‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ is basically a book which, as the title would suggest, covers the fundamentals of science- namely physics. From the formation of the universe to mankind’s slow grasping of its workings, Bryson covers about as much material as he physically (pun intended) could in 500 pages.

The amount of ground covered is impressive: Bryson explores our own planet and get to grips with the ideas, first of Newton and then of Einstein, that allow us to understand the laws that govern it. Then biology holds centre-stage (unfortunately), discussing the appearance of big-brained bipeds and Charles Darwin’s theories as to how it all came about. Despite the fact that both physics and biology are discussed, they are not dealt with separately but for the most part, explored together.

One aspect I particularly enjoyed was that unlike other science books I have previously read, Bryson (who is primarily a travel writer) manages to weave humour into the book so as to break up the information overload. His informal tone also means that it’s never boring (not that physics ever is) but engaging and entertaining throughout.

Whilst discussing difficult concepts, Bryson discusses the history of how they came about, often making the ideas themselves easier to grasp. We learn, for example, of the Victorian naturalist, Francis Trevelyan Buckland, whose scientific endeavours included serving up mole and spider to his guests; and of the Norwegian palaeontologist who miscounted the number of fingers and toes on one of the most important fossil finds of recent history and wouldn’t let anyone else have a look at it for more than 48 years.

Another interesting aspect of the book was Bryson’s quashing of famous scientific myths. The nonsense of Darwin’s supposed “Eureka!” moment in the Galapagos, when he spotted variations in the size of finch beaks on different islands, is swiftly dealt with. As is the idea that palaeontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott made the extremely lucky discovery of the fossil-rich Burgess Shales after his horse slipped on a wet track.

The physics in the book is actually almost glamorous: the sheer improbability of life, the incomprehensible vastness of the cosmos, the overwhelming smallness of elementary particles, and the mysterious counter-intuitiveness of quantum mechanics. He tells us, for example, that every living cell contains as many working parts as a Boeing 777, and that prehistoric dragonflies, as big as ravens, flew among giant trees whose roots and trunks were covered with mosses 40 metres in height. It all sounds very impressive. The book is fairly content heavy so is tough going at parts, but I find it hard to imagine a better simple guide to the universe and its infinite mysteries. The problem: it’s only five sixths physics.

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