I’ve been listening to Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” for the last couple of weeks, and this book is amazing. Bill Bryson, most known for various humorous travel books, turned his eyes on the history and progression of science. It’s a journey about what we know about the universe across many disciplines (astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, geology), and how we came to know that information. The narrative is very compelling, and often similar in style to James Burke’s Connections (so if you loved that, you’ll love this.)
He uses big questions to drive the narrative. The first of which is something that seemed like a simple question, “what is the age of the earth?”. It’s somewhat surprising to realize that our current answer of 4.5 Billion years wasn’t figured out until the 1950s, and that that discovery was intertwined with the discovery of a massive cover up in the lead production industry on the health effects of lead, and would lead to the banning of the substance for fuel and paint.
You get to see how the chains of science build upon one another, where a new better answer is made based on what came before, and how over time our methods continue to refine themselves. The stories on the feuds in the dinosaur hunting communities are incredible. It also goes to show that individuals shape history much more than they are often given credit for. This is even more true in the fields of science, where a new discovery or insight often opens up massive new industries or fields of study. None of modern gene sequencing and DNA analysis would be possible had not a curious researcher decided to take samples from Yellowstone’s hot springs and on a lark see if anything was alive in the boiling sulfuric waters. This is even more amazing given that conventional wisdom at the time assured that no life was possible there. Decades later we discovered that one of those microbes has a curious ability to crank out DNA copies, thus opening up the modern science of genetics.
I can’t say enough good things about this book. It is a perfect, digestible, approach to science literacy. Your understanding of the universe will be greatly enhanced in the process, and you’ll never quite look at a lump of dirt, a wispy cloud, or the night sky again.
One thought on “A Short History of Nearly Everything”
The best analogy of Bill Bryson in this book is when he illustrates the vastness of space with something along these lines, “if you consider the period at the end of this sentence to be proportional to the size of a planet, the nearest planet to it will be another period 10 metres away”. Yes, that’s how big space is.