In Bryson’s 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.
What I learned from this book (in no particular order)
- Phosphor was accidentally discovered when a scientist tried to turn human urine into gold. The similarity in color seemed to have been a factor in his conviction that this was possible. Like, duh. I’m no scientist, but shouldn’t it be obvious enough?
- “In the early 1800s there arose in England a fashion for inhaling nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, after it was discovered that its use ‘was attended by a highly pleasurable thrilling’. For the next half-century it would be the drug of choice for young people.” How groovy is that?
- If you are an average-sized adult, you contain within you enough potential energy to explode with the force of THIRTY very large hydrogen bombs. Assuming, that is, that you KNOW how to actually do this and REALLY want to make a point. Talk about a monstrous temper tantrum.
- We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that some of our atoms probably belonged to Shakespeare, Genghis Khan or any other historical figure. But no, you are NOT Elvis or Marilyn Monroe; it takes quite a while for their atoms to get recycled.
- When you sit in a chair, you are not actually sitting there, but levitating above it at the height of a hundredth millions of a centimeter. Throw away those yoga mats, your ARE already levitating without knowing it.
- The atomic particles that we now know as Quarks were almost named Partons, after you know who. The image of Ms. Parton with her, uh, cosmic mammaries bouncing around the atomic nuclei is VERY unsettling. Thankfully, that scientist guy changed his mind.
- The indigestible parts of a giant squid, in particular their beaks, accumulate in sperm whales’ stomachs into ambergris, which is used as a fixative in perfumes. The next time you spray on Chanel No. 5, you’re dowsing yourself in the distillate of unseen sea monsters.
- The ‘maidenhair’ in maidenhair moss does NOT refer to the hair on the maiden’s head.
this is a fascinating, accessible book on the history of the natural sciences, covering topics as diverse as cosmology, quantum physics, paleontology, chemistry and other subjects that have bedeviled a science dolt like me through high school and beyond. Yes, it’s true, I failed BOTH chemistry and physics in high school. I can’t judge how accurate Mr. Bryson represents the sciences in this book, but it surely beats being bogged down in “A Brief History of Time” and their ilk.