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176 of 177 people found the following review helpful
on 30 November 2004
I have never felt so compelled to write a review before; this book is a true masterpiece. Bill brings science to the masses in an entertaining and easy to understand manner. If you've ever wondered for example, what the theory of relativity actually means, get this book. I read it in a week, now I am going to read it again, and probably again after that! The size of the volume belies the breadth of topics covered.
Alongside the huge amount of science contained in this book, we also look back at the constant bickering, back-stabbing and fallings-out of history's great scientists and revolutionaries and wonder how scientific knowledge managed to advance in light of this.
This is truly a magnificent achievement given the author is not a scientist, but then if it were written by a scientist, would I have understood a word of it, and would I have enjoyed it so much?
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228 of 237 people found the following review helpful
on 11 June 2003
My family bought me this book for my birthday at least partly to see whether reading it might make tea come out of my nose as had gratifyingly (for them) happened with an earlier Bill Bryson book that I had anti-socially taken to the table because I couldn't stop reading it.
It didn't, but it did cause me to go AWOL from my domestic responsibilities for quite some time, and sometimes to stagger round clutching my head as my brain refused to assimilate any more. I enjoyed it enormously. It's Bill Bryson's enviable gift to be able to write so clearly and elegantly, conveying his enthusiasm without drawing attention to his erudition. The fact that you find yourself becoming passionately interested in glaciers after a lifetime of not giving them a second thought says it all. Reading this book is a moving, frightening, awe inspiring and yet curiously optimistic experience, and everyone should do it.
My only complaint is that Doubleday have chosen not to bind this book properly. Gluing books together, especially hardback books, ought to be some sort of crime.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 5 July 2006
Whilst some of Bill Bryson's previous works (the "Notes" books in particluar) have fallen foul of whimsical and off-the-cuff eulogising, thankfully the manner of the dialogue in "A Short History of Nearly Everthing" is so captivating and free of personal opinion that very little crticism at all can be levelled at this wonderful book.

Perhaps its only downfall is that it is, of course, hardly a history of "nearly everything" as there isn't enough paper available in the world to print a book covering such a broad sweep. However, the subject material Bryson touches upon here is both accessible for the non-scientific reader and refreshing enough for those with an interest in a history of the Earth and the Universe in which it sits.

Commencing with an account of the Big Bang, Bryson guides us through the processes of creation, the evolution of life on earth, the impact of events both natural and man-made on the earth's environment and the discoveries we are still making in all areas of science. History is, of course, much more striking than fiction, and it is this alone that makes the text so unforgettable. Bryson remarks with clear and candid understatement that the frequent naievete of mankind and our capacity to underestimate contemporary thought has acted as a buffer against our natural development. Quite often it has been the environment which has suffered as a consequence, and sections where Bryson makes this point hark of similar parts of his "A Walk in the Woods".

Another positive concerning the book is that its structure makes it easily put down and picked up again. Chapters which only casually relate to each other make the themes of the book clearly de-marcated, and clearly would work as a school science reader as one cover critic sensibly states. Its a great book for dog-earing the page and returning for a re-read at a later date; sometimes the facts and statistics alone create such intermediate thought that the reader needs to return to the book for further deliberation.

If you are a fan of Bryson, I am not sure that this book should be read for that reason. It should be read as a matter of course by anyone who has the slightest interest in the course of natural history and just what an incredible universe we live in. "A Short History" should stand outside the canon of Bill Bryson's other work for all the right reasons and should be recognised as a versatile author's attempt at enlivening a genre which is often treated in a dreadfully bland and mundane manner by other less lively science books.
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52 of 55 people found the following review helpful
on 19 February 2004
Excellent! Just great... This book filled in all the gaps my school years left out. Whilst I may never remember all the information in the book, I can certainly say that my understanding of why we are who we are is greatly improved. I would suggest you buy the paperback version as the hardback is a little bit of a tomb due to the wealth of text contained within. Bryson is not at his literary best is this offering, however his insight and historical accuracy leave no stone unturned. I am a bigger fan of Bryson by the day and have 5 of his titles under my [reading] belt now... this title does a great service to his continued range of subjects and I can't wait to see what Bryson puts under the microscope next!
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on 10 January 2006
Not being one of huge ability to read, I have strayed away from books for years, but with a newely found interest in the world around us, and history of the planet I decided to give this book a bash as it was recommended highly.
And what a delight. It challeneged me, entertained me, and educated me from start to finish. The way that Bill Bryson has writen this book, keeps you amazed, as he converts the astronomical numbers of life into things that can be conveyed into modern comprehension.
I changed my method of transport to work so I would have time to keep reading this, as time is limited at home, and I'm so glad I've finished it, as it has increased my knowledge of the world massively. A must for anyone with an inquisitive mind.
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75 of 80 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 6 October 2003
I don't often give a book five stars but this one is exceptional. As a Science graduate (a long time ago) I had a poor knowledge of a lot of physical phenomena - and this book plugged most of the gaps. Not that it requires any scientific knowledge on your part. It's very well written and explains things in an interesting and clear manner. The insights into the people behind many of the break-throughs were particularly interesting.
So if you want to know the age of the earth (and how we know this), how mountains form, how we worked out the size of the earth, how life began, how an atom bomb works, and where we're heading in the future then this book is for you. It should be mandatory reading for every grown-up. Absolutely perfect bedside reading.
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135 of 145 people found the following review helpful
on 9 June 2003
I've always enjoyed Bill Bryson's books. He could write about the dullest, most depressing seaside resort I've ever visited and make me want to go back just to revisit it through his eyes. His skill is his desire to research an area so thoroughly that you see it in another light entirely.
He has brought this skill to bear in amazing ways - making the history of the English language (Mother Tongue) or English versus American culture (Made in America) absorbing and hilarious reads, even making a dictionary of tricky and often misused words a great book to sit down and read page by page (Troublesome Words).
A Short History of Nearly Everything is far and away his most ambitious book. I personally love books like this, and if I had a wish list of authors I would like to sit down for 3 years to try and make sense of the heaviest scientific questions I could think of, and try and make the answers enlightening and amusing, I would pick Bill. This man could research the inside of a ping-pong ball and come up with fifty amusing factual stories about it. When he's dealing with the history of the universe... I just wish the book were longer. Or part of a series.
I don't wish to sound selfish, but every moment Bill Bryson spends not writing books like this is just an annoyance to me.
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42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon 22 November 2005
I was first acquainted with Bill Bryson through his works on the English language and various travelogue types of books. In these books he proved to be an entertaining writer, witty and interesting, with just the right amount of I'm-not-taking-myself-too-seriously attitude to make for genuinely pleasurable reading. Other books of his, 'Notes from a Small Island' and 'The Mother Tongue', are ones I return to again and again. His latest book, one of the longer ones (I was surprised, as most Bryson books rarely exceed 300 pages, and this one weighs in well past 500), is one likely to join those ranks.
Of course, a history of everything, even a SHORT history of NEARLY everything, has got to be fairly long. Bryson begins, logically enough, at the beginning, or at least the beginning as best science can determine. Bryson weaves the story of science together with a gentle description of the science involved - he looks not only at the earliest constructs of the universe (such as the background radiation) but also at those who discover the constructs (such as Penzias and Wilson).
A great example of the way Bryson weaves the history of science into the description of science, in a sense showing the way the world changes as our perceptions of how it exists change, is his description of the formulation, rejection, and final acceptance of the Pangaea theory. He looks at figures such as Wegener (the German meteorologist - 'weatherman', as Bryson describes him) who pushed forward the theory in the face of daunting scientific rejection that the continents did indeed move, and that similarities in flora and fauna, as well as rock formations and other geological and geographical aspects, can be traced back to a unified continent. Bryson with gentle humour discusses the attitudes of scientists, as they shifted not quite as slowly as the continents, towards accepting this theory, making gentle jabs along the way (Einstein even wrote a foreword to a book that was rather scathing toward the idea of plate tectonics - brilliance is no guarantee against being absolutely wrong).
Bryson traces the development of the universe and the world from the earliest universe to the formation of the planet, to the growing diversity of life forms to development of human beings and human society. Inspired by Natural History (the short history refers more to natural history than anything else), this traces the path to us and possible futures. Bryson juxtaposes the creation of the Principia by Isaac Newton with the extinction of the dodo bird - stating that the word contained divinity and felony in the nature of humanity, the same species that can rise to the heights of understanding in the universe can also, for no apparent reason, cause the extinction of hapless and harmless fellow creatures on earth. Are humans, in Bryson's words, 'inherently bad news for other living things'? He recounts many of the truly staggering follies of species-hunting, particularly in the nineteenth century, calling upon people to take far more care of the planet with which we have been entrusted, either through design or fate.
Bryson's take on things is innovative and his narrative is interesting, but there is a point to it, just as there is with most of his writing. He writes not merely to entertain, or to inform, but to persuade. Bryson is intrigued by science, having a joy that comes across the page of someone who essentially did not know or understand a lot of the background of science and how it worked in the world until recently, and now wants to share that joy with everyone! He definitely has points to argue - for starters, the need for open-mindedness, even among (perhaps particularly among) those who are supposed to have the open and searching intellects, the scientists themselves. He also wishes others to know more about science, professionals and laypersons, and more about our own origins as a people, both in terms of where we've come from, and how we've come to know about it.
This is a new version of his already-published text, this time with graphics, paintings, pictures, maps and other things that make the history come alive in new and interesting ways. This is a good revision, adding quite a bit to Bryson's already interesting text. Unique among Bryson's writing in many ways, this is in some ways a travelogue through geology, paleontology, cosmology and evolution. A fun and fascinating read!
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 3 November 2006
Absolutely amazing!!! Bill Bryson has managed to do what no other person in the history of this planet has done - explain to us how things came to be, how things were discovered and how things work without either losing us completely or boring us to death. He should be knighted on the basis of this alone.

I rarely read a book that when I get to the end I wish it would continue for another 1000 pages but I was very disappointed to finish this book today. I've been keen on science for a number of years since leaving school (now 26) and have read certain physics books like Brief History of Time. I always think there's an air of pompness reading these books though because although they teach you a lot, it doesn't take you long to forget most of it, therefore only really leaving you with bragging rights at dinner parties. What use is that? Bill Bryson has used his quirky writing style that has been honed over many years to present facts, figures and tales of the planet that we live on in a totally engrossing but amusing manner.

He gives you an endearing insight into the personalities behind the supremely intelligent beings that made the most important discoveries about this planet. And he also shapes the story line of the book from start to finish in a Darwin type way that explains how this planet has evolved. I have no doubt that this book should be used on a school curriculum.

This is an unforgettable book that I am sure I will read again many more times in the future.
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52 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on 16 July 2003
I bought 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' because I read an interview with Bill Bryson where he describes it as a book for anyone who is interested in science and how things work but never enjoyed it as an academic subject. As this descibes me too a T I purchased a copy hoping that it would provide me with an idiot's guide to the world.
The book does way more than that. In five hundered pages roughly evenly divided between what can be grouped as physics, chemistry, biology and geo/eco sciences he exaplins the bare bones of what you need to know to understand human life and the galaxy we live in. And boy does he describe it well. By providing us with amusing pen portraits of the key figures (and there are some very odd fish indeed) and taking the protracted route to his point in order to fit in a few good anacdotes he accompanies the science with fascinating and funny information.
As for the science itself, it's blissfully acessible. In fact, at times I found myself wishing he'd go into slightly more depth because I recognised that he'd left out things I'd covered in science GCSEs. On other occasions however, especially in the realm of quantum physics and subatomic physics (what else?), I did have to concentrate very hard to get it. Accounting for individual differences I'd say that most people could understand the science without too many problems.
His gift with language is wonderfully apparent throughout the book. Not only is it well structured, craftily so in fact, but the prose is snappy, the pace comfortable and his paragraphing perfect. Bryson seems to have borne in mind as he wrote that his target audience won't have had much patience for science books in the past and thus it doesn't read like a text book at all but as an amusing and well written meander theough the personalities and discoveries of the scientific past. He even manages to make some of the really big (or really small) numbers comprehensible!
I recommend 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' very highly, even though it isn't a history of nearly everything. This is a good thing as it means that there's lots more for him to write similar books about. Roll on the sequel!
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