Thursday, June 07, 2012

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

The title of this book, "A Short History of Nearly Everything", makes it seem to be a history book. I was never able to guess correctly that it is a popular science book until I stumbled upon the reviews of this book at Amazon. The first question that arose in my mind was how can one give a historical scientific account of everything in the universe in 600 odd pages. That too when the author of this book, Bill Bryson, is more of a travel book writer than a scientist or researcher in any specific area of science. I was a bit skeptical whether he would be able to do justice for science in such an ambitious effort. I had no option but to read the entire book to figure out the truth.

As title of the book promises, Bryson covers the history of nearly every significant scientific breakthrough in the world. This book is more of a celebration of the efforts of the great scientists who invested their life in their quest to explore the truths hidden behind nature. After completing the book, I am amazed by the amount of research Bryson would have carried out to produce a masterpiece like this. As Bryson himself admits, he was put off by the rote learning prevalent in almost all of the schools which discourages students from questioning different aspects of life. Bryson makes sure that there is not even a single equation in the whole book and explains every concept intuitively.  Ironically, he does not include history of mathematicians in this book.

The best thing about this book is that Bryson gives credit where it is due. Even those scientists who have been ignored by popular textbooks over the years feature in this book. As with the case of the discovery of helical DNA structure,  Rosalind Franklin was not given her due in the discovery. The male dominant society during that time led her towards hiding most of her research findings. This was exploited by others such as Crick and Watson. Unfortunately, she was not able to share the Nobel prize with others due to her untimely death. Other interesting facts include the competition by paleontologists for claims over the discovery of dinosaur fossils. The politics played by envious and cunning Richard Owen who troubled sincere efforts of Gideon Mantell through sheer bureaucracy can never be found in any standard text book.

Bryson spends quite a lot of the book pages on geology - study of earth. His narration of the stunning history behind the Yellowstone national park in the US exposes one how volcanic eruptions can even create vast plateaus. Most of the visitors to the park are still unaware that they are standing on a big plateau having seismic dangers. Even the Deccan plateau in India is supposedly formed as a result of volcanic eruption millions of years back. Bryson's treatment of the classification of earth's layers as we dig deep from its surface provide scientific evidence for such volcanic eruptions. Bryson also explains why banging of a meteor on the earth's surface lead to the radical change in earth's atmosphere and thereby causing the extinction of the Dinosaurs.

I was amazed by the sufferings undertaken by the scientists in their ventures to unearth the world's mysteries. Bryson gives a thorough account on the emergence of Homo Sapiens from their ancestors such as Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus, and Neandertals. These chapters of the book are similar to that of the Carl Sagan's classic, "The Dragons of Eden". The contradictory theories of the emergence of human beings through fossil studies make one feel how much more truths are still lying hidden behind this planet. Bryson also rues how the different acts of human beings are responsible directly or indirectly behind the extinction of different species and the spoiling of earth's atmosphere.

The main purpose of this book is to encourage rational thinking by introducing the readers to delve into the lives of great scientists. The areas covered is very vast comprising of physics, chemistry, ecology, geology, zoology, botany, etc. All these areas are treated with the core objective of understanding the world we live. Each scientific concept has been presented in such a way that even a person with meager scientific exposure can appreciate and enjoy this book. The important observation is that Bryson succeeds in his daring effort to popularize science to a great extent. Bryson has the incredible art of capturing the attention of the readers second only to another great science writer - Simon Singh.

This book is filled with too much significant information that it was hard to remember everything once I completed it. I felt a sense of deep satisfaction, though. I feel one should read this book many a times for gaining the complete treasure of knowledge. This book is a must read for all of us to have an intuitive understanding of almost every aspect of science. I, in fact, regret not being exposed to such a great book in my school days. On the contrary, it is always better late than never. I am very happy that I got a chance to read this book at least now. I hope almost every reader of this book will feel the same.

I would recommend "A Short History of Nearly Everything" very strongly to any student who is either interested or disinterested in science. Interested students would get motivated more, disinterested ones would start developing interest towards science. That is the magic behind this book and Bill Bryson deserves to be credited for churning out such a wonderful masterpiece. This book is a must read for people of all ages who want to make themselves more skeptical and rational. I would rate this book one of the pinnacles of popular science writing, which certainly has to be relished.


Anup Shetty said...

Very well written post about a very well written book!

nik said...

hadn't heard of this book.. ur post gives me an incentive to explore it... thanks

Shanmuganathan Raman said...

@Anup Thanks.

@nik Sure.

sumon said...

Nice Review. Thanks for sharing.