If you believe that our universe began with a divine miracle in six days, this is not the book for you. For the rest of us however, here is a most readable and comprehensive account the story of creation, as traced by science. "A Short History of Nearly Everything" opens with the Big Bang, ends with the quest for our most recent ancestors, while sandwiched in between are volcanoes, extinctions, the strange development of microbial life and hundreds of stories and details.
In addition to its wide scope and its clear, enticing style, Bryson's book has two virtues. First of all, it focuses on the process of finding out. Scientists think differently from students--and from the rest of the public. The student wants facts: numbers, dates, results, things which might appear on the final exam. How old is the universe? How distant the Moon? How hot is the Sun's visible face? All these can be dug out of textbooks and encyclopaedias, but they alone tell next to nothing about the science. A scientist instead asks: "What is the evidence?" Answering that question (which incidentally also marks the fault line between science and religion) brings science itself to the fore.
Bill Bryson's book focuses on that "how do we know?" Not exclusively--trying to rationalize every statement would take far too much space, besides exhausting the patience of any but the most determined reader. A balance is struck--enough discoveries are explained to earn the trust of readers, while others are just sketched out. Not just that, but in his articulate and informed style, Bryson makes us wish to learn more about them.
The second strength is the way Bryson incorporates history. "How do we know?" calls for scientific reasoning, but what intrigues readers more are stories of actual discovery: "How was it found out?" It is in such stories that the book shines. Here are the oddball pioneers who helped bring about today's understanding--names such as Hutton, Lyell, Cavendish, Darwin (he had his strange ways, too), Haldane, Linnaeus, Walcott and many more. Here, too is a catalog of the drastic ways nature shapes life on Earth--of ice ages and volcanic eruptions, including an enormous explosion in what is now Yellowstone Park. It smothered the land with abrasive ash all the way to eastern Nebraska, ash which has provided modern kitchens with scouring powder, mined by people with no idea of its origins.
Of course, mass extinctions provide an important part of the scenario, including the famous one which supposedly ended the rule of the dinosaurs. It wasn't the biggest of the lot. Even more interesting than the destruction of life is the story of its emergence, from simple beginnings (only vaguely understood) to primitive microbes and algae, gradually giving way to more sophisticated life. Almost all important stages of this evolution were completed long before dinosaurs appeared on the scene.
Bryson also tells how generations of scientists tried hard to trace the family tree of all living creatures. Starting with a simple diagram, it evolved to greater and greater complexity, and is still adding new branches. It is quite likely that the last word remains hidden somewhere in the indefinite future--not a minor tweak but a thorough revision--and that we may never find out why certain evolutionary lines, seemingly robust, died out nevertheless. It is similar with the ancestry of humans: journals may trace neat relationships and draw fanciful images of early humanoids, but in truth the picture is still exceedingly messy, filled with unresolved question marks and based on far too few pieces of the fossil record.
And so it goes. One somewhat unsettling feature is that in the few instances where this reviewer knew the facts, they did not always jibe with the text. Betelgeuse is not 50,000 light years away (last line on page 36) but something like 650, and (same page) our magnetosphere does not shield us from the Sun's ultra-violet, it's the ozone layer which does so. Other examples exist, but let us be charitable, blame editorial lapses and just warn the reader that although the story is by and large accurate, specific details may not be. If ever this book earns a revised edition, its facts deserve to be re-checked, preferably by experienced colleagues of the author.
Blemishes and all, it remains a superlative book. As I was finishing the short last chapter, I wondered what would happen if some forward-thinking high school principal would decide to banish the traditional texts on earth sciences and paleontology to the back shelves of the storeroom, and instead issue this book to students, making them study a new chapter each week (out of 29 or 30). The result may be a much better informed graduating class, with a much greater interest in Earth and its history. Knowing what I do about public education, I doubt that will ever come to pass. But wouldn't it be great if it did?
Author and Curator: Dr. David P. Stern
Mail to Dr.Stern: david("at" symbol)phy6.org .
Last updated 21 August 2004