Book: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything, contrasted by my very red bed

Natural Sciences Bible.
Rekindles a passion for science.

536 pages, ★★★★★

Reading this book felt like taking a guided tour of my undergraduate years in Cambridge. We saw all the highlights.

Rather than reminding me of terrible lectures I’d rather forget (Powerpoint recitals dull enough to repel even the most enthusiastic of students), this book’s lucid prose and clear character descriptions reminded me of people and situations, which I would very much like to remember. Reading this, I thought of subjects I loved (and people I loved) and found new areas of science I wanted to explore. If terrible teachers and Powerpoint slides killed your passion for science, then this book will certainly rekindle it.

A Short History of Nearly Everything is a Natural Sciences bible. It covers almost everything from the Big Bang to the dodo’s extinction. It devotes around one-third of each short chapter to explaining scientific theories. Bill Bryson does so with an unlikely combination of humour, metaphor and 100% accuracy. The other two-thirds of each chapter describe how such scientific understandings evolved through history. Bill Bryson’s descriptions of scientists leave a memorable impression (Planck was often unlucky; Linneaus was obsessed with sex; Watson is unpleasant).

Their stories are told in logical order from smallest to largest, rather than in order of their discoveries:

  • metaphysics & theoretical physics
  • physics
  • chemistry
  • astronomy
  • geology
  • climatology
  • cell biology
  • evolution
  • taxonomy
  • palaeontology
  • anthropology (a little)

A Short History of Nearly Everything is beautifully-written. Information flows out of this book like water. I’m so pleased to find an alternative to Cambridge University’s inept teaching technique (incidentally, this is also the Chinese teaching technique) of compressing hundreds of nuggets of seemingly incongruent information into Powerpoint slides for recital; in the hope that students will later memorise them for exams. Bill Bryson’s writing style makes learning feel pleasant, even enlightening in places. Bill Bryson demonstrates reassuringly that science can be taught to human beings in lucid prose, not just to undergraduate machines using bullet-points and diagrams.

This book opens doors. I want to read these themes next:

Climatology. There was little focus on CO2 in this book, but Bill Bryson did err on the side of political correctness in the few places he mentioned it. I’d love to step away from the hot-headed Warmists vs. Skeptics fight and learn more about the long-term history of Earth’s climate. This book inspired me to read more about Milankovitch cycles and atmospheric flux.

(There’s still a lot of misunderstanding surrounding CO2, which was put down wonderfully by Cool It. Despite that, otherwise respectable newspapers still churn out crap like this.)

Special and general relativity. String theory, time travel, length contractions and time dilations are intrinsically interesting. I’d love to learn this, and figure out how to explain it in simple terms to inquisitive students.

Anthropology. The obvious sequel to A Short History of Nearly Everything would be Collapse by Jared Diamond. However, I’m also hungry for modern anthropology (from the last 10,000 years). I want to read about phylomemetics: a niche subject which quantifies the evolution of languages and religion… a passion of mine which was rekindled only by reading this book.

This book bridges science and liberal arts beautifully. It makes you think, makes you laugh, and above all, helps you to discover new areas of interest. Use this book to reassure yourself that science isn’t just for nerds. Everyone should read this book. ★★★★★

11 thoughts on “Book: A Short History of Nearly Everything

  1. I loved this book- I revisit it often – and I’m so glad to read this review as you found so many of things I liked and highlighted them. I also did my undergraduate at Cambridge so perhaps it’s a kindred thing.

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