57 pages 1 hour read

Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2003

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Summary and Study Guide


Bill Bryson (b. December 8, 1951) is a nonfiction author whose writing is especially concerned with travel, the English language, and science. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson attempts to succinctly summarize the Earth’s history. By looking at the most important players in the various scientific disciplines throughout the ages, he chronicles the most vital discoveries and theories in human history.

Throughout the course of an introduction, thirty chapters, and nearly five-hundred pages, Bryson highlights the creation of the Earth, where we are now as a species, and a lot of what has happened in between. Part One, consisting of Chapters 1-3, is about the cosmos. Here, Bryson starts by talking about the origins, theories, and qualities of the atom. He also introduces the theory of the Big Bang, and describes the complexities and disputes that inherently go along with it. Finally, he explores how the planets were discovered and how the universe was measured, supernovae, and how these things all relate back to theory of the Big Bang.

Part Two, Chapters 4-7, is about the size of the Earth and the painstaking lengths scientists have gone to in order to figure out the age and weight of our planet. Bryson introduces a wide array of scientists who had a hand in determining these measurements, and gives helpful and often eccentric background information about each individual. Along the way, he explains how geology and chemistry became branches of science, the idea of plate tectonics, the discovery of dinosaur fossils and chemical elements, and a bit about thermodynamics. Yet by the end of these chapters, each of these ideas is related back to how the Earth was ultimately measured.

Part Three, Chapters 8-12, visits Einstein’s theories of relativity and gravity, quantum theory, and how physics became a scientific discipline. Bryson relates these ideas to astronomy and the idea that the universe is constantly expanding. He also explains how our understanding of the atom has evolved, and the scientists responsible for our current knowledge. Finally, he explores lead in the atmosphere, electrons, and earthquakes.

Part Four, Chapters 13-15, explores the natural dangers inherent to Earth. Bryson starts by talking about meteors and their link to life on Earth. He then moves on to volcanoes and how they relate to the Earth’s molten core. Finally, he describes Yellowstone National Park as one of the most dangerous places on Earth since it is essentially a vast volcano just waiting to erupt.

Part Five, the longest of the sections and comprised of Chapters 16-26, is about a variety of topics, all relating to life on Earth. The topics include the perseverance of life even amidst the most desolate and dangerous places (such as gas vents on the seafloor), the various layers of our atmosphere, the prolific and strange nature of water, the rise of life on Earth, the resilient quality of bacteria, life’s ability to ultimately persevere, and how amazing cells are.

Part Six, Chapters 27-30, discusses the various ice ages that have frequented Earth since the beginning of time. Bryson mentions that we are currently still in an ice age, albeit a mild one. He also digs deeply into the theory that humans evolved from apes, and he explores the findings and implications of various Homo erectus and Homo sapiens artifacts. He concludes by stating that a definitive fossil link between ape and human has never been discovered.