‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson
I have never read a more alternately fascinating and terrifying book than Bill Bryson’s excellent A Short History of Nearly Everything. On the fascinating side lies everything I ever wanted a science class to be: exciting, mind-bending, and thought-provoking. On the terrifying side lies the many ways Bryson gives in which our little world is going to end. Probably soon. Maybe tomorrow.
Setting the terror part aside — and a fellow book blogger helpfully pointed out to me that, if the world is going to end soon, we will in all likelihood perish immediately and thus don’t really need to worry about it — A Short History is a truly great read.
As absurd as the title sounds, “A short history of nearly everything” is actually pretty accurate. Bryson whips readers through the history of Earth from the Big Bang through to today’s extinctions and climate change from every possible scientific perspective.
I want to say it’s mostly a history of science book (along the lines of Richard Holmes’ also-amazing Age of Wonders), but it’s more than that. While Bryson does trace the history of science to reveal what we know (and how much we don’t) about our planet and ourselves, the book is largely comprised of actual, non-historic science. And, best of all for this non-scientist, Bryson explains “nearly everything” in the most comprehensible language possible. This book is quite literally about astrophysics and I understood every page, a rather new experience for me when it comes to science!
Indeed, Bryson’s book made me truly wonder (and not for the first time) what it is about science in school that makes it so painfully dry. This stuff is patently fascinating. It just is. Reading this book, you can feel your mind expanding to encompass the grandness of each new idea and fact.
So you would think even the most unimaginative person could see the magic inherent in science and present it thusly to students. Yet, I cannot remember a single science teacher ever evoking any kind of wonder at what we were learning and that we could even learn it. Science moves so quickly and has come so far so fast — even that fact alone is miraculous, not to mention the incredible things science has discovered.
A Short History of Nearly Everything understands the wonder part of science fully. The book begins and ends with a reminder that it took an awful lot to get you to the point where you can sit and read the book in front of you. A lot of lucky evolutions, a lot of fortuitous movements in plate tectonics, a lot of atmospheric blessings, and a lot of near astronomic misses. It didn’t have to end up this way. The odds are so much greater that we wouldn’t be here at all. But we made it and Bryson’s book is a mind-blowing explanation of how we did.