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Summary and book reviews of A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything

by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything
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  • First Published:
    May 2003, 560 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2004, 560 pages

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Book Summary

The ultimate journey to discover how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since.

Bill Bryson is one of the world's most beloved and bestselling writers. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, he takes his ultimate journey–into the most intriguing and consequential questions that science seeks to answer. It's a dazzling quest, the intellectual odyssey of a lifetime, as this insatiably curious writer attempts to understand everything that has transpired from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization. Or, as the author puts it, "…how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since." This is, in short, a tall order.

To that end, Bill Bryson apprenticed himself to a host of the world's most profound scientific minds, living and dead. His challenge is to take subjects like geology, chemisty, paleontology, astronomy, and particle physics and see if there isn't some way to render them comprehensible to people, like himself, made bored (or scared) stiff of science by school. His interest is not simply to discover what we know but to find out how we know it. How do we know what is in the center of the earth, thousands of miles beneath the surface? How can we know the extent and the composition of the universe, or what a black hole is? How can we know where the continents were 600 million years ago? How did anyone ever figure these things out?

On his travels through space and time, Bill Bryson encounters a splendid gallery of the most fascinating, eccentric, competitive, and foolish personalities ever to ask a hard question. In their company, he undertakes a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only this superb writer can render it. Science has never been more involving, and the world we inhabit has never been fuller of wonder and delight.

CHAPTER 1
HOW TO BUILD A UNIVERSE

NO MATTER HOW hard you try you will never be able to grasp just how tiny, how spatially unassuming, is a proton. It is just way too small.

A proton is an infinitesimal part of an atom, which is itself of course an insubstantial thing. Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this i can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them, rather more than the number of seconds contained in half a million years. So protons are exceedingly microscopic, to say the very least.

Now imagine if you can (and of course you can't) shrinking one of those protons down to a billionth of its normal size into a space so small that it would make a proton look enormous. Now pack into that tiny, tiny space about an ounce of matter. Excellent. You are ready to start a universe.

I'm assuming of course that you wish to build an inflationary universe. If you'd prefer instead to build a more old-fashioned, standard Big Bang ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The adult version of a children's thousand amazing facts book - indispensable, understandable, funny and timely. Bryson, writer extraordinaire and self professed science phobic, has successfully turned his hand to making all things scientific comprehensible to mere mortals - including geology, chemistry, paleontology, astronomy, and particle physics.  

Media Reviews

The New York Times - Ed Regis

… the more I read of A Short History of Nearly Everything, the more I was convinced that Bryson had achieved exactly what he'd set out to do, and, moreover, that he'd done it in stylish, efficient, colloquial and stunningly accurate prose. We learn what the material world is like from the smallest quark to the largest galaxy and at all the levels in between. The basic facts of physics, chemistry, biology, botany, climatology, geology -- all these and many more are presented with exceptional clarity and skill.

Booklist - Gilbert Taylor

To those acquainted with the popular-science writing Bryson has digested, his repackaging is a trip down memory lane, but to his fellow science-phobes, Bryson' s tour has the same eye-opening quality to wonder and amazement as his wildly popular travelogues.

Publishers Weekly

... to read Bryson is to travel with a memoirist gifted with wry observation and keen insight that shed new light on things we mistake for commonplace....a trip worth taking for most readers.

Kirkus Reviews

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Reader Reviews

Macca

I wish had read this book before I did my science degree....it would have saved three years of my life. Bryson's book has reinvigorated my youthful curiosity for knowledge. 'It's breathtaking, I suggest you try it.'

Peter Kirby

A terrific read, Bryson cleverly blends science and wit.

Tara Winter

A interesting look at the scientific take on life

Steve Pearce

Bryson's sheer readability turns some of the most complex ideas imaginable into a wonderfully entertaining book, packed full of humour and fascinating detail. A quite incredible achievement, particularly when one considers he was travelling at 600 ...   Read More

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