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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
on 11 June 2003
It takes an author of real talent to summarise the history of life, the universe and everything in a manner that is palatable to non-scientists, and Bryson manages it brilliantly. He explains seemingly dry, complicated scientific ideas in a way that is easy to understand, and that fills the reader with a real sense of awe: The universe is *how* big? A proton is *how* small? And the big bang happened *how* quickly?
True to form, Bryson puts the development of scientific ideas in their historical context and provides a fair smattering amusing anecdotal tales - my personal favourite being the description of Cavendish's overwhelming shyness.
An easy to read, thoroughly absorbing book. I can't recommend it enough.
on 20 February 2004
I bought this book initially as something for me to read at night before going to bed - something easy. Turns out, I was right. It is the MOST easy and informative reading ive ever done in my life. Suffice to say, I was hooked on it (yes, ive read it more than 5 times and need to look for a different book now, its sad). Its one of the most fluent books written on the subjects brought up. Its goes all the way from those mini superstrings to Darwinism etc etc, trying to explain in lay man`s term, the universe itself in general and more specifically, of our earth, from a scientific perspective. This guy weaves explanatory science with twists of details of the scientists/explorers who did the work (or not) - the kind of stories you could hardly dig up from ordinary science book and lecturers alike. You end up feeling knowing a lot more about the universe, and at the same time, feel that you still are empty and crave for more. Its truly marvellous - I just hope somebody else is going to produce something this good sometime soon - Its hard to sleep now!
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!