Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is an enchanting look at the history of the world, science and the cast of characters that have thus far helped us to understand our place in the world and in the universe.
The book was totally not what I expected when it was given to me as a gift. Looking at the cover I was hoping for a somewhat narrative history of the universe, maybe told in small vignettes. Maybe, once humans were introduced, short stories and lives of our earliest ancestors until today.
Boy, was I wrong in the best possible way! Instead of what might have been dull and dry history and narration I found a witty and insightful story of the world told largely through the stories and lives of the scientists who advanced our knowledge. It was full of surprises and enlightening stories.
Bryson makes the learning of really complex science easier and the book is approachable for science enthusiasts and people that haven’t opened a science book in a long time (like myself). For dramatic effect he would show immense numbers, then give you a practical example of what that would mean, so rather than getting bogged down by numbers, your mind was boggled by the sheer immensity of his illustration.
But for me what was most interesting was the nuance that Bryson provided on the science. So much of what we are told is as though things are settled and certain ideas are fact, when there is a lot we don’t know and there isn’t a clear consensus in the scientific community. I found the clear limitations of what we knew to be fascinating. That through math and observation we can know things about the distant universe, but aren’t entirely sure what’s up with our oceans or how it was that we came back from an Ice Age, or why mountains have dropped up in the middle of a plate in the earth and not on a plate boundary.
If you have even a passing interest in science and the eccentric, lucky, unlucky and downright wacky people that have discovered truths about the world and continue to push, pick this book up immediately.