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A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson

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      09.01.2010 01:58
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      A beautifully written book, a must read!

      I am not a big reader, to be honest I struggle to find the time, but although this book is a very bulky one it's perhaps one of the most intriguing and thought provoking books I've ever read. I have always had an interest in science which is what this book is about, the science behind every aspect of life...so far. I am a science teacher in a secondary school and I would happily use various quotes as thought provoking starters to lessons in the hope to capture the imagination of the students. This is the first of Bill Brysons books that I have read and I shall definately give more a go after reading this one. He explains everything really well, breaking it down for the non-scientist but even I found myself getting a little bit lost in places as his ideas developed. Even so I still found this a very difficult book to put down!

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        08.01.2010 01:45
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        A book everyone should own

        This book has to be one of the greatest all time books. The title of this book does it an injustice. It's pages cover far more than history. It is really a science history book, but science in the broadest sense of the word including many topics such as physics, quantum physics, geology, biology, evolution, chemistry and cosmology to name a few. Although it is not possible to cover the history of everything, or even nearly everything, in one book, Bryson has a good crack at it and by the end you really do end up knowing a lot more about everything.

        Bryson's easy to read, and to understand, method of writing enables the reader to comprehend some very complex subjects and gives us the interesting back stories to the science. After reading this book I came out of it as someone who really appreciated how lucky I am, we are, to be here and as a person who is a lot more interested in science than I was ever destined to be. This is one of those rare books that will have your children interested in subjects that they should find boring. It is a book everyone should own. I will always have my battered, much lent, much used copy.

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          17.12.2009 14:01
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          A brilliant book for anyone vaguely interested in science.

          Having read one of Bill Bryson's books previously, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I thought I'd give this one a go. I enjoy science, and I'd say I know quite a bit about certain areas; however, it can be difficult to be introduced to completely new areas in easy-to-understand ways. In "A Short History of Nearly Everything", Bryson does just that.

          For instance, his use of language is clear, and he avoids falling into that all-too-common trap of using jargon. He defines words a layperson wouldn't know, and you really see him as a kind teacher rather than a sneering, snobbish one. It could as easily be aimed at those to whom science is a complete unknown, as well as those who are well acquainted with it but just want to expand their knowledge.

          In the book, he covers areas that might seem daunting at first, such as particle physics, astronomy, chemistry, paleontology, as well as explorations of time itself from the Big Bang to the way our understanding of quantum mechanics has changed the way we think. Evolution and geology also get a look in, and Bryson's excellent prose manages to give the reader a real sense of what it's all about.

          The humour Bryson always injects into his work is present throughout: for instance, he complains about science textbooks, stating that "It was as if [the textbook writer] wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable." It's certain that this aim is the opposite of Bryson's; his infectious love of knowledge and experience is something you can really feel. Part of this is because it's not simply a book of facts; each section is developed through experts in the field that Bryson has met, and the descriptions of their encounters really make the reader feel included.

          Knowledge is meant to be accessible to anyone, you can almost hear him say, and this book is an excellent example of how someone who once knew nothing about an area can manage to elucidate a small part of that multi-headed beast we call science.

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          20.11.2009 20:26
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          A hugely entertaining book that gives a great overview of the world of science

          With 'A Short History of Nearly Everything', renowned travel-writer Bill Bryson instead turns his attention to the world of science, systematically working his way through every aspect of the natural world and the associated tales of scientific progress beginning with the creation of the universe and ending with the emergence of modern humans. Its an incredibly comprehensive and informative book, covering in detail topics including geology, paeleontology, physics at both the macro and micro level, cosmology, meteorology, astronomy, anthropology and everything in between, in his efforts to understand why our planet formed, why atoms behave as they do, why the center of the earth is molten, how modern humans came to be, what happened to the Dinosaurs, why the continents are slowly drifting apart and a million other questions that are all addressed and answered in simple layman's terms with constant reference to scientific experts in each field.

          The book also follows a truly human story as it chronicles the progress of science throughout the centuries, descibing the idiosynchratic nature of the individuals involved and frequently showing how great ideas are frequently overlooked and scoffed at because they didnt fit in with the accepted zeitgeist of the time.

          At over 550 pages its a fairly long and dense work as you would expect, but even when describing something as mind-numbing as the taxonomy of mosses Bryson keeps things interesting with a fresh and witty narrative, meaning that the book is incredibly difficult to put down as well as hugely informative. One of the most enjoyable popular science books I've ever read, 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' is a brilliant read that provides a fantastic overview of science and the universe and comes highly recommended.

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            13.10.2009 21:27
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            A fantastic addition to any bookshelf!

            I had been meaning to read this book for a long time. The title itself made me want to extend my knowledge on 'everything'. So I eventually got around to reading it on holiday this summer and I can honestly say it is one of the best books I have ever read.

            I have learnt a lot from this book. Not just facts but humourous tales of the sometimes unfortunate lives of the greatest scientists throughout history. Bryson brings his humour into the book as well and while reading you can almost tell how much he enjoyed writing it. I am intrigued as to how he did all the research!!

            I purchased the new edition with illustrations in. However these are really just some photographs of Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin et al so do not add to the book a great deal. Although the newer addition does include updated footnotes from Bryson with some ammended facts and figures since the first publication.

            Reading this book you will not be able to stop quoting to anyone around you the most amazing facts Bryson throws at you. I would really reccommend this book to everyone, young and old. I really think that everyone can gain something from this book. It displays all the details of science in a way that almost anyone can understand. I wish I has read this during my school days, I'm sure it would have helped me to understand some of the complexities of science during my studies whilst keeping me entertained. I'd definately recommend it as a must read!

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              13.08.2009 00:57
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              Buy this book!

              This book has got to be hands down, the best book I have ever read. As the title suggests, it gives you information on nearly everything. The topics covered by the book are immense, including, the start of the universe, the size of the universe, fossils, evolution and lots lots more.

              This is book great for the average reader who is interested in science, but cannot read through books and books of information on individual topics. The book is only 500 pages, but took me a long time to read. The vast amount of information on the pages, can be a bit too much at time, and you need a break. Don't make this stop you buying it, just have breaks between reading the different sections and it is thoroughly enjoyable.

              The style of writing is easy to understand and is humerous. One of the best things about this book is that you find out how much rivalry there is between different scientists and how many "facts" of today were just laughed off and thought to be preposterous.

              Bill Bryson has written a book that is absolutely brilliant and just gives you lots of interesting facts about the world we live in. Pick it up and give it a go; you won't be dissapointed!

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                10.06.2009 10:33
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                Get it: read it: tell your kids about it

                I'm now on to my fifth read of this book and I'm still managing to find some new and fascinating fact hidden away in the depths of science! This book benefits from Bryson's usual style of wry humour, gentle meanderings and dry wit: the title itself is a parody of Hawking's rather more serious effort on time itself.
                Bryson takes the reader on a journey that encompasses astrophysics, quantum mechanics, geology, biology and evolution. Anyone who's had to sit through the tedium of double physics might not think this a particularly good idea for a book: how wrong you will be. No tedious explanations in here: joust good, solid facts delivered with a prose that makes this an easy and pleasant read. If this were on the curriculum in British secondary schools, perhaps we'd be turning out some great scientists rather than appaling bankers/management consultants/accountants.
                I can't think of anything bad to say about this book, other than that it's not available free to school pupils.

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                  11.05.2009 23:28
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                  If you want a basic, readable introduction to sciences, read this book.

                  A parody on possibly the greatest modern scientific book ever written, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, Bill Bryson shows off his scientific knowledge in a very entertaining manner.

                  As the title suggests, nearly every scientific aspect is covered, from Newton's laws to Schrödinger's cat. And comparing it to Hawking's book, the writing is much more aimed at the layman audience.
                  The approach, too, is very well thought out, Bryson places scientific discoveries in chronological order, starting with the basic structure of the universe, then proceeding to Earthly matters.

                  The book ends on a fantastic view on the brilliance and the failures of humanity in general, taking our ancient ancestors to (scarily) accurately personify us all. And in true Bryson form, it has you laughing uncontrollably at the satirical generalisation of the human race.

                  This does go for the rest of the book too, as well as presenting the facts and discoveries, Bryson goes where few scientists have dared go before- the land of the joke. It is a huge breath of fresh air to see such a wordy/numbery subject taken in such a light- hearted way.

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                    09.04.2009 07:59
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                    If you want to know more about science, this is a great place to start.

                    Bill Bryson is not a scientist. Rather he's a prolific and successful writer of humorous books on travel and English language. Several years ago, whilst on a plane flight, he realised that he didn't know the first thing about the planet below, the only planet he would ever live on. He had no idea, for example, why the oceans are salty but the Great Lakes aren't, whether the oceans were getting saltier, or if this was something he should worry about!

                    He then decided to spend the next three years of his life finding out the answers to these questions and more, and learn all about the marvels of science. This book is the result of his research.

                    As an already successful writer, he was able to call upon a lot of resources to complete his quest. He was able to get in contact with top scientists in various fields to ask them (in his words) "a lot of outstandingly dumb questions". His aim was to produce a book that gets across the technical and scientific achievements of the human race, whilst being easy to read and understand.

                    Well, he succeeded. Anyone who's read any of Bryson's work will know that he has an easy, chatty writing style. He uses humour a lot to make even the driest subject interesting. He recounts reading a textbook whilst at school that was full of wonderful fact, but did not answer any of the questions he raised. It was written in a way that was almost incomprehensible. His aim is to be more readable than this.

                    I find science fascinating, but I agree with Bryson's assessment of that old text book. Some writers can make even interesting subjects boring! This book is not like that, however. It's a page turner that will have you laughing out loud even as you learn something new and astonishing. An example is quoted below. He's talking about 'the bends'; compression sickness that results when people are exposed to high pressure. The quote describes the opening ceremony of a tunnel.

                    "To their consternation their champagne failed to fizz when uncorked in the compressed air of the tunnel. However, when at length they emerged into the fresh air of a London evening, the bubbles sprang instantly to fizziness, memorably enlivening the digestive process".

                    The book is written as a journey of discovery leading to life itself. He first describes how the universe was formed and how the solar system works. He then moves on to describe the science of the earth we live on.

                    Having put ourselves in our place in the universe, Bryson then explores the key advances in science over the past hundred years. Relativity and atomic physics are described in his simple style of writing. When things get too complicated, he just quotes from scientists explaining that some things are not meant to be understood!

                    The final chapters are devoted to understanding how life evolved and how we came to be. The unlikely nature of life is explored. We live on a planet with just the right conditions for life, yet 99.5% of our planet's environments would kill us if we tried to go there (under the surface of the ocean, the depths of the earth etc.). The fact that we can sit and read Bryson's book is down to an innumerable number of one-off coincidences that gave birth to us.

                    Darwin is of course discussed at length, and the rage and disbelief that his theories caused (and are still causing in certain circles) makes for an amusing read.

                    This book is then, a summary of our current knowledge of life, the universe, and everything (to quote from another writer who can make science humorous!). It is extremely readable and full of fascinating facts and stories. If you are at all interested in science (or even if you suspect you might be), pick up a copy of this book, you won't be disappointed.

                    The book is currently available from Amazon for £6.49 in paperback. Not bad for the sum of all human knowledge!

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                      26.03.2009 01:07
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                      One of my favourite books of all time, a truly amazing read

                      What a read! Once I'd started this book I couldn't put it down. I finished it over a weekend and was gutted when it was over.

                      It was recommended to me by a friend and initially I was unsure, he told me it was a science book and when I got hold of a copy and saw it weighed in at 688 pages it sat on my shelf for ages before I eventually picked it up.

                      As a man who is interested in science and nature I was really glad that I did get round to reading this. Whilst it is a science book, it is written in a way that everyone can understand, yet is not condescending in any way.

                      Effectively, what Bill Bryson has done, is taken the history of our world and put it all down in everyday English. He talks about everything for the big bang to Einstein, Quarks and Volcanoes, and everything in between. This is not written as a science journal however, it is written more in the form of a novel, as we travel around the world with Bill as he learns all about everything on our planet!

                      A final quick note, whilst this book is 688 pages, only 574 are actually reading pages. The remainder are notes, bibliography and index.

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                        24.08.2007 17:23
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                        A fantastic read from a mature author that has been well researched.

                        This book is a brilliant read for people who would like to know more about the world around them but find it hard to read through serious science publications.

                        Bill Bryson is an entertaining writer and also has a snappy style that makes it possible to read this book in short bursts. So far I am two thirds of the way through 'A Short History of Almost Everything' and that is due to the shear amount of facts that are bursting on every page. I find I can digest the information in this book more easily when I read it ten pages at a time. At this rate it will take me a few months yet as the book is nearly 600 pages, so it is quite an undertaking.

                        The idea behind the book (as I perceive it) is to take the reader from the beginning of the everything - The Big Bang theory and accompanying ideas - right through to modern history. The title I find is a little misleading as the book only covers science history and not cultural history.

                        What I find so interesting about this book is the personalities that are explained. I had an inkling that most inventors, scientist and discoverers were slightly on the crazy side, but this book confirms it. With a tounge-in-cheek approach, Bryson explains delicately how borderline and misunderstood many of these characters were and how few people ever gained the respect they deserved while still alive.

                        It quotes on the blurb that this book would be a great one to read in schools and I definately agree.

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                          28.01.2007 18:52
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                          A witty and thorough guide to the history of our Planet

                          I have been a fan of Bryson's travel writing for years, his wit and observational skills make his books interesting and funny. I expected more of the same from him in this book, and in some respects I got it, but generally I found it a harder read than most of his other stuff. The copy I have is a hardback with 423 pages plus almost a further hundred pages dedicated to notes, bibliography and the index. This made it a bit to bulky to take on journeys thus I really only read the book at home and don't often find the time to sit and read at home, making for a disjointed reading experience. This is combined with the fact that the subject matter does not always make for easy reading and is somewhat heavier (and not just physically) than his more lightweight travel books. Bryson is an inquisitive person and goes into a great deal of detail in this book, but his observational skills have not been dulled and he is able to discover the absurd and ridiculous where it is apparent (which is quite often). The book is divided into five parts which are broken down as follows:

                          I. Lost in the Cosmos

                          There is no place to start like the beginning, thus Bryson does just that and begins his book with the creation of the Universe. The sheer number of figures with many zeros in them is a bit daunting, but Bryson does try and explain what these figures mean. The book was first published in 2003, and the solar system chapter deals with the currently topical issue of Pluto and its dubious planetary status but does not mention the new kids on the block Ceres, Xena and Charon. However this chapter (as indeed are all the chapters) is informative without being patronising, so even scanning it briefly again for the purpose of this review, I still feel I am learning something. This section also covers the stars and some of the unique personalities that have been involved in astronomy over the last few hundred years.

                          II. The Size of the Earth

                          In his look at the planet Earth, Bryson manages to find us some more eccentrics and writes of their theories on the size (and shape) of our planet. There is an emphasis on geology in this section also, a topic I have never really enjoyed, but Bryson made it as interesting as he could. He also talks about early dinosaur discoveries and how they assisted (or were ignored) by the scientists trying to gauge the age of Earth. Chemistry (another school subject I never got to grips with) is also discussed and quite frankly, in spite of reading some paragraphs about three times, mostly went over my head.

                          III. A New Age Dawns

                          Come the end on the nineteenth century physicists thought they had pretty much discovered everything. Bryson is, of course, delighted to prove them wrong. He writes of turn of the century physicists, especially Albert Einstein and how he managed to buck the trend in making new discoveries such as gravity and the theory of relativity, which initially confused and baffled his contemporaries. Elsewhere in this section Bryson also discusses atoms, lead and CFCs and particle physics. I can assure you that this is not as daunting as it may sound. I understood most of it. The last chapter in this section deals with the movement of the Earth and examines some of the theories why the land masses are shaped as such, and why some animal fossils appear on opposite sides of an ocean. I found this one of the more interesting chapters and led perfectly into the next section.

                          IV. Dangerous Planet

                          This is essentially a geology section, and although I have very little prior geological knowledge it kept my interest and I felt I learnt more about the impact of asteroids and subsequent volcanoes and tsunami and the effects they had on the geology of our planet. He also writes about what is known of the Earth's core and an interesting chapter on volcanoes and earthquakes.

                          V. Life Itself

                          This was probably my favourite section and discusses how humans (and other species) manage to survive on Earth and how we evolved. Bryson doesn't just start with man, but with early ocean species, and many species that died out before we arrived (not to mention the numerous species who have disappeared around the time of man arriving in their part of the world and mucking up the eco-system). There is a slightly complicated chapter dealing with cells, one on the ice age and the penultimate chapter entitled The Curious Bi-Ped which debunks various myths and theories that attempt to explain how we got to where we are today. The last chapter in appropriately entitled Goodbye and deals with some of the species that we have lost and how we managed to, quite successfully, lose them in spite of our best intentions. It is quite a sad chapter when you realise how man mistreats his fellow planetary residents and even fails to record accurately what some creatures (such as the dodo) were like.

                          You don't really need to have a particular interest or any form of background knowledge on the topics discussed. Although I am not particularly scientifically minded I found with a little bit of perseverance (and re-reading of a few paragraphs) I got to grips with most topics. Not all chapters and sections will appeal equally, the diversity of the book means that there will soon be something else along than can grab your attention, although some threads are interlinked with other parts of the book, so you cannot skip too much.

                          I would recommend this book for people who are interested in learning a taster about subjects that don't know a great deal about, as an alternative to heavier, more intellectual texts. This is very much a scientific (and historical) book for the layman.

                          The hardback version of this book is available for £15.49 from Play.com and the paperback for £7.49 delivered. The paperback is actually cheaper at Amazon at £6.59 but that does not include delivery which is £2.75. They offer free delivery on orders of £15 or more so if you are making other purchases this may be the best option. I have also seen this book in paperback format in Waterstone's 3 for 2 offer section if you are looking on the High Street.

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                            30.10.2006 10:30
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                            The science book we've been waiting for

                            A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson

                            What a good idea this book is. Take one of the most engaging writers around today and say "you know all this complicated science stuff out there; go and have a look and then come back and explain it to us." The result is a cracking book that fizzes along and manages to tell you more than you ever thought you needed to know.

                            The book is divided into sections, each roughly assigned to a particular discipline. These cover physics, particularly the study of the universe. Geology, including the history of the Earth as a physical entity, and then moving into chemistry. And finally a history of life on Earth and evolution. Each topic is given ample room to be discussed and Bryson moves at an agreeable pace throughout.

                            Bryson mixes history and exposition easily throughout, depending on the topic, and makes a pretty good fist of both. As suggested by the title, much of the book deals with the history of particular sciences and this is where the author is in his element. Much of these sections are made up of anecdotes and potted personal histories of some truly colourful characters, each of whom have made some contribution to human knowledge. Bryson comfortably brings his considerable gifts to this exercise and you are swept along a gently humorous journey where the emphasis is clearly on the light-hearted. We can pretty much get our heads round such things as the question of the age of the planet and the existence of fossils so they don't require a lot of scientific elaboration and we can enjoy learning about the characters and the conflicts that have been involved along the way. Where things begin to get a bit tricky is when he tries to explain some of the more recent discoveries in science. Unfortunately for us many sciences such as physics, biology and chemistry have reached such a level of advancement and sophistication that the theories and discoveries are way beyond the understanding of mere mortals.

                            Let's look at physics first. Everything was going swimmingly until that damn patent clerk came up with his theories of relativity. Despite now being a century old these are so complex and remote that the only people who genuinely understand tend to be of the Tefal-head variety. We learn that as well as measuring the universe in terms of space and time there is also space-time, and that space is curved. E=MC2, we all know that one. That's where E is energy, M is mass and C is the speed of light (the universal constant), what this tells us is that it is impossible to go faster than the speed of light as the energy required to move a mass at approaching that speed would be so immense as to be effectively infinite and therefore impossible. Also, if you should be in a ship travelling at close to light speed, time will pass slower for you than for someone stationary (which is why time is relative). As you probably know, it gets far more complicated than that and, really, no matter how well Bryson tries to explain it all you can do is nod and accept it as written without ever coming close to understanding why it's true. The same happens in chemistry, we can all picture an atom where you have a little nucleus being orbited by any number of moon-like electrons (this image is woefully inaccurate in reality but is so ingrained that it is still used) but things rapidly get complicated when the boffins start looking inside the nucleus or at the behaviour of the electrons. The problem is that the rules that apply at this micro level have no relation to physics at the tangible level. We learn that at this level everything is made up of particles divided into types, such as pions, antipions, muons and neutrinos. By this point the eyes are glazing over and you're grasping for words you might have heard on Star Trek. It happens in biology as well when working at the cellular level. We now know quite a lot about cells, Chromosomes and DNA. I say 'we' but really I mean those clever blokes at Cambridge or Harvard, the rest of us don't really know much at all. Bryson provides an excellent description of the goings-on within a cell but again it is so far removed from anything we can relate to that it is beyond what we can meaningfully understand. This isn't Bryson's fault, quite frankly if he can't explain it in terms we can understand I doubt there is any writer out there that could. All you can do is try to get as much intellectual ammunition out of it so that you are suitably prepped when next faced with the office know-it-all.

                            One of the things that Bryson does do well is convey scale. The opening chapter discusses space which, as Douglas Adams pointed out is big, very big. Quite how big we can't properly comprehend but Bryson comes as close to conveying this as is probably possible. For example, take the solar system; we can all picture the standard model of the Sun orbited by 9 equidistant planets. Unfortunately, this is hugely misleading in terms of scale. As he makes clear it is to all intents and purposes impossible to draw the solar system to scale. Even if you draw Earth the size of a pea Jupiter will be 300 metres away and Pluto two and half kilometres. And that's just the solar system; the nearest star is 4.6 light years away. 4.6 is a nice understandable number but the light years bit is truly daunting, even travelling at the speed of light (which, as we now know, is impossible) it would take that many years to get there and travelling at any kind of imaginable speed would take twenty odd thousand years, not that there's probably anything there worth seeing anyway. To get anywhere vaguely interesting would take considerably longer. It is all very frustrating for those of us who believe in such things but with there being something like 140 billion stars in our galaxy and an estimated further 140 billion equivalent galaxies in the universe in all probability there is plenty of life out there but the chances of us ever contacting them is effectively zero.
                            OK, so space is very big but another big number relates to the age of the Earth. 4.5 billion years old in fact (and you can add 4 years to that as well as the book was written in 2002) and that is very old. A billion years is easy to write down but impossible to imagine and Bryson supplies a couple of examples to illustrate this, and where we (as humans) sit on this time line. Imagine the history of the Earth as a single 24 hour day, life emerges quite early at about 4:00am with the first microbes. Nothing much changes for the next sixteen hours until 8:30pm when more complex organisms appear. By 10:00pm plants are growing on land soon followed by the first land animals. Dinosaurs arrive at 11:00pm and at 11:58pm the first recognisable humans finally appear. That's not to say our day is almost over but it does show that the planet was ticking along for one hell of long time before we got our hands on it.

                            Bill Bryson's greatest strength is as an everyman communicator, he makes writing look so easy. Just because he doesn't write serious works discussing the human condition should not take away from the fact that he is one of the best writers around today. This book is always accessible without ever dumbing down the subject matter and you will come away knowing a lot more than before you started. Like listening to David Attenborough, you learn so much without ever feeling like you're being taught. I can't recommend this book enough; anyone with even the slightest interest in the world around them will benefit from reading it, and if it encourages you to read further on any of the subjects covered, so much the better.

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                              10.08.2005 12:46
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                              Entertaining, Elucidating and Educating.

                              I have never read any of Bill Bryson's material, but I have always heard good reactions to his stuff. His other works tend to deal mostly with his travels around the world. He's gone a bit further with 'A Short History of Nearly Everything'. Bryson effortlessly tackles possibly the most sleep-inducing subject: Science.

                              On face value 'A Short History' -referred to as thus herein- is an introduction to every basic scientific discipline i.e. Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geology and the subdivisions that come with it. Most people who despise anything remotely scientific -probably due to their endless school assignments- may see this book as a little in your face, but Bryson understands this. With a vast array of information, a dash of wit and a whole smackering of anecdotes Bryson reconstructs the stereotype of the scientific world. The world we think of Boolean operators and stale chalkboards becomes one populated with ridiculous experiments, bickering lunatics, and above all the underlying idea that although we think we know a lot about our world and the stuff surrounding us, we don't really know if any of it is accurate. And he does all this without bamboozling you in any way.

                              This sounds crap, but it is very difficult to try and abridge 'A Short History'. Bryson's knowledge -bearing in mind that he's not a scientist, just a voraciously curious person- is staggering. It may look like a long book, clocking in just shy of six hundred pages, but the notes at the back take up about a fifth of the total bulk. Regardless, each chapter displays a standard that is well beyond an average Joe. The fact that he has bothered to go to the trouble of meeting numerous scientists, industrialists, historians and botanists over the course of three years is a testament to how fascinating the book is. A slightly unimportant thing to say but in the back of is a very helpful index if you want to skip straight to the earth's magnetic field or the curvature of space so you can show off your book smartness to your friends.

                              Every page is a gem of information delivered with an easily approachable sense of humour. With nearly every fact about the specific matter Bryson gives us the story behind the story. From reading the opening sections that deal mostly with the birth of both the universe and physics, we find out that Isaac Newton barely spent any time of his life on the famous laws of motion. It turns out he was a complete cuckoo clock obsessed with alchemy, associated with dangerous religious sects and performed bizarre experimentation on himself like poking a knitting needle around his eye socket to see what happens. Remarkably he was not blinded. Bryson uses very simple and amusing metaphors to illustrate the point. On certain topics he just doesn't go but this is usually due to the fact that the matter is not that important or simply too difficult to explain. For instance he doesn't venture too far into explaining the fact that the universe has more than four dimensions, as we simply can't comprehend dimensions above the initial four (the fourth is time in case you're wondering).

                              Once he gets out of cosmology and all the physical principles that form us, he moves onto how early paleontologists and rock breakers were in fashion in the 1800s as they tried to gauge how big and how old the earth is. Despite the fact that certain people were clearly brilliant and years ahead of their time in their respective areas, quite a lot of them were either complete Looney Tunes or glory-seeking backstabbing gits. Richard Owen, who first coined the term for the Tyrannosaurus Rex as well as many other things, is described as "the only man Darwin was known to hate". How continents shift; how fast the earth moves; why volcanoes occur; what causes earthquakes, and the people involved in making up the theories is all here. Geology gets flitted back and forth later in the novel. Before the closing section he does seem to get over indulged with the topic -in that it becomes a bit boring- as he does spend an awful lot of time talking about boring old rocks and bones.

                              Towards the final chapters, Bryson gets to the good stuff: Life. It is hard for us to think of this as Humans, as we think we're the top dogs in the solar system, but Bryson explains that there is life EVERYWHERE. It is in your pillow, it is in your stomach, it is two miles below the surface of the water in volcanic vents and it never dies out. Life as it seems is short lived but it always perseveres, despite several enormous extinctions over the couple of billion years that life has existed on the planet. It's a truly wondrous section to read as -to me anyway- I feel both incredibly lucky to be alive and in complete awe of the fact that there is an infinitesimal amount of, well, STUFF out there. We live in a small world in terms of communication; for instance, there are people in Germany a mouse click away from reading this. In the natural world there is so much we really don't know about. We don't know why a bunch of lifeless and mindless carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen atoms decided to form together to start make amino acids, and then make proteins and then forming microbes. We don't know why these microbes started to get bigger and form squiggly things that then evolved into bigger scaly furry bitey things. Therein lies the miracle of life. We're all comprised of a large pile of lifeless molecules, but in the right combination we're made a living burping entity. There's no reason for any of these atoms to hold us in place, but they do. Over the millions of years our ancestors have changed shape in ridiculous ways, more than we can think of. There has been hamsters the size of rhinos and rhinos the size of two story houses and we don't even know if they're totally extinct or not. And it all keeps on going.

                              'A Short History' is a remarkable book in every sense of the word. Bryson has not only transformed my view of the scientific world but also has introduced me to many subjects I had no clue about. All without confusing me in any way. I'm happy to say I understood everything in this book, although the fact I studied science in school has helped. Even then I do not think anybody will have trouble reading it. Bryson's combination of brilliant prose, delivery of information and his style of humour leave you with a brilliant reading experience. Go out and read it now.

                              [You can buy a second hand copy for about three quid on amazon.co.uk.]

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                                19.09.2004 09:14
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                                I saw the author's name, realised he was writing well outside his experience - as he admits many times himself - and braced myself for a train smash. Actually, there was only a muted sound of tearing metal ...

                                The title is eloquent in itself; the book is a romp through most subject areas of in modern science, although there are some significant omissions which would certainly interest the general reader (meteorology and semiconductors, for two). I sympathise and agree with the author's reason for writing it - horror at dull, narrow textbooks where the equation is king together with disbelief that anyone would want to do the questions posed at the end of each chapter. The author's treatment of mathematics-based and non-mathematics-based topics is very different, however.

                                I am not qualified to comment in detail on the sections concerning biology, genetics and evolution, but I must say they are an enjoyable read and filled in all sorts of gaps in my knowledge.

                                I am qualified to comment on the chemistry, physics and astrophysics sections and, unfortunately, they are almost perfunctory compared to the others, skating over just about everything at a high level. I feel the author understood his limitations - hardly surprisingly given the arcane nature of the subject matter - and backed off; there are many better individual books if you really want to know what relativity, quantum mechanics or high energy physics is about.

                                Despite that dissent, the book is worthwhile - the author is incapable of writing a dull word - and would make a good school textbook (!) albeit with an alert teacher to point out its deficiencies.

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                              • Product Details

                                Bill Bryson is one of the world's most beloved and bestselling writers. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, he takes his ultimate journey-into the most intriguing and consequential questions that science seeks to answer.