A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

In the introduction to this book, Bill Bryson explains why he decided to write a ‘popular science’ book. Bryson felt that most text books are needlessly complex and in general kind of dull. According to him,

“There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.”

Thus, A Short History of Nearly Everything was born. In it Bryson tries to explain scientific matters in a language that would be easily understood by the general populace.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson was published in 2003. It became a best seller on its publication and won several awards.

This book touches on an astonishing variety of topics. It starts with the creation of the universe, moves on to Quantum Physics, Geology, Biology and finally discusses Palaeontology and the origin of human beings. Natural disasters like volcanic irruptions & earthquakes and theories about mass extinctions are also discussed. The narrative is made livelier by interjecting it with humorous anecdotes about the people behind the science.

I really liked how Bryson talks of the people behind the science. The lives of known and unknown people behind some of the greatest discoveries come alive through Bryson’s narrative.

Bryson’s sense of humour shines through the narrative. I could quote passage after passage from the book that made me laugh.

Bryson tries his best to put the most difficult scientific terms and formulas in plain English accompanied with clever and witty examples. He does succeed to a large extent but an understanding of Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics helps. I fortunately have a grasp on these subjects as they formed the backbone of my education. I am surprised at how much information I have retained from my school days! Also, I am by profession an Anthropologist. So, the chapters about fossils and the debate surrounding the origin of human beings were right up my alley.

The book does contain some factual errors but they are not numerous. Generally the book is accurate and informative.

A Short History of Nearly Everything is a fairly big book. My edition runs over 600 pages and is divided into 6 parts & 30 chapters. It took me a while to finish it but not because it’s boring or difficult. Time constraint was a major factor. Plus, this is one book you cannot skim over. Most of it has to be read with careful attention. I did skim over the final chapter entitled Goodbye but that’s because it talks about how human beings are responsible for the extermination of many species of animals. Sometimes killing them for food but mostly killing them just for the sake of fun, out of boredom and sometimes callousness. Bloodlust, cruelty and above all a general attitude callousness, it seems, is in our blood. Reading of so many instances of our cruelty made me sad. So, I skimmed over most of it.

How much my being an Anthropologist with an interest in Physics, Chemistry; etc, etc, influenced my enjoyment of the book I am not sure. Overall, I can say that I loved reading A Short History of Nearly Everything. It took me quite some time to finish it but I liked it and rarely felt bored. Recommended.

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