A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING
By Bill Bryson. 544 pp. DoubleDay Canada $39.95 (Hardcover)
I haven’t sat and watched this much television is years. But, it’s hard not to when the birth of the universe is on.
And on my television, which gets only one channel with rabbit ears, it’s on every night.
So, as Bill Bryson puts it in A Short History of Nearly Everything: “The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe.”
What Bryson is referring to, in such an illuminating and funny way, is that about one percent of the static you see on the television is due to cosmic background radiation, the archaic leftovers of the Big Bang.
Upon reading this, I immediately sat down to watch. I also couldn’t help thinking about everything I had learned about…well…everything in Bryson’s latest book. Here he has attempted to condense the history of cosmology, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and much more, into 554 pages. This may seem like an impossible undertaking, but Bryson have done a superb job, entertaining me with clear writing on every page.
Bryson has previously written several well received travel books, including A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country.
So how does a travel writer end up explaining the history of many scientific fields?
Bryson explains: “I was on a long flight across the Pacific staring idly out the window at the moonlit ocean, when it occurred to me with a certain uncomfortable forcefulness that I didn’t know the first thing about the only planet I was ever going to live on.”
Bryson confesses that he didn’t know what a proton or protein was, and couldn’t tell a “quark from a quasar.” So he spent three years asking questions, reading books and research papers, and thinking about what science had found out about the world.
For anyone that has had moments of not knowing—mine often come when I am observing nature like a dog hearing something I cannot—Bryson’s newest adventure through the universe is a trip worth taking. You will learn about the Big Bang, the search to understand “the mighty atom,” about plate tectonics, and the “rise” and “richness” of nature.
Bryson also has a knack for bringing to life facts and numbers. For example, how bacteria are a big part of our world, with every human body having “about 10 quadrillion cells, but about 100 quadrillion bacterial cells,” for which Bryson equates us to a walking food court. Or how scientists think they can look back to 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds (10-43) after the birth of the universe.
Through this all, not once did I reach for a dictionary or feel bogged down in abstract theory. In fact, Bryson has encouraged and equipped me to re-read some of the denser scientific books on my shelf, while throwing in quite a few chuckles along the way.
This book is destined to become a classic.