A Short History of Nearly Everything
By Bill Bryson
|Value for money||8/10|
|Did it do what it said on the box?||7/10|
Science for the verbally-minded
This is a remarkable book in two ways. It’s a very clear, comprehensive summary and explanation of our current understanding across a wide range of scientific subjects. It’s also the only science book I’ve ever read with almost no illustrations or equations.
In his introduction Bryson complains that he could not get interested in science at school because all the text books were dull. Admittedly I’m a few years younger, which might make a difference, but I was exposed from an early age to a vast array of well-written and beautifully-illustrated books on a range of science subjects. The conclusion is simple: unlike most who get interested in science, Bill Bryson is one of those people whose thinking is almost entirely verbal in nature, and he’s written a book for those of the same persuasion. And he’s done a very good job of it.
If you have a passing familiarity with most of the topics the book’s clear prose will refresh and add to your knowledge, but I do wonder whether those without much background will be able to successfully visualise the subjects. On the other hand his insistence on writing out large numbers in words or with all the zeros might soothe the fears of the mathematically inexperienced, but is plain annoying if you’re happy with scientific notation.
Honouring its title, the book covers an impressive amount of ground. A very well structured journey takes us through cosmology, geology, palaeontology, chemistry, physics, meteorology, biology, evolution and extinction, genetics and the emergence of mankind. The topics are split so that the walk is roughly chronological, both in respect of the target time frame, and also in respect of the development of scientific understanding, a clever feat.
Throughout Bryson explains all the key ideas, focusing more on those which have stood the test of time. But his real interest is the scientists, especially the more interesting ones – the eccentric, sociopathic and dishonest. His thumbnail sketches of important scientists are very entertaining, and are one of the books’ best features.
I didn’t spot any significant errors, and where informed opinion differs the author explains this openly, and usually in a very amusing way. He draws a clear contrast between the overweening "we know almost everything" of the late Victorians, to the acknowledged gaps in our knowledge a century later. As a result you get a very clear, balanced view of where we are now.
If you’re looking for step-by-step prose and big, clear pictures, look elsewhere. But if you want a walk through science with one of the masters of clear, concise and amusing verbal explanation, I can thoroughly recommend this book.