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A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everythingby Bill Bryson; narrated by Richard Matthews

Once again, Bryson turns his hand to something new (he’s written travel books, history, language, memoir, and now science!).  Of course, he does it with aplomb and skill, not to mention a heavy dose of humor.  A Short History of Nearly Everything functions like a quick primer of the state of science circa 2002.  It’s a little dated in certain parts (as in the discussion of DNA, the last eight years have actually revealed a lot), but overall it’s really interesting.  He writes about cosmology, astronomy, geology, vulcanology, platetechtonics, climatology, biology, chemistry, evolution, and paleontology, among others.  Skipping from discovery to discovery, he traces out key ideas through key thinkers, giving us plenty to think about in how they worked and what they were like.  It’s a delight.  A few extra thoughts, mostly in the form of fun stuff I’ve now learned:

  • Huge ecosystem-shaking planet strikes from meteors are very common, from a geological standpoint; at least every 100k years or so. Ice Ages also happen pretty regularly, and the super volcano under Yellowstone that erupts every 650k years hasn’t erupted for 650k years.
  • There have been a lot of petty, mean scientists mixed in with the nice ones.  I was especially irritated to learn how badly Rosalind Franklin, one of the four scientists most responsible for discovering DNA’s double-helix, had been treated.  I’ve decided to read the 2002 biography of her for Ada Lovelace day.
  • After documenting all the ways human beings, particularly 19th Century naturalists, had caused the extinction of numerous species, Bryson writes something to the effect of “If a divine creator were to select a species to husband and care for all the other species on Earth, it could hardly to worse than to choose human beings.”
  • While many of the discussions of geology and astronomy and physics were interesting, I found the life sciences sections most rewarding.  When he starts to write about evolution, he lays out all the ways evolution depends on “random chance” to assemble its creatures, then he reveals that this is a creationist misinterpretation, and demolishes it.
  • Looking at the large mammals who lived not so long ago, he remarks that there used to be “guinea pigs the size of rhinoceroses and rhinoceroses the size of two story houses.”  Also, the era just after the KT event that killed the dinosaurs could quite reasonably be called the age of the turtle after its most diverse and dominant species.

Richard Matthews brings a fine solemnity to the proceedings, cracking Bryson’s jokes with what you can be sure is a straight face.

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