Bill Bryson,
A Short History of Nearly Everything
(Doubleday, 2003)

Bill Bryson became a bestselling author by inviting readers along on his travels and entertaining them with his insights, his wit and his wisdom. He's trekked across America, Australia, Africa, Europe and the UK and kept his fans chuckling along the way.

So where should we go next folks? How about a trip to the beginning of the universe, with stops along the way to check out the age of the dinosaurs, the dawn of humanity, the discovery of genes and the extinction of the dodo?

Bryson may be the perfect candidate to be humanity's first time traveler. But until that unlikely technology is invented A Short History of Nearly Everything will have to suffice. It's an excellent, very readable science guidebook thanks to Bryson's ability to take the most arcane aspects of physics, chemistry and geology and make them comprehensible to the layman. He's a master of the clever comparison. He translates incomprehensibly large numbers such as Avogadro's Number (the number of molecules in a couple of grams of hydrogen gas -- 2.016 grams to be more precise) into concepts that are simpler to grasp. The number, 6.0221367 x 1023, is a little easier to boggle at when described as equivalent to the number of pennies required to make every person on Earth a trillionaire.

In just over 400 pages Bryson guides us through centuries of scientific discovery and conjecture, pointing out both the pinnacles and the pratfalls. He sketches out the paths followed en route to our current understanding of the big bang, plate tectonics, sub-atomic particles, the extinction of the dinosaurs and the origins of life.

I learned things in almost every chapter of A Short History of Nearly Everything. For instance, I had no idea that in 1960 Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh had ridden a submersible to the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, a feat that has never been repeated. I didn't know that virtually the entirety of Yellowstone National Park is the caldera of a volcano, one that has in the past blown with a force thousands of times more powerful than the Mount St. Helen's blast of 1980. Nor was I aware that we are "quite closely related to fruit and vegetables. About half the chemical functions that take place in a banana are fundamentally the same as the chemical functions that take place in you."

Toward the end of the book Bryson strays into the contentious territory of the prehistory of humanity. And it's here that he proves himself most valuable as he wades through conflicting theories without a personal agenda. He's not writing in order to advocate the opinions of Donald Johanson, whose team unearthed "Lucy," perhaps the world's best-known australopithecine skeleton. Nor is he siding with the Leakeys' theories, or Alan Thorne's multiregional hypothesis. Instead he simply presents the reader with the limited evidence at hand and allows that, for the moment, it's impossible to be sure whose interpretations are closest to the truth. After all, as Ian Tattersall, curator of the American Museum of Natural History, points out, if you gathered up all the remains upon which our map of human prehistory is based, "you could fit it all into the back of a pickup truck."

In A Short History of Nearly Everything Bill Bryson has taken a vast amount of science and compacted it, distilled it. It took him three years of research to prepare this book, three years of work that we as readers do not need to undertake. Just think what we can do with all that extra time!

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 3 April 2004

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