May 27, 2009

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

I've been lucky to have read some really great books recently, but the one that stands out as the most enjoyable was kind of a surprise: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

This book is basically a science textbook for a non-scientist. It covers, at a rather simplistic level, topics such as geology, physics, paleontology, and evolution. Clocking in at just under 500 pages (not counting the notes, bibliography, or index), none of the subjects are covered in much depth, but you still get a very good idea of what the topic is all about. I found it to be written at about the level of something like Popular Science magazine: not completely "dumbed down", but still very accessible without a science background. In the introduction, Bryson states:
The idea was to see if it isn't possible to understand and appreciate--marvel at, enjoy even--the wonder and accomplishments of science at a level that isn't too technical or demanding, but isn't entirely superficial either.
I feel he was incredibly successful at reaching this balance. I was captivated by this book. The writing was strong throughout, and there was a surprising degree of actual storytelling. Does geology sound boring to you? Just wait until you read about all the in-fighting between geologists! You've heard of Sir Isaac Newton, but do you have any idea of what an odd fellow he was?

This isn't just a book of facts, but a book about people: how people make scientific discoveries, why they are drawn to the work, how the make mistakes, how they interact with their peers. I think this aspect of the book is what made it so entirely readable for me.

Of course, a non-fiction book is only as good as its facts, and in a book of this breadth, written by a non-scientist, there are bound to be errors. I looked around online (being a non-scientist myself, and unable to judge the validity of the facts), and did find a few complaints about errors. Also, this book was published in 2003. Of course things change with new discoveries or changes in the way we view things. For example, I got a bit of a giggle from this line: is good news that in February 1999 the International Astronomical Union ruled officially that Pluto is a planet. The universe is a big and lonely place. We can do with all the neighbors we can get.
In 2006, the IAU reversed their decision, stripping Pluto of its "planet" status. Ah well, just a little more proof that science is not static!

Admittedly, I am a non-scientist with a very strong interest in science, so I'm probably the perfect target audience for this book. However, if this book sounds even the slightest bit interesting to you, I'd highly recommend it. It's incredibly well-done, and a great read!


  1. It does sound interesting. I was a bit of a science nerd in high school (uh yeah, I would think that participating in national science competitions would make me a "bit" of a science nerd), but only took a few classes in college before moving on to other things.

  2. Ronnica, that's exactly my background as well. I wonder how people who either a) are experts in one or more of the fields discussed or b) have very little interest/background in science would respond to this book. As I said in my review, I'm probably the perfect reader for this book, so it's hard for me to step back and know what someone with different backgrounds/interests would think!


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