A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly EverythingA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this massive tome Bryson gives a creditable history of nearly everything … science related. He totally ignores traditional recorded human history such as wars and dynasties and exploration (other than scientific ones). He writes well and can make almost any topic seem interesting, but he has a few tendencies you should be prepared for if you plan to undertake this book. The most obvious obstacle is the sheer size of the book at over 500 pages. Bryson also seems almost obsessed with the notion of misplaced credit. Virtually every major discovery or breakthrough in science he discusses seems to have an associated story of someone who discovered or thought of it first but was not believed or published and the credit fell to someone else later. The appeal of this sort of revelation wanes after (or well before) the hundredth time it is mentioned. At least it did with me.

This is not a science book, at least not in the traditional sense of trying to impart a working or even academic knowledge of a scientific subject. Bryson is a journalist, not a scientist. He gets the basics right but tends to gloss over the science itself rather quickly in order to focus on the people who were involved. There is at least much biography as biology in the book. The reader learns where the controversies are and what the current frontiers of a field of science are, but not how to conduct any scientific research. Your SAT score won’t go up using this as a prep book, and that’s a good thing. It’s meant to be read for enjoyment and for an understanding of science and scientists as a whole, as an institution or process. The reader will appreciate how often it has gone wrong, how hard it has been to get on the right track, and mostly, how amazing the great minds have been to work out the vast store of knowledge and understanding we now enjoy. It has been in only the last few decades that so many myths have been destroyed.

The format is more like a very long magazine than a storybook. There is no plot. Each chapter is like a new article on a different subject. You can open it anywhere or read it in any order without losing anything. It makes it easier to pick up and start reading at any point. It also makes it easier to put down and put off at any point, which I often found myself doing since there was no suspense as to how it was going to come out or what was going to happen next. I enjoy non-fiction, but I find myself with less patience for overlong books in the genre. Still, I recommend this one to anyone who enjoys good writing and a layman’s interest in scientific progress.

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