. Our existence is temporal and transitory and tentative. But we do exist. And regardless of one's stance toward religion, this simple fact is a miracle.So science can give us miracles too. What Bryson does is take bits and pieces of science, put them in a historical context, and show us the miracles they contain. The result is an appreciation and a better understanding of how the world works.This is a rather long book—my edition is over 400 pages—and I have to admit it took me a longer time to re-read it than I had anticipated. It's worth the time. Every section is informative and interesting. Although I have a soft spot for physics, the chapters on relativity and quantum mechanics aren't my favourite—perhaps because I've already learned about the concepts elsewhere, so it felt a little redundant. Instead, I really enjoyed reading about the rise of geology, chemistry, and taxonomy. From this book I've learned that fossilization is a risky business; there's way more species hiding everywhere on and underneath the planet than we'll probably ever find; and if I happen to still be alive in a few thousand years, I should probably get volcano insurance.Even while educating us, Bryson emphasizes how much we don't know. Sometimes the media likes to portray science or scientific theories as "complete" when they are anything but. Perhaps here is where that niggling nihilism starts to rear its head for some people, for Bryson makes it clear that with some things, we probably just can't know, at least not in a timely fashion. On the macroscopic level, once we get out to about the range of Pluto, the distances are so vast as to be almost insurmountable. On the microscopic level, Planck and Heisenberg ensured there would always be a little uncertainty. But I'm OK with that. Preserves the mystery, after all. And provides yet more challenges.Our ignorance also carries with it a sense of helplessness. We aren't very good at tracking near-Earth objects, for instance, which means if an asteroid does strike us sometime in the near future, we probably won't see it until it hits the atmosphere. Then it will be too late. And even if we did, we don't have the capability to destroy or divert it. Still, lifting the veil of ignorance on one's ignorance is essential to improving one's ability to think critically about science. Who knows: maybe A Short History will inspire some kid to go into astronomy or engineering and invent better asteroid detection equipment.The upshot of this—as Bryson likes to put it, because his writing style is peppered with repeated phrases like this—is that Bryson presents both the good and the bad of science. As much as science is wonderful, it's also a human enterprise, and we humans are notoriously fallible instruments. Scientists are not immune—indeed, practically prone—to taking credit for another person's work; Bryson is quick to interject anecdotes about the personalities, quirks, and flaws of the persons of interest in the book.On that note, I wish I kind of had some sort of fact-checking utility for this book. Of course there are references and a bibliography, and Bryson claims in the acknowledgements that various reputable experts have reviewed the material. As much as I love A Short History, however, it is popular science and prone to simplification. So take the anecdotal parts with a grain of salt—for example, contrary to what Bryson claims, NASA didn't destroy the plans for the Saturn V lander (the real problem is trying to find enough reliable vintage parts to construct the thing).Overall the quality of A Short History of Nearly Everything is just so brilliant that I can't condemn Bryson for his enthusiasm. And I still have several adjectives left, so I can also say that this book is fabulous and stupendous, and you should definitely buy a copy or hold up your local library until it produces one. And if you don't have a local library, you should construct a doomsday device and hold the Earth hostage until such an edifice is constructed in a town near you. Got it? Good.It's a book worth reading and a book worth remembering; A Short History of Nearly Everything is science and history wrapped in a nutshell of wonder.First review.I cannot recommend this book enough to people.Bill Bryson manages to convey a technically detailed history of the planet while maintaining a readable, comprehensible writing style. His tone is engaging, and his tales are captivating--I particularly enjoyed the discussions on physics and on the development of archaeology and the theory of evolution.A Short History of Nearly Everything is to books what Bill Nye the Science Guy is to television. This is a book for science lovers and a book for those who swore they'd never take a science class again. I'm a fairly intelligent person; I learned a lot from this book, but at the same time I was already at least acquainted with much of the material it presents. However, that did not stop me from having, "whoa!" moments throughout the book, moments of realization at how complex and wonderful our universe is--and how special it is that we, humans, can strive to understand such a phenomenon.

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.

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.

Jason

I found the title of this work somewhat misleading. Perhaps it should have been called A History of the Natural Sciences or maybe even A Short History of Natural History. Nevertheless, science books often do not sell well so I am sure the idea in titling the book A Short History of Nearly Everything was to attract more of a broad readership. The book itself isn't awful but certainly reads like a survey work. In other words, you won't learn complicated how-tos of scientific methodology but you will get a good general idea of a lot of different topics. Some of the things discussed are the origin of the universe, the solar system, the arising of life, and of course man himself or homo sapiens. I found it slightly paradoxical that Bryson spends a good portion of the book building up this almost supernatural-like awe in the reader for the amazing position we find ourselves in of being alive and also of the magical wonder of the universe itself. It's enough to make even the most staunched atheist have reverence. In fact, I could see an atheist while reading the book saying that's God doing that! However, towards the end of the book Bryson seems to take the counter view that we are ultimately doomed to extinction and with continued acts of stuipidity will be just another blip on the evolutionary scale. Despite this the book reads okay for the most part but is interspersed with relative periods of dryness. However, it's difficult to talk about things like algae and lichens and keep everyone interested at all times. Nevertheless, a pretty good read recommended if you keep in mind that it's a survey book that will help you do well on trivial pursuit but is not going to give you the know-how to usurp the current model of the universe. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Nikki

No doubt out of date by now, this book is still packed with information, covering all sorts of physics, biology and chemistry, while being very readable and, often, funny. I especially liked the fact that it took an interest in scientists who had not been properly documented and whose achievements were attributed to others.Very readable and easy to digest. The information isn't that out of date, and all of it together might be a useful overview of the history of the world. A lot of it I knew, but was pleased to know in more detail.

David

There are, broadly speaking, two classes of interesting popular science books. The first class is written by scientists who want to reach a popular audience; the second class is written by journalists who find a particular scientific topic interesting. Good examples of the first class include the writing of Henri Poincare (The Value of Science is a recent printing of three of his books in one volume -- still relevant over a century after they appeared, and it made me wish I could read the original French) or Steve Strogatz's Sync, and good examples of the second class include Gleick's Chaos and Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. The usual failure mode for books written by experts is poor balance between the details and the big picture; the usual failure mode for books written by journalists is when the information conveyed is inaccurate or incomplete in a way that presents something skewed. Bryson's book is surprisingly good, a sort of travelogue through part of the scientific world that has the same flavor has many of his more conventional travelogues. The facts are there, the feel is right, and the whole thing is entirely entertaining without providing anyone the illusion that it's comprehensive. Good stuff.

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.

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