A Short History of Nearly Everything Summary

Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything

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A Short History of Nearly Everything Summary

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Between the covers of what appears on the surface to be a scientific tome, A Short History of Nearly Everything begins with an autobiographical recount. The author Bill Bryson starts by describing his schoolboy days, and how he and the kids his age were unable to stomach the boredom that came with science class nor the ineffectiveness of its textbooks. He also points to how scientific discovery has multiplied at such an exponential rate over the years since then, that within a short time, every scientific textbook was quickly rendered obsolete. And with how much scientific knowledge there is out in the world right now, he feels he needs to write his own very simple and easily digestible book for people like him, who want to learn science like a student, as an adult.

The book follows a very basic and scholastic format of six concisely divided parts, each subdivided into multiple brief chapters for an easy read, and making it quite well popular and well received. Each of the six parts covers a key area of scientific inquest, such as the Big Bang, the planet Earth and subsequently evolution and human development.

In the first part, dubbed “Lost in the Cosmos,” Bryson recounts, (while regularly thanking Ian Tattersall, one of the scientists and references for helping him on this journey) what he has learned about the creation of the earth. He narrates not only a layman’s description of the Big Bang theory, but also describes the scientists who first theorized it: Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias. A constant motif throughout the book, Bryson also discusses the story of the person behind the theory, and how the two men didn’t know how significant their findings were until they received media recognition. This part also includes chapters that discuss the edge of the universe, finding Pluto’s moons through fascinating devices as well as Revered Robert Evans and astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky and their work on supernovas.

The second part, “The Size of the Earth,” lives up to its name by addressing the size and orbit of Earth, as well as its other measurements. Bryson profiles dozens of significant scientific figures as well as their major contributions to geology, physics and chemistry, the more notable of which include Demetri Mendeleev, Marie Curie, Wilhelm Roentgen and Ernest Rutherford, all of whom have had their names lent to elements on the periodic table. Bryson goes into even more detail, citing Henry Cavendish, who very accurately measured the weight of the earth using a fascinatingly detailed apparatus that he had to look through from a separate room. Finally, he expounds that, although it was an American who found the first documented Dinosaur bone, it was actually a slew of European scientists who later divulged what it actually was.

As the subject of each part descends in size, the complexities of their inner workings increase dramatically. Bryson’s third part, “A New Age Dawns,” is a section about particles and atoms, and despite its intricacy, he presents the quantum physics and relativity theory as succinctly as possible. He further illustrates the vast amounts of energy within these particles, and how the universe is able to be made up of something, that to the naked eye, seems like nothing.

Part four, marked “Dangerous Planet,” is just that: a vibrant account of what this floating blue ball is actually capable of inciting. Earthquakes, volcanoes and climate change along with the apparently very likely threat of being bombarded by one of many meteors that constantly zoom by us.

The next two sections, “Life Itself” and “The Road to Us,” wind down the dangers and complexities of the world and how it all ends with us, or more specifically, with life. Not only how we came to be on this earth, but how unlikely it is, since most of the species became extinct, or were forced into extinction because of us. The improbable fact that we exist is not only recounted as an existential contemplation, but factually, that if our parents didn’t meet at that moment in time, and if everything wasn’t exactly right, then our entire story would be rewritten.

Parts five and six also tell the story of Charles Darwin and On the Origin of Species, specifically the outcry that surrounded it, because of constant musings on creationism, and how “the one thing he couldn’t explain was how species originated.” Bryson also writes that apparently, despite his books flying off the shelves, the idea of evolution at the time was not a new one.

Bryson concludes with the fascinating yet unfortunate description of humankind – a species that is so adept at unlocking the wonders of the world, while at the same time “pounding [it] into extinction,” citing the dodo bird as an example. He posits the question of ‘when did this all begin,’ and that we can do better, because as far as we know we are the only humans out there, and more than anything we are lucky to be here.

Bill Bryson does a solid job of providing as much information as possible, in the most comprehensible of ways, making the variety of the descriptions of our world seem almost fantastical because of their uniqueness. In fact, this is a common theme in the book, the complexity and inimitability of our universe, and the question of how significant we are in such a vast space, which edges us onto the following, more common theme:

Human beings are lucky. Multiple times Bryson points to the fact that the likelihood of human beings evolving to our level is almost infinitesimal, and that we need to embrace this opportunity by maintaining the earth we were given.

A Short History of Nearly Everything contains so much scientific material that it presents itself simply as a vast sphere of information, but like the world we live in, it contains so much opinion and personality that it doesn’t just make you learn, it makes you think.