Book Review: A Short History Of Nearly Everything

A few days ago I finished reading Bill Bryson's A Short History Of Nearly Everything (the main reason for the spotty blogging over the last 2 weeks). It's more accurately a short history of science. Bryson has gathered a lot of information and conveys it in an accessible, clear and memorable story form - as dug aptly puts it, "like he's sitting with you on the beach".

At over 500 pages it's a fairly long book (hey, it is about "everything"), but it's neatly divided into chapters that cover one topic and the chapters are grouped into sections so it's easy to read just one chapter if you're short on time, or a whole section. There are some threads that start in early chapters and pop up again later so you're rewarded for reading all the way through, but it's not necessary.

The Introduction didn't thrill me - it's too cheeky for my taste and doesn't set the proper tone for what's ahead. And Section One is on the dry side with not much new to me. But Section Two is outstanding as it tells the stories of early "scientists" and their wild theories, strange experiments and just plain oddity. Sections Three, Four and Five are also very good, with a few lulls here and there. Unfortunately the final section (Six) ends the book with a whimper as Bryson grapples with the complexity and competing theories of human evolution - he tries to make sense of it, but there just isn't yet enough evidence and agreement to tell the story.

I often felt awe and wonder as I considered the complexity and order found all along the scale, from subatomic particles, to atoms, to bacteria, to cells and multi-cellular organisms, to the planet Earth, to the Solar System, to galaxies to the universe and the big bang. It's amazing how many systems have to function properly for us to be here and alive each moment. Truly inspiring.

In my opinion Bryson found just the right balance between reducing the complexity of each field of science to an understandable picture, yet not dumbing it down. He also seems forthright in pointing out areas where there is still disagreement and things we just don't know. I get the sense Bryson did his best to be plain and truthful.

I enjoyed this book. I was looking for something to feed my brain and this book did not disappoint. I highly recommend it. If you have the slightest interest in learning about science, and science history, you should try this book as I can't imagine a more gentle yet fulfilling overview.

P.S. I read the illustrated edition from the city library - it was nice, but not necessary. In fact, only a few of the illustrations substantially added to the text, although it was interesting to see portraits of many of the scientists. Be aware the illustrated edition is heavy and wasn't very comfortable for lounge-about reading.


dug said...

that's funny, "cheeky' is what i liked about the introduction.

this is a great book, but i totally agree about ending with a whimper. it just sort of trails off.

another outstanding overview of science, in particular the history of the scientific method, is simon singh's "The Big Bang," which traces our understanding of the universe from primitive man to the latest theory. really good. maybe better even.

KanyonKris said...

I'm glad the intro worked for you. It wasn't bad, it just seemed forced and not his style, especially compared to how well and comfortably he writes the other chapters (well, except a few of the end chapters which he nobly tries to form into something but it doesn't work.)

"The Big Bang" is on my list. I like to mix up my reading so I have a few other books ahead of it, but I'll get to it.

Midas_Run said...

I to have read "A Short History..." and highly recomend it.