Abe Brennan's Reviews > A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
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May 17, 07

Read in July, 2004

This book is what its title claims: a comprehensive—and often hilarious—look at the big moments in natural history, chemistry, biology, astronomy, etc. Bryson's breezy narrative style suits the project well, and his initial professed ignorance helps get the reader on board from the outset (no didacticism here—he’s a dummy like the rest of us (well, me, at any rate)). He may be prone to overdo the humor (or perhaps go too far in the cheese department), but the fact that he adopts a rather irreverent tone with respect to these hallowed men and their theories, experiments, etc. makes for an enjoyable journey (the reader feels like a school kid making fun of the master behind his back). It is truly a marvel how, in merely a few sentences, Bryson sums up the lives of the most renowned in the history of all science, and how many of these summations have one’s jaw dropping at the levels of misfortune that befell some of these characters. While enjoyable, this book is, quite frankly, a doom-laden tome. Part of Bryson's success is his ability, via avuncular hardy har har, to impart these soul-searing scenarios of random chance and inevitable obliteration without sounding like a guy on the corner in a white robe with a Repent! The End is Nigh! sign in his hands. Bryson is more like, "Check out this marvelous, mind-blowing factoid about the universe's inception...oh, and hey, by the way, we're doomed." Bryson’s not a bully, but he’s covering a bludgeoning subject. We find ourselves cowed by geologic time: we're such a blip on the screen, a pebble on the celestial highway, that it's hard not to feel utterly inconsequential in the grand scheme. This is particularly true for those of us who harbor delusions of, if not grandeur, than leaving some sort of lasting impression on the world (even if it's merely negative). The random nature of evolution contributes to a feeling of fundamental ennui: the development of life—our species in particular—can be read as such a fluke that it produces a kind of "Jeez, I'm just lucky to be here" immobilizing humility. Ultimately, this book isn't about retention: it's a crash course in the origins and development of our natural world/cosmos. The endeavor in itself is ridiculous, which is one of the charming elements of Bryson's book: If it's hubris that prompts him to tackle this, then it's of a remarkably ingenuous, "hey, why not?" or "I'm just trying to help" variety. The material goes in and out of the reader’s consciousness, page by page, chapter by chapter, and one finds oneself enveloped in wonder and fear by turns. But the totality of the reading experience leaves a residual presence in the head of the reader: she may not know specifics, but she’s been given a glimpse of the known world from the perspective of EVERY discipline in the natural sciences—a remarkable accomplishment on Bryson's part.
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Kenny Bell PLEASE READ* Do you remember when he talked about stromatolites-the ancient rock structure dated from 3.5 billion years ago, made from cynobacteria-blue/green algae. He says the scientist agree that these were the first origins of life. My question is how do scientist know that the rock is the object that is 3.5 billion yrs old and not the organisms? Because the organisms could just have appeared when man first appeared.(Adam and Eve)


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