As a follow-on to my recent review on Bill Bryson’s latest book – At Home: A Short History of Private Life – there’s another Bryson book that I particularly enjoy called A Short History of Nearly Everything.
This is so good that I recently re-read it for the third or fourth time (not in a back-to-back compulsive manner you understand – these readings were spread over the last couple of years).
Honestly, I cannot find the words to describe just how good this book is. If I ever managed to write a book half as good as this one I would die a happy man (well, maybe not, but you know what I mean).
The amazing thing to me is how Bryson ties everything together in such an intelligent and easy-to-follow manner, leading the reader all the way from the creation of the universe to our current level of understanding with regard to how life formed, the age of the earth, the rise of civilization, gravity, geology, chemistry, and how we came to discover and understand things like plate tectonics and particle physics.
In addition to the author’s humorous tongue-in-cheek asides, one delightful aspect to this book is the tales of the various people who discovered these things, many of whom never gained the recognition they deserved.
Another strength of the book is the way information is built up in layers. Consider the age of the earth, for example. Early on, Bryson notes that:
Human beings would split the atom and invent television, nylon and instant coffee before they could figure out the age of their own planet.
Bryson then returns to this topic many times throughout the course of the book as different people and scientific disciplines added more to the picture. We start in 1650, when Archbishop James Ussher of the Church of Ireland made a careful study of the Bible and concluded that the Earth had been created at midday on 23 October 4000 BC (you may laugh, but I know folks who believe this to this day).
In the 1770s, the Frenchman Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon estimated the age of the Earth as being somewhere between 75,000 and 168,000 years old based on the rate at which it was radiating heat. In 1862, Lord Kelvin suggested that the Earth was 98 million years old. Other people came up with their own values; similarly for the dawn of complex life. As Bryson says:
Such was the confusion that by the close of the nineteenth century, depending on which text you consulted, you could learn that the number of years that stood between us and the dawn of complex life in the Cambrian period was 3 million, 18 million, 600 million, 794 million, or 2.4 billion – or some other number within that range. As late as 1910, one of the most respected estimates, by the American George Becker, put the Earth’s age at perhaps as little as 55 million years.
Later in the book Bryson explains how the discovery of radioactivity affected our understanding of the Earth’s age. And, still later, how the radioactive analysis of meteorites finally gave us a definitive age for the earth of 4,550 million years (plus or minus 70 million years).
And this is just one topic among hundreds – perhaps thousands. Throughout the course of the book we touch on almost everything you might wonder about, including earthquakes, volcanoes, Yellowstone Park, fossils of prehistoric creatures and our understanding of them, the evolution of man, the origin of the science of geology (which is MUCH more interesting than I would ever have expected), and so much more.
I tell you, if I were going to be exiled to a desert island and could take only 10 books with me, this one would be very close to the top of the list!
The only real problem is that I have one of the original versions – the most recent incarnation is an illustrated version. I probably don’t have to tell you that this is right at the top of my Amazon “Wish List” and – as soon as I do take possession of this little scamp – I’m sure I’ll read the whole thing again (it’s that good!).