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A Short History of Nearly Everything Book Review

In Media Reviews on April 19, 2016 at 8:42 pm

ashorthistoryInformation and its acquisition is a funny thing. Sometimes, the way its presented, or the many contexts through which it travels can have a great affect on how well its absorbed by its intended audience. In this way, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything fills a void in the public’s science education. It reintroduces us to some of the greatest discoveries of science, but also humanizes them by including the feuds, controversies and personalities behind the grand ideas. It does so humorously, but factually and should lead curious readers onto more advanced texts about its subjects.

Bill Bryson is an outsider to the science scene. Most well known for writing popularly received travel books, Bryson says he was turned on to writing A Short History after staring out of an airplane window and being struck by the overwhelming sense that he didn’t quite know how the world worked. How did the plane he was traveling in manage to take off and stay in the air? How do we know that atoms exist and how did we come to discover them anyways? In Bryson’s admission, we see the vulnerable heart of human curiosity: the realization of ignorance. This thought ostensibly led to a 544 page book that attempts to introduce readers to a number of science’s greatest discoveries and the stories that surround them. The topics range from the vast scope of our solar system to the infinitesimally small atom and the sub-atomic particles of which it is made. We learn about plate tectonics and rock dating, species extinction and evolution, supernovae and algae. The list goes on; Readers may find they have to put the book down every 20 pages or so just to absorb the amount of information presented to them. Thankfully, Bryson writes well here, making all these hard facts and narratives palatable.

One thing you realize early into the book is that science can be interesting to learn. Bryson’s genuine curiosity makes the text personable and fun to read.  The discoveries come alive through the exploration of the social contexts in which they took place. Who knew there was such a feud over the categorization of rocks in 19th century England? or that two famous paleontologists hated each other so much they would literally sabotage each other’s work? It’s refreshing to hear about how often scientists were wrong in their theories and also very human in their personality traits. Too often science is distilled down to great men and their insights. Removing the struggles, the failures and fights from the teaching of science means we fail to tell the whole story behind the process of discovery. This makes scientists seem infallible and the rest of us, well, stupid for struggling to grasp certain concepts.

As much as I enjoyed the book, there are some sections that could have used tighter editing. A section on a present day amateur astronomer discovering supernovae goes on too  long and seems out of place. Perhaps this is Bryson trying to make a larger point on the rewards of citizen science. Maybe it’s the travel writer in him wants be on location reporting on real people and their experiences. Either way, it doesn’t really contribute to the book’s objective of spreading science’s most important discoveries to a wider audience. Further, there are parts where Bryson is quite out of his depth and the main reason to keep reading is the hope that clearer sections are too come. One section on quantum physics is particularly unclear and that can make the reading frustrating at times.

With A Short History of Nearly Everything Bryson should find success transmitting some of the most important discoveries made throughout the history of science to a popular audience. Through solid writing and colloquial style, the book is both educating and entertaining while also raising questions as to how science education should be taught at an institutional level.

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