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A Short History of Nearly Everything

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Book Overview

This description may be from another edition of this product. One of the world's most beloved writers and bestselling author of One Summer takes his ultimate journey--into the most intriguing and intractable questions that science seeks to answer. In A Walk in...

Customer Reviews

4 ratings

Excellent book, especially the history of science and the people who advanced it

I am on my 4th reading now, YES, it's that good.

Not quite everything, but enough...

I was first acquainted with Bill Bryson through his works on the English language and various travelogue types of books. In these books he proved to be an entertaining writer, witty and interesting, with just the right amount of I'm-not-taking-myself-too-seriously attitude to make for genuinely pleasurable reading. Other books of his, 'Notes from a Small Island' and 'The Mother Tongue', are ones I return to again and again. His latest book, one of the longer ones (I was surprised, as most Bryson books rarely exceed 300 pages, and this one weighs in well past 500), is one likely to join those ranks. Of course, a history of everything, even a SHORT history of NEARLY everything, has got to be fairly long. Bryson begins, logically enough, at the beginning, or at least the beginning as best science can determine. Bryson weaves the story of science together with a gentle description of the science involved - he looks not only at the earliest constructs of the universe (such as the background radiation) but also at those who discover the constructs (such as Penzias and Wilson). A great example of the way Bryson weaves the history of science into the description of science, in a sense showing the way the world changes as our perceptions of how it exists change, is his description of the formulation, rejection, and final acceptance of the Pangaea theory. He looks at figures such as Wegener (the German meteorologist - 'weatherman', as Bryson describes him) who pushed forward the theory in the face of daunting scientific rejection that the continents did indeed move, and that similarities in flora and fauna, as well as rock formations and other geological and geographical aspects, can be traced back to a unified continent. Bryson with gentle humour discusses the attitudes of scientists, as they shifted not quite as slowly as the continents, towards accepting this theory, making gentle jabs along the way (Einstein even wrote a foreword to a book that was rather scathing toward the idea of plate tectonics - brilliance is no guarantee against being absolutely wrong). Bryson traces the development of the universe and the world from the earliest universe to the formation of the planet, to the growing diversity of life forms to development of human beings and human society. Inspired by Natural History (the short history refers more to natural history than anything else), this traces the path to us and possible futures. Bryson juxtaposes the creation of the Principia by Isaac Newton with the extinction of the dodo bird - stating that the word contained divinity and felony in the nature of humanity, the same species that can rise to the heights of understanding in the universe can also, for no apparent reason, cause the extinction of hapless and harmless fellow creatures on earth. Are humans, in Bryson's words, 'inherently bad news for other living things'? He recounts many of the truly staggering follies of species-hunting, particularly in the nineteenth centu

Wonderful Overview of Science and Scientists

I think this book should replace the texts used in most high school science courses. If it did, I think we would see more kids pursuing science careers, because Bryson does a wonderful job of conveying the joy and excitement of doing science as well as a sense of awe that our world evolved as it did. Sure, given a book of this nature, there is plenty people could quibble with. Bryson's writing style is amusing and entertaining, though it doesn't come close to matching "A walk in the woods," (but then again, not much could...). Readers expecting the humor quotient of that book or Bryson's other travel books will be disappointed, however. And although one can tell Bryson struggled valiantly to make the chapter on quantum physics understandable, he didn't succeed (at least for me). For example, he relates a study showing that one atomic particle can affect another atomic particle 70 miles away, simultaneously. I still don't understand how that can happen and wish somebody could explain it to me.But those are minor complaints compared to what this book is able to accomplish, which is to provide a broad, yet admirably detailed, education in the physical and biological sciences. I am overjoyed to see this book on the bestseller lists, because if enough people read it, we can no longer be accused of being the scientific ignoramuses that we largely have been. I think it could also work to serve more effectively as an environmental wake-up call than the wide array of existing polemical books that are read only by the already convinced.Lastly, perhaps the aspect of the book I admired and enjoyed the most is the way Bryson provides the human side of science through his frequent character sketches of the quirks and foibles of the many scientists whose work is reviewed. I may soon forget, once again, all three of Newton's laws of motion, but I will never--for the rest of my life--forget that he once inserted a rod behind his eyeball and stirred it around "just to see what would happen." This book is worth reading just for the anecdotes, and along the way you will learn an incredible amount of science.

Perhaps the Best Armchair Scientist Book I've Ever Read

I picked this one up expecting "good". Instead, I got one of the most delightful reading experiences in science that I have ever had. What a wonderful surprise.Bryson tries to do what most school textbooks never manage to do, explain the context of science in a way that is relevant to the average person. At the beginning of the book, he recalls an event from his childhood when he looked at a school text and saw a cross-section of our planet. He was transfixed by it, but noticed that the book just dryly presented the facts ("This is the core." "This part is molten rock." "This is the crust.", etc.), but never really explained HOW science came to know this particular set of facts. That, he quite correctly points out, is the most interesting part. And that is story he sets out to tell in this book.Bryson obviously spent a great deal of time and effort developing and checking his facts and presentation. He obviously enjoyed every minute of it too, and it shows. Never have I read a book where the author conveyed such joyful awe of what we have learned as a species (with the possible exception of some of Richard Feynman's books).My benchmark for this kind of book is usually; How well does it explain modern physics? There are few books out there that manage to explain relativity, quantum mechanics and string theory in a way that doesn't make your eyes glaze over. The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav is the best of the lot in my opinion. While this book did not change my opinion, Bryson's explanations of these mind-bending theories are not only lucid and sensible, they are also full of his telltale tongue-in-cheek side comments and therefore are just plain fun to read. However, Bryson goes way beyond Zukav, focusing not only on physics, but on the full panoply of scientific disciplines. He also focuses more on the discoverers themselves, and the process of discovery.One of the things I like about this book is that Bryson again and again makes sure credit is given where credit it due. For many discoveries, he tells us the "official" story, but also tells us the often untold story of the small-time scientist who got the idea first but, for whatever reason, never got credit. This happens a great deal in science, and Bryson appears to be on a quest to set the record straight when he can. The result is not only charming storytelling, it's got a certain justice that just feels good.I didn't have huge expectations for this book, but I am delighted to report that it is one of the best of its kind. Hurrah to Bryson for writing it, and hurrah to me for stumbling on it.

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