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I know he's done other stuff in the past, but I had always thought of Bill Bryson as a travel writer. It seems to me that travel writing is a hard literary field to break out of, so it was with great trepidation that I sat down to read A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson's attempt to render the science behind our little corner of the universe in plain language. He does a reasonably good job, but there are a few problems with his execution.

The title might sound a bit self-aggrandizing, but I have to admit that this book is remarkably thorough. Everything, from the formation of the Earth through the latest advances in quantum mechanics are discussed. Important discoveries in biology, paleontology, physics, chemistry and geology are all covered. Bryson even donned his investigative journalist's hat and went out to interview scientists of interest. He obviously put a lot of work into this book and it shows. That does not necessarily a good book make, and yet his earnestness shines through in his writing style - his fascination with what he's relating is transparent and contagious, sucking the reader into this dense aspect of our world.

While the book claims to be a history of everything, that's not quite accurate. It's more of an exploration into what we know and how we know it; to this end it spends more time than one might think on the biographies of the scientists and laymen involved, touching briefly on the personal histories surrounding each discovery. The book is arranged in a loosely chronological fashion, starting with theories about the construction and age of the universe, both from the past as well as more modern times, before moving on to the origins of the earth itself and the life contained on it.

There is a problem, however. The book is BIG, weighing in at a little over a pound in hardcover. That's understandable given the subject matter, but it's frustrating that so many of the chapters (and there are a lot of them) seem to blend into one another. There seems to be an inordinately large number of stories revolving around scientists who never received credit for their discoveries, scientists who destroyed each other's reputations and scientists who were exceedingly eccentric. It could be that all scientists are in fact very, very strange, but the repetition of the fact makes the book a little hard to work through. It should be noted, though, that I read this book in a few long sittings, a fact that probably makes this quirk more noticeable.

If you're planning on diving in to this excellent (but very slightly tedious) history of stuff, I highly suggest you take your time with it and let each bit of it sink in before moving on.

This is a book about the history of science by Bill Bryson, a travel writer. You might think a soft, jokey travel writer is not the right person to write about science history. You would be wrong.

Bryson, a former journalist with a natural affinity for details, has come up with a book about how we know things. Things like what happened at the K-T extinction, or the distance to the nearest star, or why water is sometimes called H₂O. More importantly, he makes us care about these things.

This book will appeal to those who have previously shied away from such unpromising territory as 'why did we even think about putting large quantities of poisonous lead in petrol'. Bryson, like any good journalist, has found the human story behind so many apparently-dry subjects such as the development of the Periodic Table, or the quest to measure the size of the universe.

Most books about the history of science studiously avoid putting the human interest into these stories because science is supposed to be unfettered by emotion and personality. It is supposed to stand up on its own, always subject to rigorous testing by the Scientific Method. Bryson dispels the myth that scientific arguments stand or fall on fact, logic and testable evidence alone, and reveals how fashion and tradition impede the acceptance of new ideas, even when the accepted view is clearly at odds with the evidence.

One drawback is that the medical sciences and social sciences are neglected in this book. It concentrates on the physical sciences: geology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, but I guess you have to leave some things out, or the book would be about, well, Everything.

Bryson, an American by birth, can easily pass for a Brit in his use of dry, off-beat humour. He uses a delicate touch to deflate the most pompous of scientists and to inflate the modest journeymen who revolutionised the way we think about our world. It is no surprise to learn that Bryson spent most of his early career working on British newspapers, both regional and national.

Bryson has written a lot of travel books. I have always liked his easy writing style, but been a little put off by his puerile sense of humour. History of Everything was written only a few years after A walk in the woods and Notes from a small Island but Bryson has lost the off-putting profanity and crude fun-poking he put into those books. Perhaps he felt some of the gravity of the subject matter. Perhaps he grew up. Perhaps he just got so carried away with the origins of physical knowledge that the teenage thrill of using crude words in a published work disappeared.

Bryson’s other works are rollicking tales of travels through Europe or along the Appalachian Trail. In History of Everything, the writing still flows just as freely; the jokes are still laugh-out-loud funny, but the humour is cleverer and I do not remember a single cuss-word. The title, of course, pays homage to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

One of the more attractive features of Bryson's travel writing is his eye for obscure detail. He takes us to places we have never heard of and tells us fascinating anecdotes about the people who undermined their own city causing it to fall into the ground, or a perfectly preserved Roman mosaic buried under a plastic tarpaulin in an overgrown English wood.

Bryson uses this same technique in History of Everything to show us the determination, perscipacity and inventiveness of the adventurers who first measured the distance from Earth to the Sun, for example.

In one memorable example, he describes what happens when a supervolcano blows. All life, save insects and bacteria, is wiped out for thousands of miles around. There is a ‘volcanic winter’ more severe than the nuclear winter forecast by the doom mongers. Crops fail; large animals starve, ice caps grow as sea levels sink.

Bryson next introduces us to a ponytailed, Harley-riding geologist with multiple piercings. This gentle man takes us to the largest active volcano in the world; one that could blow tomorrow, or in ten thousand years. The Harley enthusiast reports that geological evidence shows it erupts on an approximate 600,000-year cycle. That volcano is the powerhouse behind the geysers and earthquakes in Yellowstone National Park. It is a bulge of molten magma, pushing up from the mantle to just below the earth’s surface.

Yellowstone is 1500 feet above the surrounding land because the magma has deformed the earth’s crust, swelling up from below and stretching the crust so thin that the boiling, liquid rock is just a few thousand feet beneath the fields where the bears and bison roam. Just a few hundred feet of clay and rock keep this bubble of destruction under control.

When it does blow, it could go suddenly, or slowly. Either way, America will be laid waste. In the former case, most of the North American continent would be buried under metres of pumice, just like Pompeii, but on a vastly bigger scale. Earthquakes would truly make the earth move, while tsunami would drown most of the world’s coastal cities. Then we’d have to suffer dozens of volcanic winters as dust blocks the life-giving sunlight from reaching the ground.

If it blows slowly, then molten rock would pump out of the ground for tens of thousands of years, first scorching and then burying the world's breadbasket under flowing rivers of rock, while the emissions of gas and ash would poison the atmosphere and affect the weather for many generations. The nearest geological equivalent is the Deccan Traps in India, which originally covered an area 1000 miles across with basalt to a depth of 500 feet or more.

That’s a storyline for a disaster movie to beat them all, but it’s just a single chapter in this deeply involving book.

Yellowstone last blew 630,000 years ago, wiping out 60 miles of mountain range and burying distant California under 20 feet of fallout. New York's covering was three times as deep. The next eruption was due about the time the first human saw a herd of bison grazing on the fertile grasslands of modern-day Wyoming. The mid-West has been on borrowed time ever since.

We have telescopes watching space for the doomsday meteorite, but the biggest volcanic eruption on the planet, Bryson tells us, is barely on the radar.

It's this kind of little-known, but vital detail that makes Bryson so interesting. He gives the same treatment to hundreds of different facts, discoveries and inventions. His ability to find enthusiasts for science, like the ponytailed geologist in Yellowstone who know and understand their subject, brings this book alive. He describes them, their mannerisms and their enthusiasm with careful details designed to re-inject humanity into subjects that have traditionally tried to expunge all traces of personality from their texts.

Above all, however, it’s Bryson’s own enthusiasm and gentle humour that makes it so easy for all readers to start caring about these important subjects.

A Short History of Nearly Everything is not a book to be read in one or two long sittings. More something to be dipped into a chapter or two at a time, but it's a book to be read by anyone who wants to be entertained by the biggest story of them all.

Reading Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, I was struck by the similarities between it and the column called "Connections" that used to be on the last page of issues of Scientific American. The fourth chapter of Bryson's engaging book, in particular, documents the travails of scientists like Guillaume Le Gentil, who set out to observe the transit of Venus in 1761 but found himself uselessly aboard a pitching ship at the time. He then prepared an elaborate viewing platform for the 1769 transit (they always come in pairs of two, eight years apart and often with centuries in between pairs) only to have that part of the sky misfortunately obscured by a cloud for the precise duration of the astronomical event. In a set of circumstances Bilbo Baggins would commiserate with, he then returned home to find that his relatives had pronounced him dead and plundered his estate.

The book is, in short, absolutely full of exactly the kind of obscure and entertaining facts that one can break out at parties to impress the right sort of people. Informative and thoroughly accessible, it's just the sort of book I would press an intelligent person without a great deal of scientific background to read. Even those with no technical inclination will appreciate the tragicomic tale of Thomas Midgley: an engineer who invented leaded gasoline, which poisoned thousands, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which destroy the ozone layer and cause global warming, and the contraption of pulleys that he meant to have adjust his position in bed, but which strangled him to death instead. Thanks to the kind of gasoline he invented, people today still have 625 times more lead in their blood than those who lived a century ago.

Bryson's is certainly the best book I have read in months: informative, effective, and entertaining. The comparison to James Burke's column is flattering and well deserved. Bryson demonstrates a considerable range of talents, from describing scientific theories to telling stories and making strong ethical points without having to be blatant about things.

Some lively things explained include how Lord Byron's poem "Darkness," which is featured in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, was inspired by the lingering smoky shroud created by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. Many would be alarmed to learn that all modern horses have apparently descended from a handful of their ancestors who survived the Hemphillian asteroid strike about five million years ago. Most anyone would be amused to learn how Charles Darwin once spent eight years studying barnacles, only to quip afterwards: "I hate a barnacle as no man ever did before." We should all be alarmed that human activity has pushed the rate of animal extinctions to 120,000 times its historical average level.

There is much in Bryson's book to make one worried. Reading it, you learn about the massive cone of lava under Yellowstone Park that could cause such a horrific explosion as to seriously endanger humanity. You learn about the continent sized asteroids that wander through our orbit, are not tracked, and could not be stopped by any means we possessed if they were going to be in the wrong place at the wrong time for us. Still more troubling, you get a glimpse of how destructive we have been as a species. You see how little we understand life, the universe, and everything; acknowledging that is at the same time dispiriting and thrilling, an enormity of knowledge remains to be acquired and with it, perhaps, we shall find the respect that will assist our survival.

Having seen a few people reading A Short History of Nearly Everything, I decided to check it out in case it was as good as I'd hoped. It was better. The author, Bill Bryson, doesn't just explain scientific concepts. He also details the history of their discoveries with a sense of humour reminiscent of Douglas Adams.

One particularly good example is the tragic tale of Guillaume Le Gentil, an astronomer who attempted to work out the distance from Earth to the Sun by observing the transit of Venus, something which only happens twice in a lifetime, eight years apart. Despite his painstaking efforts, circumstances prevented him from making the observation on both occasions. After his eight year hiatus, he finally returned to his family, only to find out they'd already declared him dead and plundered his estate.

A less depressing tale is that of Jack Haldane, who experimented on himself as well as his friends and family using a decompression chamber. Although he ended up somewhat deaf due to perforating his eardrum, he considered himself fortunate to have gained the ability to blow smoke out of his ear, which he called a "social accomplishment." Such stories are rife throughout this book.

Bryson has performed a great service to society by making so much of our accumulated knowledge accessible to so many. I'd recommend this book to anyone even vaguely interested in learning not just how the universe works, but how we actually came to know these things in the first place. This is the history of science at its most humorous. Please, stop reading this, walk down to your nearest library or bookstore, and grab a copy. You'll be glad you did.

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