Book Review - A Short History of Nearly Everything

Friday, April 27, 2018

Bill Bryson

What has propelled this popular science book onto all the bestseller lists? The answer is simple. It is superbly written.

Author Bill Bryson is not a scientist – far from it. He is a professional writer, and hitherto researching his book was quite ignorant of science by his own admission. “I didn’t know what a proton was, or a protein, didn’t know a quark from a quasar, didn’t understand how geologists could look at a layer of rock on a canyon wall and tell you how old it was, didn’t know anything really,” he tells us in the Introduction.

But Bryson got curious about these and many other things: “Suddenly, I had a powerful, uncharacteristic urge to know something about these matters and to understand how people figure them out.”

All of us should be lucky to be so curious. Young children are. That’s why they’re called “little scientists.” New to the world and without inhibitions, they relentlessly ask questions about it.

And Bill Bryson’s curiosity led him to some good questions too: “How does anybody know how much the Earth weighs or how old its rocks are or what really is way down there in the center? How can they [scientists] know how and when the Universe started and what it was like when it did? How do they know what goes on inside an atom?” The Introduction also tells us that the greatest amazements for Bryson are how scientists worked out such things. His book is a direct result of addressing these issues.

A Short History of Nearly Everything serves a great purpose for those who know little about science. The deep questions may not necessarily be explicitly presented but many of the answers are. The reader gets to journey along the paths that led scientists to some amazing discoveries – all this in an extremely simple and enjoyable book.

The prose is extraordinarily well written with lively, entertaining thoughts and many clever and witty lines. Consider, for example, Chapter 23 on “The Richness of Being.” It begins: “Here and there in the Natural History Museum in London, built into recesses along the underlit corridors or standing between glass cases of minerals and ostrich eggs and a century or so of other productive clutter, are secret doors – at least secret in the sense that there is nothing about them to attract the visitor’s notice.”

This opening sentence really captures the atmosphere of a natural history museum. It is full of vivid descriptions and contains the cleverly constructed, paradoxical phrase “productive clutter.”

The next paragraph begins to make the point: “The Natural History Museum contains some seventy million objects from every realm of life and every corner of the planet, with another hundred thousand or so added to the collection each year, but it is really only behind the scenes that you get a sense of what a treasure house this is. In cupboards and cabinets and long rooms full of close-packed shelves are kept tens of thousands of pickled animals in bottles, millions of insects pinned to squares of card, drawers of shiny mollusks, bones of dinosaurs, skulls of early humans, endless folders of neatly pressed plants. It is a little like wandering through Darwin’s brain.”

And later: “We wandered through a confusion of departments where people sat at large tables doing intent, investigative things with arthropods and palm fronds and boxes of yellowed bones. Everything there was an air of unhurried thoroughness, of people being engaged in a gigantic endeavor that could never be completed and mustn’t be rushed. In 1967, I had read, the museum issued its report on the John Murray Expedition, an Indian Ocean survey, forty-five years after the expedition had concluded. This is a world where things move at their own pace, including the tiny lift Fortey and I shared with a scholarly looking elderly man with whom Fortey chatted genially and familiarly as we proceeded upwards at about the rate that sediments are laid down.”

You find very few popular science books so well written. It is hard to think of even one that is witty. Popular science writers should study this book.

Sometimes even quoting writers rather than scientists and original sources, Bryson draws extensively from other books. The author does not hide this. Titles are cited in the text, chapter notes provide quotes from books, and there is a lengthy bibliography.

Here are some examples of witty lines that finish paragraphs:

The concluding remarks on Big Bang Nucleosynthesis go: “In three minutes, 98 percent of all the matter there is or will ever be has been produced. We have a universe. It is a place of the most wondrous and gratifying possibility, and beautiful, too. And it was all done in about the time it takes to make a sandwich.”

On the Superconducting Supercollider, the huge particle accelerator that was to be built in Texas, Bill Bryson notes, “In perhaps the finest example in history of pouring money into a hole in the ground, Congress spent $2 billion on the project, then canceled it in 1993 after fourteen miles of tunnel had been dug. So Texas now boasts the most expensive hole in the universe.”

Chapter 16 discusses some of the health benefits of certain elements. For example, cobalt is necessary for the production of vitamin B12 and a minute amount of sodium is good for your nerves. Bryson ends one paragraph with “Zinc – bless it – oxidizes alcohol.” (Zinc plays an important role in allowing alcohol to be digested.)

On Earth’s atmosphere, the author notes that the troposphere, that part of the lower atmosphere that contains the air we breathe, is between 6 and 10 miles thick. He concludes, “There really isn’t much between you and oblivion.”

In talking about the possibility of a sizeable asteroid striking Earth, Bryson at one point writes, “As if to underline just un-novel the idea had become by this time, in 1979, a Hollywood studio actually produced a movie called Meteor (“It’s five miles wide . . . It’s coming at 30,000 m.p.h. – and there’s no place to hide!) starring Henry Fonda, Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, and a very large rock.”

From a scientific point of view, most topics are treated superficially. This renders the book of little interest to a scientist, but has certain advantages for the layperson.

Bryson has a nice way of summarizing atoms: “The way it was explained to me is that protons give an atom its identity, electrons its personality.” The number of protons in the nucleus of an atom, also known as the atomic number, determines the element type. Hydrogen has one proton, helium two, lithium three and so on. The electrons of an atom, or more precisely the outermost or valence electrons, determine how the atom binds to other atoms. The binding properties of an atom determines how it behaves chemically.

After reading A Short History of Nearly Everything, we are impressed by how isolated Earth is in the solar system and how the solar system is so far away from anything else, by the sheer number of species that have existed or do exist on Earth – tens of millions of them, by how little we directly know of Earth’s interior or, for that matter, of the matter that makes up most of the Universe – be it dark or whatever, by the severity of the mass extinction currently be created by humans in which several hundred species of all kinds of life vanish every week, by the bizarre behaviour that governs an atom, and by many other things that are near to us but usually go unnoticed.

A Short History of Nearly Everything is available at Timbooktoo, tel 4494345.