Ben Babcock's Reviews > A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
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Dec 29, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: science, non-fiction, own, history, deliciously-quotable, favourites, technology, 2010-read, 2010-best10
Recommended for: Everyone
Read from May 01 to 07, 2010 , read count: 2

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.
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Quotes Ben Liked

Bill Bryson
“In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one's face.”
Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Bill Bryson
“The upshot of all this is that we live in a universe whose age we can't quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances we don't altogether know, filled with matter we can't identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don’t truly understand.”
Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Bill Bryson
“This is a world where things move at their own pace, including a tiny lift Fortey and I shared with a scholarly looking elderly man with whom Fortey chatted genially and familiarly as we proceeded upwards at about the rate that sediments are laid down.

When the man departed, Fortey said to me: "That was a very nice chap named Norman who's spent forty-two years studying one species of plant, St. John's wort. He retired in 1989, but he still comes in every week."

"How do you spend forty-two years on one species of plant?" I asked.

"It's remarkable, isn't it?" Fortey agreed. He thought for a moment. "He's very thorough apparently." The lift door opened to reveal a bricked over opening. Fortey looked confounded. "That's very strange," he said. "That used to be Botany back there." He punched a button for another floor, and we found our way at length to Botany by means of back staircases and discreet trespass through yet more departments where investigators toiled lovingly over once-living objects.”
Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Bill Bryson
“As we parted at the Natural History Museum in London, I asked Richard Fortey how science ensures that when one person goes there's someone ready to take his place.

He chuckled rather heartily at my naiveté. 'I'm afraid it's not as if we have substitutes sitting on the bench somewhere waiting to be called in to play. When a specialist retires or, even more unfortunately, dies, that can bring a stop to things in that field, sometimes for a very long while.'

And I suppose that's why you value someone who spends forty-two years studying a single species of plant, even if it doesn't produce anything terribly new?'

'Precisely,' he said, 'precisely.' And he really seemed to mean it.”
Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Reading Progress

05/10/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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Lori Agree wholeheartedly, great book.

Stephen Yes yes yes yes I must agree wholeheartedly as well!

Jason Hey ben, read your review. Just wanted to know what the reading level is on this book. thanks.

message 4: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Babcock Jason wrote: "Hey ben, read your review. Just wanted to know what the reading level is on this book. thanks."

I’d say anyone reading at a Grade 9 level or above could tackle this. However, it is quite long, and the subject matter varies quite a bit. So the reading level is not daunting, but it requires a certain amount of patience and intellectual maturity that not every Grade 9 student would have. Bryson is certainly writing for an adult audience, but capable adolescents can still enjoy it.

Bryson doesn’t skimp on the vocabulary. However, he’s writing popular science, so his explanations tend to be comprehensible. Take a look at some of the quotations, above, that I liked. One thing I love about Bryson’s writing is that he is very good at framing things as narratives, which I think will help the younger reader.

Jason Thanks for the reply Ben.

Kato First day in philosophy class the prof is waxing lyrical. He says that a physicist looking at a sunset will see molecules and forces but a philosopher will see the beauty.
Huh? What?! Because ideas can't be beautiful? Because scientists are drones? Dropped that class like a hot potato - no point taking an essay-based class from a fool.

You are right - science is awesome!

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)

message 8: by Ben (last edited Jul 02, 2012 05:52AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Babcock Kenny, you may want to check out chapter 7 again, where Bryson talks about Ernest Rutherford's experiments with radioactive decay. Every radioisotope has a constant half-life--the amount of time it takes for approximately half of the sample to decay. For example, uranium-235 has a half-life of about 700 million years. If you left 10 g of uranium-235 and came back 700 million years later, you'd only have 5 g. Wait another 700 million years, and you'd only have 2.5 g. It's like the reverse of bank interest!

So by knowing the half-life of an element and its radioactivity, we can work backwards to find out how long it has taken for the necessary decay to happen. This is how we measure the age of the Earth--similar to carbon dating, but with different elements.

In summary, we know how old rocks are by looking at the radioactive heat parts of them give off, and calculating from that how long they have been cooling down.

Does this help?

Kenny Bell "For example, uranium-235 has a half-life of about 700 million years."
How did Ernest Rutherford know that it took that long to decay if one half-life is 700million years?
Is this acurate?

message 10: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Babcock Good question. First, I just grabbed that statistic from Wikipedia as an example. Radioisotopes with much shorter half-lives exist. Obviously, we don't need to observe half a sample's decay before we can determine the half-life. The key here is that, no matter the radioisotope in question, its decay is always exponential. This gives us a formula, which in turn allows us to calculate half-life by observing how much of sample decays over a certain period of time. The accuracy of those calculations depends on the accuracy of our measurements, which these days are sufficiently accurate to allow us to build devices like particle accelerators, PET scanners, and atomic clocks.

message 11: by Kenny (new) - rated it 1 star

Kenny Bell "Radioisotopes with much shorter half-lives exist."

So, basically what you are saying is that scientist had some that only took a few hours to decay. And when they decayed they always took the same amount of time giving them an exponential?

If not then i am lost... 0_o ?

message 12: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Babcock You don't necessarily need isotopes with observable half-lives around. All you would need is the observation that any sample follows the laws of exponential decay. Isotopes don't decay at the same rate, but the pattern they follow is always an exponential one. I'm not sure how old you are or how much you remember from math class--the Wikipedia article I linked to above has a fairly good explanation of what I mean by "exponential decay".

From there it's just a matter of applying math. :)

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