Mike Pozulp

July 4, 2015

Exciting Survey of the Natural Sciences ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

A short review of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.

The success of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything lies in his ability to make the content of natural science serendipity as exciting and accessible to readers as it is to its practitioners. Some of the devices that he uses to achieve exciting prose are dramatically effective, whereas some of the mechanisms that he uses to achieve accessibility are a little tiresome. Ultimately, Bryson shows us why he deserves a spot in the literary canon of contemporary popular science with his audaciously-titled entry.

Prior to reading Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, geology did not excite me. Bryson changed my perception of geology by leveraging a powerful device that would prove thematic. The book is arranged as chronologically successive attempts at answering the most powerful questions of the natural sciences: Where do we come from? Are we alone? What are we made of? Bryson creates an excitement about geology by asking the same questions that the upstanding membership of Victorian era geological societies excitedly sought to answer: How old is the Earth? What is the mass of the Earth? Has the Earth always looked the same?

Bryson follows the standard popular-science storytelling format by providing miniaturized biographies for each historical character. Bryson's excellent storytelling and articulated explanations obviate the need for any mathematical or symbolic descriptions. The only equation that Bryson shows is Newton's law of universal gravitation, "which is of course way beyond anything that most of us could make practical use of," Bryson laments, "but at least we can appreciate that it is elegantly compact." Bryson makes some other awkward apologies to the non-technical, non-mathematical reader. In the introduction he spends four pages establishing a layperson ethos while standing amid the rubble of the fourth wall that he has broken with an opening "Welcome." But this is less a criticism of his writing as it is of subjective stylistic choices. Bryson is simply grappling with the inherent difficulties confronting a superstar author in speaking to a huge and diverse readership.

Bryson's writing is otherwise always entertaining. When he laments the lack of researchers working on a particular microscopic aquatic animal of importance to evolutionary biology, he says of the researchers, "They can be found all over the world, but you could have all the bdelloid rotifer experts in the world to dinner and not have to borrow plates from the neighbors." Such accessible eloquence is perfect for the popular science genre. Bryson, instead of dubiously enumerating an unknown but small number of scientists, gives us some cute imagery. It also has the effect of alleviating the information density with which Bryson lovingly burdens the reader in his treatise of such great length, 544 pages to be exact.

After hearing so much from friends and fellow popular-science readers about A Short History of Nearly Everything, I am glad to have finally read it. The book manages to be accessible as a popular science starting point while still capable of holding the interest of seasoned popular science readers. With A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson shows himself a giant of the popular science genre.