A Short History of Nearly Everything

If you are interested in science at all, you’ve probably heard of this book by Bill Bryson. I was finally persuaded to read it last week. (Well, I didn’t so much read it as listen to it, in my car, while driving for fourteen freakin’ hours. But I swear that won’t color my opinion!)

The author’s able prose drew me in from the very beginning, when he invited me to ponder the surpassing minuteness of a proton. From there, his superb use of language never faltered, but the structure of the book seemed uncertain, and there were a few throwaway remarks that rankled me quite a bit. I found it enjoyable and informative overall, but of course, the Internet being what it is, I won’t depart without having registered throughout the webs my displeasure with the book’s few rough spots.

The book is best when Mr. Bryson is recounting the history of each scientific discipline in turn. He begins with physics, focusing not only on the eccentric personality and frightening brilliance of Sir Isaac Newton, but also on the serendipitous intervention of other figures, without whom he may never have undertaken the Principia. He embarks on a similar expedition through the histories of geology, paleontology, and molecular biology, focusing each time on the unusual personalities involved. This is somewhat to the detriment of the actual science, but the content was so interesting that I didn’t begrudge it that.

One thing I found wanting was a lack of coverage of the history of evolutionary theory. Plenty of time is given over to Darwin, of course, and that is well: he had one of the greatest insights of all time. However, no space is given to the considerable advances since then. Lynn Margulis’ symbiosis theory of the origin of membrane-bound organelles, John Maynard Smith’s theory of kin selection; nothing beyond Darwin’s original insight is touched upon. This is only a minor quibble, of course, as there is far too much science out there to include everything in a “Short History.” And, militant Darwinist that I am, I suppose I’m somewhat biased.

Another statement, or rather set of statements, rankled me far more. At one point Mr. Bryson refers to humans as “the world’s first true master race,” and later as “the universe’s greatest achievement.” Now, I’ve got nothing against humans. Most of my best friends are human, and I have a lot of good things to say about them. But there is no meaningful sense in which we are a “master race.” There are more bacteria in my armpit (say) than there are people on Earth; the same is true of the number of insects in the average square mile of wilderness. The only thing we’ve done that might qualify us as “dominant” is the remarkably short time it’s taken us to bring the biosphere to its knees, but I doubt too many people are proud of that. Similarly, in what way are we the universe’s “greatest achievement?” There are supermassive black holes in the universe that shoot jets of highly energetic matter for thousands of light years into space. That’s freaking awesome. By comparison, the mass of humanity is an inconsiderable portion of a fuzzy blue speck, invisible against a bigger, twinkling speck. Hardly something to write home about on the scale of an entire universe.

In short, the two remarks recounted above are rather unscientific. Thankfully, they are not representative of the entire book.

In short, I happily recommend the book for its energetic trek through the history of scientific inquiry. I offer these words of caution, however: don’t turn your brain off while you read it, and don’t accept everything at face value. Once you have the short history down, it’s time to set to work on learning the long version. For that, you’re on your own.

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