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A Short History of Nearly Everything [Paperback]

Bill Bryson
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (81 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 14 2004
One of the world’s most beloved and bestselling writers takes his ultimate journey -- into the most intriguing and intractable questions that science seeks to answer.

In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson trekked the Appalachian Trail -- well, most of it. In In A Sunburned Country, he confronted some of the most lethal wildlife Australia has to offer. Now, in his biggest book, he confronts his greatest challenge: to understand -- and, if possible, answer -- the oldest, biggest questions we have posed about the universe and ourselves. Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining.


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There must be a special place in author's heaven for writers like Bill Bryson (In a Sunburned Country, Neither Here Nor There), those bold enough to tackle the seemingly insurmountable and, improbably, succeed. With the aptly named A Short History of Nearly Everything Bryson has, quite simply, documented the advent of the universe in just under 500 pages, charting the evolution of man, planet Earth, its oceans and mountains, and all the atoms holding them together. And he explores the cosmos beyond. He asks how each was created and then sets out, quasi-scientifically, to explain it. And he doesn't just regurgitate scores of books, although that's part of it. Bryson introduces pioneering researchers into the fray, giving face to some pretty impressive (in some cases outrageous) theories of why things are the way they are. It's an astonishing synthesis of information, and if contemporary paleontologists, geologists, astronomers, physicists, chemists, and various other people of science dismiss History as strictly layman, then Bryson has truly succeeded in his task. He tells us why there are diamonds in South Africa but not Iowa, why old panes of glass are thicker at the bottom than on top, and why the Earth's oceans are more mysterious to us than the Moon. Best, Bryson tells us things that should be dry as dust in language as sparkly as sunshine on chrome, often through inventive personification. Take his description of carbon: "It is shamelessly promiscuous. It is the party animal of the atomic world, latching on to many other atoms (including itself) and holding tight, forming molecular conga lines of hearty robustness." Or this: "White cells are merciless and will hunt down and kill every last pathogen they can find." At times the sheer breadth of data conveyed is overwhelming, but Bryson consistently inspires awe--in himself and his subject matter--while teaching us really neat stuff along the way. --Kim Hughes --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

As the title suggests, bestselling author Bryson (In a Sunburned Country) sets out to put his irrepressible stamp on all things under the sun. As he states at the outset, this is a book about life, the universe and everything, from the Big Bang to the ascendancy of Homo sapiens. "This is a book about how it happened," the author writes. "In particular how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since." What follows is a brick of a volume summarizing moments both great and curious in the history of science, covering already well-trod territory in the fields of cosmology, astronomy, paleontology, geology, chemistry, physics and so on. Bryson relies on some of the best material in the history of science to have come out in recent years. This is great for Bryson fans, who can encounter this material in its barest essence with the bonus of having it served up in Bryson's distinctive voice. But readers in the field will already have studied this information more in-depth in the originals and may find themselves questioning the point of a breakneck tour of the sciences that contributes nothing novel. Nevertheless, to read Bryson is to travel with a memoirist gifted with wry observation and keen insight that shed new light on things we mistake for commonplace. To accompany the author as he travels with the likes of Charles Darwin on the Beagle, Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton is a trip worth taking for most readers.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
46 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not quite everything, but enough Nov. 24 2005
By FrKurt Messick HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
I was first acquainted with Bill Bryson through his works on the English language and various travelogue types of books. In these books he proved to be an entertaining writer, witty and interesting, with just the right amount of I'm-not-taking-myself-too-seriously attitude to make for genuinely pleasurable reading. Other books of his, 'Notes from a Small Island' and 'The Mother Tongue', are ones I return to again and again. His latest book, one of the longer ones (I was surprised, as most Bryson books rarely exceed 300 pages, and this one weighs in well past 500), is one likely to join those ranks.
Of course, a history of everything, even a SHORT history of NEARLY everything, has got to be fairly long. Bryson begins, logically enough, at the beginning, or at least the beginning as best science can determine. Bryson weaves the story of science together with a gentle description of the science involved - he looks not only at the earliest constructs of the universe (such as the background radiation) but also at those who discover the constructs (such as Penzias and Wilson).
A great example of the way Bryson weaves the history of science into the description of science, in a sense showing the way the world changes as our perceptions of how it exists change, is his description of the formulation, rejection, and final acceptance of the Pangaea theory. He looks at figures such as Wegener (the German meteorologist - 'weatherman', as Bryson describes him) who pushed forward the theory in the face of daunting scientific rejection that the continents did indeed move, and that similarities in flora and fauna, as well as rock formations and other geological and geographical aspects, can be traced back to a unified continent.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Primer on Science for the Layperson June 14 2003
Format:Hardcover
Popularizers of science abound: Isaac Asimov, Marcus Chown, Richard Dawkins, Paul Davies, Timothy Ferris, Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, and Steven Weinberg, to name a few. Add another name to the list: Bill Bryson.
In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson, who lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, has written a lucid work on, well, just about everything: physics, biology, chemistry, zoology, paleontology, astronomy, cosmology, geology, genetics, meteorology, oceanography, and taxonomy.
From "the Big Bang" (the beginning of the universe) to "the Big Birth" (the appearance of life on Earth), Bryson translates the arcane, esoteric mysteries of science into comprehensible language, and does so with wit, wisdom, sharp-eyed observations, and hilarious comments. He shows that science need not be boring; it can be fun.
In the Introduction, Bryson confesses that not long ago he didn't know what a proton was, didn't know a quark from a quasar. Appalled by his ignorance of his own planet, Bryson determined to take a crash course in science, and for three years he devoted himself intensively to reading books and journals dealing with science, and pestering scientific authorities with his "dumb questions." This book is the result of his project.
By reading Bryson we learn that a physicist is the atoms' way of thinking about atoms and that a human being is a gene's way of making other genes. Whether writing of nematode worms or Cameron Diaz, Bryson uses analogies and anecdotes that help make science accessible, and less intimidating, to laypersons.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)said, "The closer one gets to a subject, the more problematic it becomes." The truth of this aphorism also applies to the baffling questions of science.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bill Bryson at his best! Dec 28 2005
Format:Paperback
A short history of nearly everything. What else can really be said about this book? Well written and thoughtful, this book can be read by anyone and appreciated by anyone. I have always loved Bryson's dark yet sarcastic sense of humour, and this book has no shortage of it. Although the actual text of this book covers a wide variety of subjects and interesting facts that you have probablly never hear anywhere else, I would deem this a bathroom book, mainly because the subjects aren't all that grabbing. If it weren't for Bryson's unique style of writing that I have come to love over the years, I would have to say that I wouldn't have picked this book up of the shelves. They now have 'A Short history of nearly everything' with pictures and a price tag almost triple the cost of the regular book, but if you find it hard to read purely text without any pictures, I'd say go out and get it, because its always nice to have a little bit of extra knoweledge, (even if most of it is irrelevant) in your brain.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Science for non-Geeks June 17 2003
Format:Hardcover
A great book for putting "science" in entertaining and relatively easy to understand terms. I was constantly finding myself truly excited by what was being written. This book puts the amazing grandness of the universe into perspective, showing what a miracle it really is that we exist at all, no less that we exist as the highest known form of life. It covers physics, chemistry, biology, geology, paleantology, etc. in a way that ties together and keeps the rader very interested. This is not your college text book. Bryson makes (re)learning fun.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Wolf Willow
Wolf Willow... an amazing book about the 1890's Saskatchewan prairie itself with fascinating stories about the bison and the people who lived there. Read more
Published 5 days ago by mitzimouse
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Absolutely fascinating, and very well written.
Published 7 days ago by John
4.0 out of 5 stars Almost everything.
Almost everything but provocative and informative and I couldn't put it down.
Published 10 days ago by Leo Hebert
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic fun read!
Wow. A true pleasure to read. Nothing was written over my head. I understood it clearly and also enjoyed the entertaining way in which it was written. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Danielle Turner
3.0 out of 5 stars Is the sky falling?
I found the surmises too muchof a fairy tale-best guesses. Actual historical facts interesting but best guesses do not necessarily mean that changes cannot occur.
Published 3 months ago by Ruth Turnbull
5.0 out of 5 stars great popular science
Great broad coverage of many topics about the cosmos and the earth in a easily digestible doesn't. Recommended for pop sci nerds but would not recommend for the average reader who... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Benoit Shelston
5.0 out of 5 stars Wish my science teacher in school had been this engaging
I truly wish my science teachers had been like Bill Bryson. He gives a great history as well as makes it interesting and FUNNY!!! Love this book!
Published 4 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Bought first in Swedish
Then I got the English version to give as a gift to a friend. Excellent book for someone looking for knowledge and inspiration.
Published 5 months ago by vannina
2.0 out of 5 stars On a Serious Note
Perhaps I was not in the right frame of mind to read this book at the time. Have read others by Bill Bryson which are written with such wit and insight. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Gerty
5.0 out of 5 stars Another good book
A Short History of Nearly Everything is an enlightening, educational, entertaining, and easy to read book for readers who have a natural curiosity about life. Read more
Published 6 months ago by John T C
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