A Short History of Nearly Everything
By Bill Bryson (Broadway Books, $26, 544 pp.)
Four years after he charmed readers with A Walk in the Woods, a frank, farcical account of his attempt at tackling the Appalachian Trail, beloved author Bill Bryson returns with an entirely different sort of book. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, the bumbling outdoorsman and globe-trotting travel writer applies his lucid prose and trademark wit to the great conundrums of science.
Exploring how life began, how it might end and all the action in between, A Short History of Nearly Everything is an accessible, comprehensive volume that successfully demystifies some of nature’s most challenging phenomena, from DNA to quarks. Throughout, the author stays true to the title of the book, offering background on an astonishingly broad range of subjects, including global warming, plate tectonics, evolution and atomic theory. Although Bryson infuses these complicated topics with life, the reader may shiver at the sheer impersonality of it all, at nature’s lack of compassion: “Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level,” the author points out. “For all their devoted attention, your atoms don’t actually care about youindeed, don’t even know that you are there.”
Wisely adding a people element to the narrative, the author includes the stories of some eccentric geniuses and the surprising things they did in the name of science, like Sir Isaac Newton, who inserted a sewing needle into his eye socket simply because he wondered what would happen. Presenting the universe on a scale we can comprehendit was created, according to Bryson, “in the time it takes to make a sandwich”A Short History of Nearly Everything succeeds remarkably in explaining the complex machinations of nature. Just as significantly, it puts Homo sapiens into some much needed perspective: Who knew, for instance, that only 650,000 hours comprise the average human life span?
As it turns out, Bryson’s ambitious undertaking has modest origins: Put off by subjects like physics and biology as a boy thanks to the dull texts he encountered in school, the author admits to being science-deficient, a lack that prompted him to find out more about how the world works. In short, it’s what he didn’t know that inspired him to write the new book. “The idea was to see if it isn’t possible to understand and appreciatemarvel at, enjoy eventhe wonder and accomplishments of science at a level that isn’t too technical or demanding,” he writes.
Although Bryson sifts through difficult material and consults with experts over the course of this hefty volume, science-shy readers shouldn’t feel skittish about picking up the book. A Short History of Nearly Everything is a wonderful synthesis of geology and astronomy, chemistry and history that’s just right for the lay reader. So if you slept through biology class, go back to school with Bryson; the facts are fun, and the information goes down easy.
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