A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A review of the non-fiction science book A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

Image Credit: 
Public Domain

Having made his name writing a series of extremely funny travel memoirs, Bill Bryson’s surprising decision to release A Short History of Nearly Everything in 2004 seemed to come out of nowhere. Ostensibly a non-fiction book which explores the history of humanity’s scientific understanding, Bryson seeks to explain the ins and outs of how we’ve come to learn as much as we have. This in itself may seem a lofty aim, yet not only does Bryson succeed at simplifying complicated sets of scientific ideas, making them accessible to the average reader, he also unearths humour from the unlikeliest of places.

It’s a hell of a starting point to congratulate the reader for being alive, but that’s exactly what Bryson does. Through his convoluted description of how you are essentially the summation of thousands of generations of your ancestors’ DNA, Bryson has a real knack for making one reflect on the miraculous gift of life that we are all blessed with:

Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stuck fast, untimely wounded or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result—eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly—in you.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Whereas some may consider science seeks to eradicate the mysteries of existence, Bryson makes it quite plain that it does not. In fact, it only underscores the mystery. Bryson’s explanations of atoms, and even quantum physics, are mind opening, as is the wider context in which he gives his thought-provoking passages on the vastness of space and planets. It’s very easy to come away from this book reeling with awe and wonder, as it is to forget that Bill Bryson is no scholar. He is a humourist, with a passing interest in science and the work he has put into this book is exemplary.

Having met and interviewed countless scientific experts, A Short History of Nearly Everything condenses everything Bill Bryson has learnt, but expresses it in his usual humorous writing style. He chooses to tell the story of science through the eyes of the innovators, the pioneers, or those who created or developed the theories which revolutionised their fields. In fact, what makes this book so funny is the realisation that most of these undoubted geniuses were not just blessed with great intellects, but were also riddled with eccentricity. In some cases, however, this was to the point of crippling mental illness.

It’s baffling to read that one of the founders of modern chemistry, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, used to sniff or taste any new chemical he discovered, without any regard for his mortality. Unsurprisingly, he died aged 43. Then there’s Henning Brand, the German alchemist, who was driven by his conviction that it was possible to turn human urine into gold. In doing so, he accidentally discovered phosphorus. There are many amusing instances such as this where it becomes clear that it is the misfits (or those with decidedly odd inclinations) who seem to make all the scientific breakthroughs.

A Shorty History of Nearly Everything is the perfect book if you want to educate yourself about the history of science and learn all about the rise of modern civilisation, from the origin of life to mass extinction, Darwin’s theory of evolution to Einstein’s theory of relativity. The sheer ambition behind A Short History of Nearly Everything deserves acclaim in itself, as is the fact that it has sold over 300,000 copies and become one of the most popular science books in the UK. There is nowhere better to start than here if you want to broaden your mind and challenge yourself by considering some of life’s biggest questions. Needless to say, you shouldn’t expect to find all the answers, but Bryson arguably makes the journey considerably more enjoyable in this book.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

Join the Discussion

Please ensure all comments abide by the Thanet Writers Comments Policy

Add a Comment