A short history of nearly everything
I’m on a journey back in time; to the beginning, the genesis of all. My time capsule hovers at the moment of the birth of the universe, a few billionth of a second after The Big Bang. The expansion is mind-boggling, and I’m pulled out, stretched over the vast eons of newly born time and space.
Doctor Anna’s Book Club reads A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson – A Summary
A Short History of Nearly Everything is exactly that what is promises in the title “a short history of nearly everything,” a title that captures both the book’s strengths, as well as its weaknesses.
Bryson succeeds in covering the scientific history of our universe from the largest, to the smallest scale in one pocketbook, which is truly remarkable. However, this literary stretch across eons could possibly have been richer if adorned with a few more ponderings around the implications of the amazing scientific discoveries that have been made. But, that’s my humble opinion.
Read Doctor Anna’s full review below together with a few selected reviews by members of Doctor Anna’s Book Club.
Bryson starts at the Big Bang and works his way through our scientific history from physics to cosmology and biology. It is an amazing story, full of troublesome characters and personal drama. It’s an entertaining read.
Some of my less refined personality traits, that shamefully enjoy gossip and glossy magazines, liked the chapters describing some of the more colorful personas of science, such as Newton, who, for example, deliberately put a needle into his own eye just to figure out the more intricate workings around our perception of color.
Newton was completely batshit crazy and difficult, but probably not a complete jerk like some of the other characters Bryson mentions. In a way, it’s nice to read about the consistent human nature of being an asshole, but in many ways, Bryson’s focus on character makes it hard to admire the science.
Despite my criticism above, some chapters did succeed in capturing my interest in areas of science that previously have given me very little satisfaction, such as space.
A Short History of Nearly Everything showed me how little I know
I bow my head in shame admitting that I know next to nothing about the larger scale of the universe. I’m a biologist and know more of, and am more fascinated by, the bacterial communities of a turd than of galaxies. Thus, I suppose that I can view myself as “a common reader” when it comes to the chapters on cosmology.
And here comes the surprise: I was captivated. Bryson had me by the eyeballs. He managed to get me fascinated by a topic that has passed me by like a bucket of formalin-preserved squid larvae (I’m a marine biologist by trade). Well done, Bryson!
Then, we reached the chapters touching on the Life Sciences, and I turned into Ms. Grumpy McBiologyface.
What I didn’t like about A Short History of Nearly Everything
What started so well, ended up in some disappointment for me. Bryson repeatedly indicates a misunderstanding of the evolutionary principles. Though he often states the prevailing theory, he more than once gets muddled up into strange arguments regarding the probability of our existence before getting to the point.
It’s almost as if he’s itching to squeeze in the possibility of a deity as a directing force of our evolution. This does not belong in a science book. A dark part of me secretly wishes for a book collaboration on evolution between Bill Bryson and Richard Dawkins. Bryson is in dire need of Dawkins knowledge of evolutionary theory, and Dawkins could use Bryson’s humor and light tone.
Final thoughts on A Short History of Nearly Everything
I liked reading this book, and then it annoyed me as hell. I let out some strange shrieks of joy when plowing through the chapter on elementary particles and some grunts when reading about Darwinian theory.
Despite my grunts, I still think that Bryson is an amazing writer and that this is an excellent book for the general reader who would like to get a quick glance into the amazing world of science. However, the causes for the grunts such as Bryson’s sloppy chapters on biology pulls down the ratings down to 3 Sci Hards out of 5.
Rating: 3/5 Sci Hards
Selected reader reviews from Doctor Anna’s Imaginarium
David Latchman from Science vs. Hollywood | Review
For the most part, I found the book well-written and engaging. Bryson definitely has a knack for telling a story and whether this is a positive or negative depends on the reader. But as engaging as the book may have been, there are problems. The history of science is not only wondrous and complex, but it can also be a challenge to analyze and understand. Bryson’s almost chronological telling of science’s history, often by subject, means that a lot of context and meaning was lost. Bryson isn’t telling us what certain events meant to a field as a whole, he is just telling us that certain events happened.
Of course, it can be argued this is a science book, but even there the same problems apply. Bryson is clearly passionate about explaining the science behind some subjects, notably physics, even when he gets it wrong. In others, it feels as if his enthusiasm waned and he was just plodding along because that chapter just had to be written. If anything, Bryson’s book shows how difficult science writing can be, and how specialized it is. A writer with a background in physics is not likely to do well in writing about all areas of biology, and Bryson’s strengths, weaknesses, interests, and lack of are on full display here. This does a great disservice to the reader who picked up the book to genuinely learn something.
If there is one thing that is obvious is Bryson’s wonder of the natural world. He seems to love how the world has come together, how it works, and how we figured it all out (and still are). The problem is that in his wonder, he almost anamorphizes many of his explanations, implying there could have been a guiding hand to creation and existence. It may be wonderous to think that any one person is the unique arrangement of atoms, but this is not how scientists see things. We don’t ascribe identity to atoms and replacing an oxygen atom with another in a person does not change who or what that person is. This is not to say that we are not unique but that analogy might give the reader the wrong impression of science.
If the problems of the book can be summed up succinctly, it is this. Bryson tries to do too much, both in explaining science and telling its history, that he ends up not focusing much of either. Sure, we get a lot of information thrown at us, but that is about it. We are left with little to no understanding of it all means.
This isn’t to say I won’t encourage people to read this book. The book can be invaluable to the lay-reader who is seeking to pick up an extra factoid or two that may provide some interesting conversation at the next dinner party. Be warned, the book was published in 2003, so there have been advances, and some scientific fields have changed more than others. A reader may have some additional research to do, e.g., a discussion on climate change, lest they look like a fool. There is also value to the science communicator. It is so important that science communicators get it right as there is so much bad information out there. It is better you write on a small range of subjects really well than write on a lot of them poorly.
Rating: 3/5 Sci Hards
Michael Starsheen | Review
I found the book a little tedious, as I’ve read better books on the history of science.
I have a background in astrophysics and cosmology, and I agree that those are Bryson’s best chapters. I felt that the chapters on the life sciences and human evolution are poorly written, with too much emphasis on the idea that living things like cells or DNA have intention or design. I kept expecting him to break into a paean to intelligent design.
I would give the book 4 stars, as it is a fairly good resource for people who are unfamiliar to science, and particularly to the history of science—how we got to the point where we are today. I think that it is important for both scientists and non-scientists to understand this history because we cannot understand the modern world without it. Most non-scientists are still living with a Newtonian worldview (or earlier), not with an understanding of our post-quantum theoretical one. None of our current technology makes sense without understanding modern science.
Rating: 4/5 Sci Hards
Kate Erwin @scibookie | Review
I like Bryson’s writing, his tone is pleasant, but this book felt too ambitious to be able to pull off well in all facets. When you take on a large swath of something like the (loose) history of certain sciences, things are bound to get lost in the shuffle, and I think we saw that. Instead of doing all things well, he phoned it in on life sciences and evolution and pandered his writing towards approachability rather than accuracy.
That said, there are worse books than this. But there are also better. 2.5 outta 5.
Rating: 2.5/5 Sci Hards
Paul Metzger-Phillips | Review
If one knows little about science and wanted a well-written book which explains the basics behind well known and yet not well understood scientific topics this an excellent place to start. For that reason, I would rate this book as being 4 out of 5 stars.
From a personal point of view, Bill Bryson writes clearly and concisely and is able to convey complicated theories in a way that is understandable to the average reader. Therefore if you ever want to bore friends and acquaintances with your knowledge of Einstein’s general theory or Newton’s Principia, then this is the book for you.
This book, however, is slightly flawed as it is billed as a short history of nearly everything, and as such its chapters on life sciences leave something to be desired. I do accept that the speed of advances in this field does render much in these chapters obsolete; however, this does not forgive muddled writing and often poor flow that makes hard work on this topic. If one were to be very critical, it almost seems if Bill Bryson was losing interest in the project at this point. This does a disservice to the significant scientific field. That being said the book does offer enough to induce the interested into reading further in life sciences and so from the point of view is a partial success.
As an overall primer giving the average reader an overview of the scientific theories that shaped the modern world this book if excellent. However, for those that have some knowledge of varying scientific fields, this book may be too simplistic, and therefore they should look elsewhere.
Rating: 4/5 Sci Hards