Book Review: A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

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Never have I ever come across a book, so concise, and yet so incredibly rich in information, that too not only in one specific field but many. ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson doesn’t fail to stand up to its name. With 30 different chapters divided into 6 distinct groups, covering quite literally the entire history and journey of many different science fields including physics, chemistry, biology, zoology, anthropology, history, botany, taxonomy and paleontology. The best part of all is that this book isn’t ‘just filled with hard, and complex science’, but instead with science so basic, and so easily explained that my sister studying in standard seven would understand it. The book more specifically tells you about the history of how different discoveries were made, the stories of people behind those discoveries, the race among them, the competition, and also the ironical, and quite hilarious events associated with them. The book is more like a story about the journey of modern science. The six groups and a brief summary of their contents are:

  1. Part I: LOST IN THE COSMOS– The first group of the book tells us about how our universe started, the big bang, and how supernovas were predicted by an athletic scientist from Caltech, Zwicky. It tells us about reverend Evan and his talent to spot supernovas.
  2. Part II: THE SIZE OF THE EARTH- This one has a lot of stories about people involved in determining the age, the mass and composition of earth. This is the geology section. Arguments over existence of tectonics, how old is the Earth, how can you measure the size of it, and if it has a core or not. Basically everything you studied in your geography classes, was a topic of argument in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  3. Part III: A NEW AGE DAWNS- This one was a bit familiar for me. Physics. The book mostly concentrates on life sciences, so these few chapters on physics were my support to continue reading the book without feeling I hardly know anything. Talking about how Einstein came across his special and general theories of relativity, after which most people thought that the end of physics was near. Soon the nuclear age began, with the invention (or discovery) of quantum mechanics by scientists including Erwin Schrodinger, Max Plank, Bohr, Max Born, and Heisenberg.
  4. Part IV: DANGEROUS PLANET- Including the stories of how the scientific community, after much heated debate, finally concluded that a meteorite crashing into earth caused  a mass extinction, to the development in the field of meteorology to predict volcanoes and storms. Talking about interesting and often intriguing accounts of scientists coming across important discoveries ‘by chance’, and their struggle to prove their point. A brief summary of the six major mass extinctions in our planet’s history, and the perils of a reversing magnetic field. Not to forget, the dangers of an active Mt. Yellowstone volcano, erupting anytime, with a power of tens of thousand of hydrogen bombs.
  5. Part V: LIFE ITSELF- While naming your kids might be the least of your difficulties, when you have the job of classifying and recording around 300 million species of plants, animals, microorganisms, insects, and every other living thing, a taxonomist can hardly imagine a day off. Add to that the wide uncertainty in the number of species on the planet agreed to by different experts. One chapter talks about the journey of the Haldanes to conquer the depth of oceans. This section of the book also talks about the journey of Darwin’s theory of evolution, the determination of different species of animals that have now gone extinct, using fossils that aside from being very low in number, are widely separated in their time zones. This is the world of biology, zoology, botany and the related sciences.
  6. Part VI: THE ROAD TO US- The last group, and the one dedicated to us. The history of anthropology. Talking about how using fossils from different parts of the world, mostly Africa, did anthropologists estimate the behaviour and the periods of existence of our ancestors, and how they travelled and dispersed around the globe. Also talks about the cruelty of humans, and their part played in the extinction of a large number of species. Last chapter is more of a reminder to understand the importance of our ability to contemplate our position on this planet, and universe, and wisely spend our short and limited lives, living in harmony with other species.

Again let me mention that you should not confuse this book to be boring because of a lot of ‘science-y’ terms. This is a really comprehensive, easy to stay on track, well written book, with amazing collection of stories, both funny and sad. Here are a few quite interesting things I read in the book:

  • Newton was so self-absorbed in his own world of curiosity and experimentation, he used to put a long needle ‘in betwix his eyeball and the bone behind it’ to see what would happen. In many occasions he would stare at the sun till he fainted or experienced temporary blindness, to see ‘how it affected his vision.
  • Lord Kelvin or William Thomson was admitted to college at the age of 10. He anonymously posted papers in french and english, to avoid embarrassing his seniors. He also founded a musical society at Cambridge.
  • Most of the advance in paleontology was a result of the controversy between Charles Marsh and Drinker Cope. Almost every famous dinosaur like Stegosaurus, Diplodocus, Triceratops etc were discovered by them in their race to be better than the other. Tyrannosaurus Rex was not. This was so intense, many times the discovery they came across was found to be an already discovered species. Bribery and theft was common.
  • It was actually a Swedish chemist by the name Scheele, who actually discovered elements like chlorine, fluorine, manganese, tin, barium, nitrogen, molybdenum, and oxygen, and also ammonia. He identified the use of chlorine as a bleach. He also had a habit of tasting almost everything, including hydrocyanic acid, one of the most toxic compound. Not surprisingly, he was found dead due to consumption of one of the many chemicals on his table, at the age of 43. His research was in the dark because he left most of it unpublished, and those that were published gained negligible attention. Davy ‘discovered’ chlorine 36 years later than him, and, Priestley came across oxygen 2 years later.
  • Similar fate of unpublished papers or negligible attention kept the physicist and astronomer Vesto Sipher of Lowell Observatory in the dark. It was actually him who discovered red shift in the galaxies, which pointed towards an expanding universe. Edwin Hubble who is indeed credited with the discovery did it much later. This is also because a previous holder of the Lowell Obs. theorised that Mars had a network of tunnels that was used for communicating by Martians.
  • ‘Physics is the only science and everything else is just stamp collecting’, a quote by Rutherford, showed it influence when Wolfgang Pauli commented on his wife running away with a chemist,‘She could have run away with a bull-fighter’, but how could she run away with a chemist?!’ 
  • Rutherford being weak in mathematics was quite famous for his habit of making great insights and leaving the hard calculations to be solved by his colleagues. #Inspiration
  • A research scholar, Harry Glicken, was lucky to be absent on the site, when Mt. Helena erupted(which killed the volcanologist who replaced him). 11 years later he died due to the eruption of Mt. Junsten, Japan. Another team of volcanologists died because they went inside the caldera of an active volcano (I mean seriously, how stupid can you be?!).
  • The fact that we have safety limits and measured on amount of lead in our food and products goes to Mr. Patterson who mostly single-handedly fought against the multinational corporations like Ethyl, to prove the effects of lead.
  • If a meteor, the size that killed the dinosaurs, was to hit us now, we would not see it until 1 second before it hits the crust.
  • A father-son team of JSS and JBS Haldane were responsible for most of our knowledge about the deep oceans. They subjected themselves and others around them to extreme experiments which resulted in torn ear drums , or collapsed lungs, just to study the high pressure effects. Senior Haldane later commented that the ear drums healed slowly, and if not, you can impress the crowd by blowing smoke out of your ears! He also ingested a lot of CO2 gas and other poisionous gases to study their effects, and once stopped only on the verge of being paralysed forever.
  • We have never seen a giant squid alive! Did you know that giant squid’s remains from blue whale’s insides are used in the perfume Chanel No. 5?
  • The first technical machines invented were the hand axe, which apparently were useless if they were actually used for cutting through stuff.
  • Darwin was a Fellow of Royal Society, but interestingly not for his theory on evolution. He never received any award for his theory of evolution.
  • It was actually James Croll of Anderson’s University of Glasgow, a janitor, who wrote the research paper on the effect of elliptical orbit of Earth in the ice age. He also wrote many papers on electricity, magnetism, and hydrostatics. All this based on his knowledge by reading books at the library by taking breaks in between his job as a janitor.

These are just few of many intriguing incidents and stories I read about in the book. This should definitely be on your bucket list! This book written in 2003 won the author Bill Bryson, the Aventis prize for best general science book for the year 2004. Happy Reading!

-The Cosmogasmic Person

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Scott Levine says:

    Great review of a great book. I’ve been meaning to go back to it for a while.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. archithabhat says:

    Very good review 👌 it is one of the most enjoyable book

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Shantanu says:

      Indeed it is. Though at the end it was just too many scientific names of plants and animals for me. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

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