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 the work? 

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 possibilities?

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.