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51 of 51 people found the following review helpful
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. Bryson with gentle humour discusses the attitudes of scientists, as they shifted not quite as slowly as the continents, towards accepting this theory, making gentle jabs along the way (Einstein even wrote a foreword to a book that was rather scathing toward the idea of plate tectonics - brilliance is no guarantee against being absolutely wrong).
Bryson traces the development of the universe and the world from the earliest universe to the formation of the planet, to the growing diversity of life forms to development of human beings and human society. Inspired by Natural History (the short history refers more to natural history than anything else), this traces the path to us and possible futures. Bryson juxtaposes the creation of the Principia by Isaac Newton with the extinction of the dodo bird - stating that the word contained divinity and felony in the nature of humanity, the same species that can rise to the heights of understanding in the universe can also, for no apparent reason, cause the extinction of hapless and harmless fellow creatures on earth. Are humans, in Bryson's words, 'inherently bad news for other living things'? He recounts many of the truly staggering follies of species-hunting, particularly in the nineteenth century, calling upon people to take far more care of the planet with which we have been entrusted, either through design or fate.
Bryson's take on things is innovative and his narrative is interesting, but there is a point to it, just as there is with most of his writing. He writes not merely to entertain, or to inform, but to persuade. Bryson is intrigued by science, having a joy that comes across the page of someone who essentially did not know or understand a lot of the background of science and how it worked in the world until recently, and now wants to share that joy with everyone! He definitely has points to argue - for starters, the need for open-mindedness, even among (perhaps particularly among) those who are supposed to have the open and searching intellects, the scientists themselves. He also wishes others to know more about science, professionals and laypersons, and more about our own origins as a people, both in terms of where we've come from, and how we've come to know about it.
This is a new version of his already-published text, this time with graphics, paintings, pictures, maps and other things that make the history come alive in new and interesting ways. This is a good revision, adding quite a bit to Bryson's already interesting text. Unique among Bryson's writing in many ways, this is in some ways a travelogue through geology, paleontology, cosmology and evolution. A fun and fascinating read!
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 2003
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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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on November 9, 2003
Who would have thought that a book on physics and chemistry (among much else) which was such drudgery at school would be so unputdownable!! Went into it thinking it would be an interesting read but ended up having my life revolve around it for two days...even taking it to the beach. Not just fascinating but quite inspiring to think how lucky we are as humans to be here at all. And really admired the level of research and objective presentation of competing theories, as well as the insight into the interesting (to put it mildly) characters in science. Even if you're not science minded you'd be hard pressed not to enjoy it. Thanks Bill Bryson for a smashing book!
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
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.
Things get a bit bizarre both in the macrocosmos (such as the superstring theory that postulates a universe with at least eleven dimensions) and the microcosmos (such as quantum physics that describes the quirky behavior of quarks, the erratic behavior of subatomic particles).
According to Bryson, some of the things scientists say begins to sound worryingly like the sort of thoughts that would make you edge away if conveyed to you by a stranger on a park bench. Matters in physics have now reached such a pitch that it is almost impossible for nonscientists to discriminate between the legitimately weird and the outright crackpot.
Alexander von Humboldt observed: "There are three stages in a scientific discovery: first, people deny that it is true; then they deny that it is important; finally they credit the wrong person." Bryson rehabilitates many of these unsung thinkers by throwing the spotlight on overlooked and underappreciated scientists.

In spite of the brilliant contributions of scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Charles Darwin, many of the "facts" about the universe and life on Earth owe as much to supposition and speculation as to science.
Bryson devotes an intriguing chapter to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, as explained in two seminal works, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859) and The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871).
Trouble is, the mechanism of natural selection ("Darwin's singular idea") needed a "deeper" explanatory mechanism. Not to worry. Thanks to the pioneering work of Gregor Mendel on dominant and recessive "genes" (Mendel himself never used the word) and the decoding of the "double helix" of DNA by James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins, the mechanism of Darwin's natural selection has been found, an "engine" that powers the evolutionary process.
Interestingly, the DNA code reveals that human beings are 98.4 percent genetically indistinguishable from the modern chimpanzee. There is more difference between a zebra and a horse, or between a dolphin and a porpoise, than there is chimpanzees and humans.
Readers well-versed in science may grumble that there's nothing much new here. However, Bryson wrote this book not for professionals but for laypersons. A Short History of Nearly Everything is an excellent primer for "the person in the street" wanting a (largely) comprehensible overview of science.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2003
This book is more in line with Bryson's "The Mother Tongue" about the English language. So if you are expecting humor, you may want to choose some of his other titles.
If you want to learn a ton of stuff, read this. Over the years, I have read a lot of Sagan, Gould, Lederman, etc. and Bryson does a great job of bringing their best ideas together plus many more. I enjoyed his book greatly. I find it especially interesting how he weaves the story about we humans muddling through just about everything all the while the universe is unwittingly trying to snuff us out. It puts things in perspective.
Overall, I'm very impressed at Bryson's accomplishment with this work and recommend it without reservation.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 13, 2003
What a terrific book! This may be the best armchair book on science I have ever read. Mr. Bryson does what no school books ever do --- explains science in a way that is relevant to non-scientists. He tells you the official story, but often goes on to tell you the untold story about the "small-time" guy who made a new discovery first, but for some reason, never got the credit. It tends to remind me a lot of another book called "West Point: Character Leadership... Thomas Jefferson" I recently read by a "small-time" guy (Remick) that, as far as I know, is the first to tell an untold story about the founding of the USA and West Point and Thomas Jefferson, who, like Mr. Bryson, explains the history and philosophy of humankind in a way that is relevant to non-historians, non-philosophers. In "A Short History of Nearly Everything", Mr. Bryson sets the record straight whenever he can by giving credit where credit is due. This book is a trip through the history of science. Take the trip. I guarantee you will enjoy it. And, I recommend you also take a trip through the history of philosophy (with Remick) when you finish Mr. Bryson's wonderful book. You'll then have a short history of everything.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2003
I listened to the abridged audio book in my car, and it got to the point where I was looking forward to my morning and evening commutes, actually hoping for traffic! Bill Bryson is a great writer who has the perfect ear for the stories and facts that his readers need. This book covers everything from the origins of the universe to the invention of chloroflurocarbons and onset of global warming. But it's the details and the stories BEHIND the discoveries that makes this book so interesting. I loved every sentence.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
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. Bryson with gentle humour discusses the attitudes of scientists, as they shifted not quite as slowly as the continents, towards accepting this theory, making gentle jabs along the way (Einstein even wrote a foreword to a book that was rather scathing toward the idea of plate tectonics - brilliance is no guarantee against being absolutely wrong).
Bryson traces the development of the universe and the world from the earliest universe to the formation of the planet, to the growing diversity of life forms to development of human beings and human society. Inspired by Natural History (the short history refers more to natural history than anything else), this traces the path to us and possible futures. Bryson juxtaposes the creation of the Principia by Isaac Newton with the extinction of the dodo bird - stating that the word contained divinity and felony in the nature of humanity, the same species that can rise to the heights of understanding in the universe can also, for no apparent reason, cause the extinction of hapless and harmless fellow creatures on earth. Are humans, in Bryson's words, 'inherently bad news for other living things'? He recounts many of the truly staggering follies of species-hunting, particularly in the nineteenth century, calling upon people to take far more care of the planet with which we have been entrusted, either through design or fate.
Bryson's take on things is innovative and his narrative is interesting, but there is a point to it, just as there is with most of his writing. He writes not merely to entertain, or to inform, but to persuade. Bryson is intrigued by science, having a joy that comes across the page of someone who essentially did not know or understand a lot of the background of science and how it worked in the world until recently, and now wants to share that joy with everyone! He definitely has points to argue - for starters, the need for open-mindedness, even among (perhaps particularly among) those who are supposed to have the open and searching intellects, the scientists themselves. He also wishes others to know more about science, professionals and laypersons, and more about our own origins as a people, both in terms of where we've come from, and how we've come to know about it.
Unique among Bryson's writing in many ways, this is in some ways a travelogue through geology, paleontology, cosmology and evolution. A fun and fascinating read!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2004
I ordered this on a whim and really enjoyed it. If you like the PBS show Connections, then this is the book for you! The style and whit really hit the spot. I am not a science junkie by nature, but this book actually made me regret not going into the hard sciences.
It should be noted that this book is not just about science. It is primarily about the people who work in science. The most entertaining part is the personalities behind the science and not necessarily the science itself.
The author is the reader and at times you feel as if you are actually having a conversation with him. I found myself running home and telling my husband, "I learned about quarks today!!" He borrowed my car once, listened to one of the cds, and is eager to start listening to it when I'm done.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on September 14, 2003
I particularly enjoyed the translation of hard science into plain and entertaining language. I would love to read a sequel: A Brief History of Human Civilization! Thanks, Mr, Bryson
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