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From primordial nothingness to this very moment, A Short History of Nearly Everything reports what happened and how humans figured it out. To accomplish this daunting literary task, Bill Bryson uses hundreds of sources, from popular science books to interviews with luminaries in various fields. His aim is to help people like him, who rejected stale school textbooks and dry explanations, to appreciate how we have used science to understand the smallest particles and the unimaginably vast expanses of space. With his distinctive prose style and wit, Bryson succeeds admirably.
Though A Short History clocks in at a daunting 500-plus pages and covers the same material as every science book before it, it reads something like a particularly detailed novel (albeit without a plot). Each longish chapter is devoted to a topic like the age of our planet or how cells work, and these chapters are grouped into larger sections such as “The Size of the Earth” and “Life Itself.” Bryson chats with experts like Richard Fortey (author of Life and Trilobite) and these interviews are charming. But it’s when Bryson dives into some of science’s best and most embarrassing fights–Cope vs. Marsh, Conway Morris vs. Gould–that he finds literary gold.
First off, I took me a very long time to read this book. I started it in March 2013 and read about 30% in the following two months. I had a hard time concentrating on it so I put it away. I picked it back up again about 2 weeks ago and this time around it was much easier to read. I don’t know if that is because the last chapters were more interesting or because I am a more mature reader right now. What I do know is that non-fiction requieres an entirely different reading technique. I usually read non-fiction next to a fiction book, and never on its own. Mainly because I feel that non-fiction needs a different level of devotion, so to say. I have to really pay attention so as not to glance over details.
It was not different in this book. Before reading this I was already familiar with Bill Bryson’s writing style. It is very funny! That humour was much needed in this book. This book consists of 30 chapters and in it Bryson tries to give a to the point overview of the history of the Earth. The book is therefore mainly focused on geology, chemistry, biology and paleontology rather than outright historical narration. I know the most basic things about these subjects, as I had them in High School, but certainly not enough to fully grasp everything Bill Bryson was trying to explain.
Still this book was not wasted on me. Especially the topics that I was interested in, such as evolution and geology, where explained very clearly. I especially liked how he tried to give concrete examples. Instead of saying that a cell has somemany millions of DNA in them, he explained that is roughly 2km in each cell. He tried to make thing clear by drawing examples from real life. For a non-expert like me this was very convenient. I think this book works best if you read what interests you. The few chapters on chemistry and physics were totally lost on me. After page 1 of these chapters I was already wondering what the heck they were talking about. And that is fine. I learned a lot from the other chapters!
Overall, I would say that this is a really interesting and convenient book to own. To read a couple of chapters from and maybe get intrigued into others works of popular science that are out there. Especially the bibliography can prove really useful to point you in new directions. Keep in mind though that science is constranly progressing and that this book was written in 2003. Some theories might be out of date or disproved. Still, it is a book that is worth reading.