Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything.

NY: Broadway Books, 2003.

I know this author has a huge fan base but I haven’t been very impressed by the half-dozen of his books that I’ve read. He tends to be flip, going for laughs rather than accuracy, and generally making fun of anything he apparently doesn’t understand — especially anything “foreign” (meaning not American or British).

Having said that, this fat volume really isn’t too bad as a synthesis of the past four centuries or so in the history of scientific advancement. That’s a very large topic and his approach is to blend advancing chronology with the increase in complexity as we have come to understand more and more about our world.

He begins with the beginning, the Big Bang, and how and why that theory developed, starting in the late 18th century. He follows the growth of knowledge through the principles of physics and the development of chemistry, and the discovery of ever more complex elements and processes, and he strews interesting biographical anecdotes throughout the narrative. Even if you’re well read in the history of science, you’ll pick up things along the way that you didn’t know.

As usual, Bryson overuses words like “amazing” and often falls back on “we just don’t understand,” but at least he manages to avoid the Creationist trap — the notion that the universe is SO amazing, it MUST be the result of deliberate, supernatural design. That is, Bryson is no kind of a scientist, any more than the Creationists are, but he’s willing to listen to those do understand math and physics and chemistry.

As an introduction to the fundamental process and progress of modern science, Bryson does a pretty good job of making things understandable for the reader who barely got through their high school science classes. He’s a competent writer (when he cares to be) and a talented explainer with a knack for putting across complex events and difficult concepts in simple language. Even if he isn’t George Gamow or Isaac Asimov or Stephen Jay Gould.

Published in: on 30 September 2016 at 3:12 am  Leave a Comment  
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