Friday, September 10, 2010

Book Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

I like Bill Bryson. He's the kind of guy I would love to meet, to hear his funny stories about the people and places he's been. But then I would worry about what he would write about having met me!

For about one year, I devoured his travel writings, eagerly finding them in second hand bookshops and journeying with him to exotic places like Scotland the Appalachian trail, Australia, continental Europe and many more. Always informative, always a great read.

A few years back, he went on a journey of a different kind, into the history of science. I bought it not long after it was published, but then didn't get round to reading it. Eventually, it made it onto the 'to-read' shelf above my desk, and recently I completed it. A Short History of Nearly Everything is portrayed as a rough guide to science, and it's probably impossible to find a better guide than Bryson.

The facts that he discovers, the developments in theories he follows, the scientists he profiles and meets are truly astonishing. The universe, and this world of ours, is truly a wonderful place. Wonderful can sometimes be an overused word, but this book will leave you full of wonder. From the smallest of creatures to the biggest of mountains and everything in between; from the atoms and molecules to the whole shebang; nothing is neglected in this grand guide of the known universe.

The response it brought from me time and again, was that sense of wonder at the majesty and provision of grace from the great Creator God, the one who made it all, and continues to rule over his creation. From the way that the earth is just the right distance from the sun, has the right gaseous mix in the atmosphere, has the right climate, the right gravity, the right tilt to provide season, and so many more variables that allow for the possibility and flourishing of life; through to the way we have been able to analyse weather, plate tectonics, sea levels, other species, planetary movements and the expansion of the universe.

In this sense, though, I think the name of the book is even more suitable than perhaps Bryson intended - A Short History of Nearly Everything. You see, I realise it's a book dealing with the development of theories in science; but it is depressingly materialistic - not in the wealth and riches sense, but in the continuous pounding of the drum that matter is all there is. He closely follows Darwin and Dawkins in seeing all of life as one, following one pattern and developing into the great variety we now see around us.

For many, science is portrayed as the great revealer, giving us all the answers of the universe, but Bryson is very helpful in flagging up the great unknowns, the things that science still hasn't figured out, and may never: 'The upshot of all this is that we live in a universe whose age we can't quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances from us and each other we don't altogether know, filled with matter we can't identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don't truly understand.' (p.219)

I would definitely recommend this book; it's a great read, and easy to follow for non-boffins. Despite some very technical stuff being discussed, Bryson (and his team of scientific helpers) have been good at explaining it simply. The humour is mild and amusing, and it's a great journey to go on with a brilliant guide. Just don't swallow all of his conclusions wholesale.


  1. very fair assessment... his latest is currently on my "to read" shelf

  2. What's the new book on David?