science history: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

You can hardly open a newspaper or newsmagazine these days, or scan the top stories online for that matter, without coming across am article about some new breakthrough discovery in science or medicine—and, chances are, you’re lucky to get through the third paragraph without becoming totally befuddled by the complexity and jargon of the story. It’s easy to get the impression that science has answered all the big questions and is spending more and more time and money focusing on the little ones. Read Bill Bryson‘s A Short History of Nearly Everything, and you will quickly be disabused of that illusion. This engrossing book will make clear to you how little we know of science history.


A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson ★★★★☆


We have little understanding of the universe

Truth to tell, the human race is still abysmally ignorant of some of the most fundamental matters that determine how, why, and where we live. As Bryson writes, “we live in a universe whose age we can’t quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances we don’t altogether know, filled with matter we can’t identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don’t truly understand.”

If you’ve ever seen one of those nifty world maps that shows the ancient continent of Pangaea splitting neatly into today’s familiar continents, guess again. “Kazakhstan, it turns out, was once attached to Norway and New England,” writes Bryson. One corner of Staten Island, but only a corner, is European. So is part of Newfoundland. Pick up a pebble from a Masschusetts beach, and it’s nearest kin will now be in Africa. The Scottish Highlands and much of Scandinavia are substantially American. Some of the Shackleton Range of Antarctica, it is thought, may once have belonged to the Appalachians of the Eastern U.S. Rocks, in short, get around.”

Compared to dinosaurs, we’re barely out of the womb

Or consider what we think we know about life on Earth. Bryson explains: “Of the billions and billions of species of living things that have existed since the dawn of time, most—99.99 percent—are no longer around . . . It has been estimated that less than one species in ten thousand has made it into the fossil record.” In fact, modern humans have been around for such a short time that it’s entirely possible future paleontologists of some new dominant race on this planet would find no fossil record of our existence ten or a hundred million years from now.

After all, dinosaurs dominated the Earth for more than 160 million years. We’ve been around as a species less than one million. Given the rapidity with which humankind is hurtling toward suicide by meddling with Earth’s climate, the epitaph on Homo sapiens may well be a quote from Thomas Hobbes, describing our life as “nasty, brutish, and short.”

For further reading

This is one of the books I’ve included in my post, Gaining a global perspective on the world around us.

You might also take a look at my post, 10 great books on Big History: New perspectives on world history. This book is included among the eight.

You might also enjoy Science explained in 10 excellent popular books (plus dozens of others)

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.