From Big Bang to us in 30 chapters

a review of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything

Even if you are interested more in science than the arts, — but especially if your preferences are the opposite, you might imagine that the history of science was a rather dry subject. Far from it!

Bill Bryson is known for his travel books, and for two books about the history of the English language and that of American inventions, respectively. If he can make best-sellers out of philology and technological invention, he can certainly do it with cosmology and geology too, and he has done in A Short History of Nearly Everything. I can assure you that this Aventis prizewinner is fascinating. It appeared in June 2003, then 12 months later in paperback (£8.99, or £6.29 from amazon.co.uk).

I said it was about the history of science, but it starts off as the history of the universe, and of our planet in particular, as is now told by the physicists and geologists; that justifies the title. However, Bryson is not a scientist, and — perceptive enough as he is, nevertheless, to realize he couldn’t cover even the elements of all branches of science in a single book, even if he were — the way he tackles the development of science is to focus on the lives of the scientists. Who were these people who began to investigate the various aspects of the world around them, and who founded what we nowadays call “science”? (It was, of course, previously called “natural philosophy” — which is fairly appropriate for the stage when it consisted of sitting about speculating rather than going to work at looking carefully at everything.)

Bryson delves into the factions that developed among geologists and palaeontologists. There were some lengthy, vicious feuds, and dirty dealings! Here is the struggle between various branches of Christianity and science, over the age of the earth (just over 4000 years as calculated from a list of names in the Bible, or hundreds of millions of years as evidenced by geological studies?), over the origin of our species (creationism versus the theory of evolution), and over our brains — and whether the human species is in any fundamental way different from the most closely related apes.

Here also, though, are some extraordinary characters who dedicated their lives to discovery, often with staggering single-minded diligence for years on end.

In my opinion, this is a book everyone should read!


SEMantics Issue 166 August 2004