A Short History of Nearly Everything
Reviewed: July 25, 2006
By: Bill Bryson
Publisher: Anchor Canada
544 pages, $23.00
The trouble with a
title like A Short History of Nearly Everything is that it’s impossible
to put too much stress on the word “nearly”. You can’t possibly cover EVERYTHING.
This book is a bit
like “Cosmology, Geology, Physics and Evolution for Dummies”, and I don’t
mean that in a bad way, at all. Those books deliver a lot of information in
a user friendly manner, without using a lot of jargon, and Bryson has done
the same thing here.
How could I resist
a book that begins this way?
“Welcome. And congratulation.
I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy. I know. In
fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.”
“To begin with, for
you to be here now millions of drifting atoms had to somehow assemble in an
intricate and obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized
and particular that it has never been tried before and will exist only this
once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly
engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep
you intact and let you enjoy the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated
state known as existence.”
That is a great opening.
It hints at everything else that Bryson will have to attempt to cover in order
to explain just why this thing called existence is so special.
How did the universe
come into being? As with all the sections of this book, Bryson doesn’t offer
definitive answers, but samples the range of theories out there, telling us
which one has the edge at the moment, but leaving us aware that these things
do tend to come and go.
When you get past
cosmology, you need to move to this planet we’re on. How big is it? How old??
How do we know? How did those secrets get unlocked? What kinds of people did
Some of the latter
are really quirky folk, and for their every solid idea, the one that has survived
to the present, many of them had a dozen others that we would classify as
nuts. The cast of obsessive weirdoes who spent large portions of their lives
tromping about the world trying to figure things out is one of the most engaging
things about this book.
We started out BIG,
but those atoms at the beginning told us we’d have to get smaller. By what
stages did we become aware of the microcosm? When did we differentiate between
Newtonian physics, which seems to work very well in the observable world immediate
to us, to Einsteinian physics, which seems to govern a whole realm of other
Then there’s the question
of how this apparently stable planet we live on got to be that way, which
leads to the realization that it really isn’t every stable at all, that life
has been nearly extinguished a number of times, and seems inclined to start
again whenever that happens. While this is reassuring for whatever form of
life might come next, it doesn’t hold much comfort for those who would like
to consider us the apex of creation.
At this point, we
are half-way through Bryson’s romp through natural history. Parts V and VI,
half of the book, are about the rise of life on this dangerous planet and,
more specifically, the rise of humanity, which has only been around for 0.0001
percent of the earth’s history, and only doing the sorts of things that led
us to where we are for the last 40,000 years.
Bryson says he wrote
this book, and sent the three years prior to that reading all the material
he had to read in order to write it, because he had become distressed at the
depths of his own ignorance in these matters, but also because most of the
books he could recall reading about natural science as a boy had been rather
dull and he hoped he could do better.
I rather think that
he has managed to do what he set out to do. I expected to whittle away at
this book over a six month period. It only took me three, and I enjoyed every
minute of it.