A Book Review
A Short History of Nearly Everything By Bill Bryson
– Published 1st June 2004
Bill Bryson, O.B.E, F.R.S, (born December 8, 1951), is a best-selling American author of humorous books on travel, science and the English language.
‘Welcome, and congratulations. I am delighted you could make it’; so begins Bills Bryson’s prize-winning, vibrant prose, A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is a scientific history of the world. What could make a better read? Your eyes will crawl quickly over the pages, consuming and enjoying all the knowledge, facts and tales it has to offer. This books covers biology , physics with a sprinkle of the history of maths.
Bryson brings to life a whimsical, wonderful wealth of science, which is often shrouded in mystery and destined not to be deciphered by the non-scientist. Geology, chemistry, palaeontology and astronomy are imparted in a clear, fun and comprehensible way. Through his expedition of time and space, Bill Bryson surrenders to whimsical questions, which many science text books decline to supply. Subsequently, we travel as if we are on a trip of a lifetime. He does it with such frivolity, clarity and light heartiness so that even those of you who are most fearful of science would enjoy it and chuckle your way through this book. However, do not take his light hearted approach as a lack of concrete knowledge; for Bryson supplies us with a wealth of scientific facts and anecdotes.
This book is produced with the assistance of scientists, and each section of the book had to be rubber stamped with academic authority before its publication. It also won the prestigious Aventis Prize for best general science book in June 2004 and it was one of the best-selling popular science books of 2005 in the UK, selling over 300,000 copies.
A Short History of Nearly Everything tells us of anecdotal events that inform us of how certain developments in science have transpired. For example, how the German chemist Johann Becker in 1685 thought he could extract gold from human urine (given that urine is yellow like gold – of course!). Becker kept the urine in his cellar for weeks, and mixed it with other substances until it turned into a bright yellow paste! As you would expect, it did not turn into gold, but later a strange thing did happen: when the substance was exposed to light, it would spontaneously combust. This led to the understanding of phosphorous, and later, to the development of matches.
With his humour and clear prose, Bryson surrenders to the questions so many of us would like to ask: Are the bones of the dinosaurs in the Natural History museum real? How do we know how big Earth is? Do scientists make mistakes, and if so, do tell? How many bones do we have of dinosaurs? How long do humans have left on Earth?
Although A Short History of Nearly Everything is limited to American and European scientists thus lacking in diversity, it still captures and excites your imagination, and takes you along on a scientific journey that so many science books fail to do.
Some would argue that A Short History of Nearly Everything is unbalanced and there is not enough biology or maths included in the book; others would say that the title does not betray the true nature of the book – it is not actually a history of everything! Nonetheless, although many books like it exist, for example Horrible Histories, I would argue that this book has crossed over. I recommend you give this book a try.
A Short History of Nearly Everything is a fun to read, so much so that I now have an audio copy. For those of you who like to listen, you can ‘read’ a copy and listen at the same time.