The Universe and Other Details

  1. Christie Carrico, PhD
  1. Christie Carrico, PhD, is Executive Officer of ASPET.

A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bill Bryson. New York: Broadway Books; 2003. 545 pages. $27.50. ISBN: 0767908171

Bill Bryson is best known for his engagingly written travel adventures here and abroad (In a Sunburned Country, A Walk in the Woods) . A Short History of Nearly Everything is, in a sense, another book about travel—this time through history. Bryson’s focus is on life, how it came to be, how it evolved, and how it survives. Starting with the Big Bang, he traces the creation of the earth and the evolution of life on earth. Along the way, he explains scientific events in terms that almost anyone can understand. From plate tectonics to DNA replication, from quasars to SNIPS, Bryson’s explanations are simple and yet inspire a sense of wonder at the amazing mechanisms involved in each topic.

This eminently readable book not only includes explanations of geological, astronomical, nuclear, biological, and chemical processes, but also paints captivating portraits of the scientists, clerics, philosophers, and in one case, janitor, who contributed to some of the world’s most brilliant discoveries and theories. What makes the book especially enjoyable is that Bryson muses, as he is wont to do in all his books, on the foibles and peculiarities of humanity. Although he may at times skew his perspectives on many of the world’s geniuses to highlight their idiosyncrasies, the historical contexts in which his subjects were working, to elucidate gravity, evolution, genetics, relativity, and electricity, most likely mandated individuality and eccentricity of thought leaders. As Bryson surmises in his account of superstring theory, “…[A]nything scientists say about the theory begins to sound worryingly like the sort of thoughts that would make you edge away if conveyed to you by a stranger on a park bench.” Another example is found in Louis Pasteur, who became so obsessed with his microbes that he would not eat any food placed before him until he had inspected it with his magnifying glass. Charles Darwin spent eight years writing an opus on barnacles, while all the time his notes on the survival of the fittest were stored away in a closet. Carolus Linnaeus, father of biological taxonomy, appears to have been a bit preoccupied with sex, with the result that many names of plants and animals in his classification system are closely related to sexual organs and acts. Noted paleontologist-physician Robert Broom used to do all his fieldwork in the nude, often burying dead patients in his back yard to make them accessible for exhumation and later study.

Bryson also highlights many unsung heroes—those individuals who published in obscure journals, remained reticent about their accomplishments, or talked too much to the wrong person—did not get the credit they deserved for making remarkable discoveries. Alfred Russel Wallace, a young naturalist working in the Far East independently came up with the theory of the survival of the fittest, uncannily replicating much of the argument espoused in the manuscript written (although still unpublished) just a few years earlier by Darwin. It was Wallace’s declaration of the theory in private correspondence to Darwin that finally prodded Darwin to publish and take priority of the theory. A Scottish gardener, Patrick Matthew, apparently came up with the theory of natural selection somewhat before Darwin, but because Matthew’s account was published in a book called Naval Timber and Arboriculture, it went largely unnoticed. In 1946, a young assistant geologist in government service in South Australia discovered fossils proving that complex life existed a hundred million years earlier than the currently accepted date. Reginald Sprigg submitted his paper to Nature only to have it rejected. As a result, he read his observations at the next meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science and published them in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, not one of the most widely read journals. Discouraged that his landmark discovery was so poorly received, Sprigg became an oil explorer, founded an oil company, and died, in 1994, a very rich man.

The book tends to gravitate to geology, a tendency that is perhaps understandable, given the relatively short time that life has existed relative to the age of the universe. Bryson goes into great detail about the ages of the earth and the mechanics of its formation. Even though I am much less familiar with this type of science than, say evolution or genetics, I found his explanations of geological events intelligible, entertaining, and frequently enlightening. For example, the entire Yellowstone National Park is a dormant supervolcano that sits above a magma chamber, forty-five miles long, with the explosive potential of an eight-mile–high pile of TNT that would cover the state of Rhode Island. The Yellowstone supervolcano has an eruption cycle of approximately 600,000 years. Interestingly enough (especially for those who live in the Montana area), the last time it exploded was about 630,000 years ago. They don’t mention that in the tourist brochures.

Although the quirky portraits and curious facts are entertaining, a serious thread that pervades this book is Bryson’s concern with conservation and biodiversity. Earth has lost millions of living species during the course of evolution, and in Bryson’s view, doesn’t need the accelerate rate of loss that human foolishness is supporting. He marvels at the resiliency of life and mourns the species lost through human ignorance.

Bill Bryson is a writer who travels widely. A resident of England for almost twenty years, he now lives in New Hampshire.

Christie Carrico, PhD, is Executive Officer of ASPET.

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