A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition
by Bill Bryson
Science for Everyone... Really
A review by Doug Brown
As someone with an advanced science degree, I tend to avoid general science overviews out of sheer snobbery (I already know all that stuff, he said with nose upturned thusly). However, Bryson is such a good writer, and I kept hearing good things about this book, so I broke down and read the special illustrated edition. And what a fun book. Realizing he knew little about science, Bryson spent three years reading and talking to folks, and then distilled what he learned into this breezy volume. As the title says, nearly everything is covered, from atoms to galaxies, from bacteria to dinosaurs. The illustrated edition is very nice, but Bryson's writing is vivid enough that the illustrations merely complement the writing, rather than enhance it. I would recommend the illustrated edition more as a gift; for everyone else, the regular edition is fine (the illustrated edition is also fairly hefty -- over four pounds).
In large structure, A Short History of Nearly Everything is broken into six sections, roughly summarized as the universe, evolution, physics, the earth, life, and people. Each section has several chapters, so no particular chapter is dauntingly long. Bryson's emphasis is as much on how we learned stuff as it is about the knowledge itself. The foibles and follies of science are lauded right alongside the achievements, and scientists are shown as human beings, warts and all. Bryson has a gift for descriptions that leap into the mind; here's his description of James Watson: "In 1951, he was a gawky twenty-three-year-old with a strikingly lively head of hair that appears in photographs to be straining to attach itself to some powerful magnet just out of frame." In his readings, if he found some passage or image that helped his understanding, he included it; the book itself thus contains Bryson's "suggested further reading" list.
I think the best teachers are not necessarily those who know a subject best, but are those who remember what it's like not to know the subject. By that definition, Bill Bryson is a great science teacher. As a non-academician, his writing is free of the nomenclature that is second nature to many scientists and science writers. If you didn't do that great in science classes but would like to know more about our world, this is a terrific one volume introduction. Even if you did do great in science, it's a fun read, and you'll probably learn quite a few little things you didn't know (I did). I recommend this book no matter what your level of scientific literacy.