Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Book Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
I am a big fan of Mr. Bryson. But I guess once, circa 1999, that I had read everything he wrote, I lost steam. When this book came out in 2003, I was excited, but my momentum had left, and given its length, one must have a great deal of momentum. Not to mention as science had never been a particular strong suit of mine, the subject matter also scared me a little. But over Christmas, my step-mother was reading it and loving it, and I'd owned a copy for 9 years (a bound manuscript so I've had it since 2002). Finally, I was going on a 6 day trip to first Phoenix and then Chicago, I'd have 4 flights, a couple of which were long, I needed to squeeze a lot into my suitcase, so space was limited, and I needed a large paperback that wouldn't read too fast so I wouldn't need to worry about finishing it before I got home. I also couldn't worry too much whether I was going to like it. This fit the bill perfectly.
Basically, the book is an entire overview of the history of science. He covers physics, chemistry, astronomy, paleontology, biology, and everything in between. Luckily, as a non-scientist, it is written very accessibly, with occasional humor to keep things lively. Mr. Bryson has a weakness for random, funny facts (as do I), which certainly kept me turning the pages. Each chapter covers a segment of science pretty wholly, so it could be put down for several days and picked back up without losing anything. He's not reverential and so while he certainly has a great deal of respect for science, he also sees that a lot of scientists were wackos and gives you fun details about their crazy experiments, and nuttier theories, understanding that these kinds of fun details are precisely what will intrigue the non-science-inclined and keep us reading. I imagine it wouldn't be appreciated by actual scientists who would find fault with his poking fun, but they're not his market.
It was thoroughly enjoyable, I learned a lot (for instance: "Your pillow alone may be home to 40 million bed mites. (To them your head is just one large oily bon-bon). And don't think a clean pillow-case will make a difference... Indeed, if your pillow is six years old- which is apparently about the average age for a pillow- it has been estimated that one-tenth of its weight will be made up of 'sloughed skin, living mites, dead mites and mite dung.'" Ugh, gross. I really try to not think about these kinds of facts while I'm dusting.) Some was disturbing - estimates vary widely but even the very most conservative admit that humans cause an average of 2 extinctions an hour, some of the worst in the last century were caused by ornithologists themselves! All of it was awe-inspiring from people who had the brain power to figure out things they were centuries away from proving, to the fact that Denver is getting taller every year and no one knows why.
Didn't inspire me to become a scientist but maybe I'll read another book on science this year. This is the perfect refresher course for a layperson.


Jeane said...

I don't know if I could read this book! That part about the pillow made me want to go burn all ours and buy new ones right now.

Carin said...

Maybe I'll give him another try. This book seems more up my alley. :)

Bibliobabe said...

Great review!
This sounds awesome. I have an earth science degree - but didn't do well in any of the sciences dealing with things that aren't alive. I could definitely use some help in physics, astronomy and chemistry (even walkin' around knowledge would be great).

The bit about the mites made me scratch my head. Eeek! Can't think about these things while we try to sleep! Time for a new pillow. :)

Rebecca Chapman said...

This is a wonderful book, I think it might be the only non-fiction book that I have read from cover to cover and actually enjoyed. I am in love with Bill Bryson's books

DCMetroreader said...

Running out to by a new pillow after write this. LOL

Carin Siegfried said...

Jeane, Bibliobabe, and DC metro Reader, last night I flipped by pillow over to get to the cool side, and I thought hmmm, mites. Hello mites. And I screwed my eyes shut and refused to think about them any more. Might buy a new pillow this weekend.