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A Book Review of

A Short History of Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson
Broadway Books, 2003

Prepared by the staff of Jupiter Scientific

What has propelled this popular science book to the New York Time's Best Seller List? The answer is simple. It is superbly written.

Author Bill Bryson is not a scientist – far from it. He is a professional writer, and hitherto researching his book was quite ignorant of science by his own admission. "I didn't know what a proton was, or a protein, didn't know a quark from a quasar, didn't understand how geologists could look at a layer of rock on a canyon wall and tell you how old it was, didn't know anything really," he tells us in the Introduction.

But Bryson got curious about these and many other things: "Suddenly, I had a powerful, uncharacteristic urge to know something about these matters and to understand how people figure them out."

All of us should be lucky to be so curious. Young children are. That's why they're called "little scientists." New to the world and without inhibitions, they relentlessly ask questions about it.

And Bill Bryson's curiosity led him to some good questions too: "How does anybody know how much the Earth weighs or how old its rocks are or what really is way down there in the center? How can they [scientists] know how and when the Universe started and what it was like when it did? How do they know what goes on inside an atom?" The Introduction also tells us that the greatest amazements for Bryson are how scientists worked out such things. His book is a direct result of addressing these issues.

It is superbly written.
Popular science writers should study this book.

A Short History of Nearly Everything serves a great purpose for those who know little about science. The deep questions may not necessarily be explicitly presented but many of the answers are. The reader gets to journey along the paths that led scientists to some amazing discoveries – all this in an extremely simple and enjoyable book.

The prose is extraordinarily well written with lively, entertaining thoughts and many clever and witty lines. Consider, for example, Chapter 23 on "The Richness of Being." It begins: "Here and there in the Natural History Museum in London, built into recesses along the underlit corridors or standing between glass cases of minerals and ostrich eggs and a century or so of other productive clutter, are secret doors – at least secret in the sense that there is nothing about them to attract the visitor's notice."

This opening sentence really captures the atmosphere of a natural history museum. It is full of vivid descriptions and contains the cleverly constructed, paradoxical phrase "productive clutter."

The next paragraph begins to make the point: "The Natural History Museum contains some seventy million objects from every realm of life and every corner of the planet, with another hundred thousand or so added to the collection each year, but it is really only behind the scenes that you get a sense of what a treasure house this is. In cupboards and cabinets and long rooms full of close-packed shelves are kept tens of thousands of pickled animals in bottles, millions of insects pinned to squares of card, drawers of shiny mollusks, bones of dinosaurs, skulls of early humans, endless folders of neatly pressed plants. It is a little like wandering through Darwin's brain."

And later: "We wandered through a confusion of departments where people sat at large tables doing intent, investigative things with arthropods and palm fronds and boxes of yellowed bones. Everything there was an air of unhurried thoroughness, of people being engaged in a gigantic endeavor that could never be completed and mustn't be rushed. In 1967, I had read, the museum issued its report on the John Murray Expedition, an Indian Ocean survey, forty-five years after the expedition had concluded. This is a world where things move at their own pace, including the tiny lift Fortey and I shared with a scholarly looking elderly man with whom Fortey chatted genially and familiarly as we proceeded upwards at about the rate that sediments are laid down."

Often Bryson ends a paragraph with an amusing line.

You find very few popular science books so well written. With the exception of Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, it is hard to think of even one that is witty. Popular science writers should study this book.

"I [Bryson] didn't know a quark from a quasar . . . "

Sometimes even quoting writers rather than scientists and original sources, Bryson draws extensively from other books. For example, most of Chapter 21, whose focus is largely on the Burgess Shale fossils and the Cambrian explosion, is taken from Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life. And much of the rest of Chapter 21 is based on works by Richard Fortey and Gould's other books. The author does not hide this. Titles are cited in the text, chapter notes provide quotes from books, and there is a lengthy bibliography.

Given that Bryson in not a scientist, it is surprising how few errors there are in A Short History of Nearly Everything. Here are a couple that the staff at Jupiter Scientific uncovered:

On what would happen if an asteroid struck Earth, Bryson writes, "Radiating outward at almost the speed of light would be the initial shock wave, sweeping everything before it." In reality, the shock wave would travel only at about 10 kilometers per second, which, although very fast, is considerably less than the speed of light of 300,000 kilometers per second. Shortly thereafter, one reads "Within an hour, a cloud of blackness would cover the planet . . . " It would take a few weeks for this to occur.

The book gives the number of cells in the human body as ten-thousand trillion, but the best estimates are considerably less – about 50 trillion. Here's how one might determine the number. A typical man and a typical cell in the human body respectively weigh 80 kilograms and 4 ×10-9 grams. So there are about (80,000 grams per human)/(4 ×10-9 grams per cell) = 2 ×1013 cells per human, or twenty-trillion cells. By the way, since the number of microbes in or on the human body has been estimated to be one-hundred trillion, people probably have more foreign living organisms in them then cells!

In the Chapter "The Mighty Atom", it is written, "They [atoms] are also fantastically durable. Because they are so long lived, atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms – up to a billion for each us, it has been suggested – probably once belonged to Shakespeare."

Most of this paragraph is correct, but because atoms are stripped of there electrons in stars, Bryson should have said, ". . . the nuclei of every atom you possess has most likely passed through several stars . . . " One might be shocked that each of the 6 trillion or so humans on Earth have so many of Shakespeare's atoms in them. However, Jupiter Scientific has done an analysis of this problem and the figure in Bryon's book is probably low: It is likely that each of us has about 200 billion atoms that were once in Shakespeare's body.

Bryson also exaggerates the portrayals of some scientists: Ernest Rutherford is said to be an overpowering force, Fred Hoyle a complete weirdo, Fritz Zwicky an utterly abrasive astronomer, and Newton a total paranoiac. Surely the descriptions of these and other scientists are distorted.

From a scientific point of view,
most topics are treated superficially.
This renders the book of little interest to a scientist.

Here are some examples of witty lines that finish paragraphs:

The concluding remarks on Big Bang Nucleosynthesis go: "In three minutes, 98 percent of all the matter there is or will ever be has been produced. We have a universe. It is a place of the most wondrous and gratifying possibility, and beautiful, too. And it was all done in about the time it takes to make a sandwich."

On the Superconducting Supercollider, the huge particle accelerator that was to be built in Texas, Bill Bryson notes, "In perhaps the finest example in history of pouring money into a hole in the ground, Congress spent $2 billion on the project, then canceled it in 1993 after fourteen miles of tunnel had been dug. So Texas now boasts the most expensive hole in the universe."

Chapter 16 discusses some of the health benefits of certain elements. For example, cobalt is necessary for the production of vitamin B12 and a minute amount of sodium is good for your nerves. Bryson ends one paragraph with "Zinc – bless it – oxidizes alcohol." (Zinc plays an important role in allowing alcohol to be digested.)

On Earth's atmosphere, the author notes that the troposphere, that part of the lower atmosphere that contains the air we breathe, is between 6 and 10 miles thick. He concludes, "There really isn't much between you and oblivion."

In talking about the possibility of a sizeable asteroid striking Earth, Bryson at one point writes, "As if to underline just un-novel the idea had become by this time, in 1979, a Hollywood studio actually produced a movie called Meteor ("It's five miles wide . . . It's coming at 30,000 m.p.h. – and there's no place to hide!) starring Henry Fonda, Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, and a very large rock."

From a scientific point of view, most topics are treated superficially. This renders the book of little interest to a scientist, but has certain advantages for the layperson. In some cases, emphasis is not given to the most important issue. Bryson simply lacks the insight and judgement of a trained scientist.

Chapter One on the Big Bang is particularly difficult for the author. There is too much discussion on inflation and on the many-universe theory. Inflation, which is the idea that the space underwent a tremendous stretching at a tiny fraction of a second after "the beginning", is consistent with astronomical observations, is theoretically attractive but has no confirming evidence yet. The multi-universe theory, which proposes that our universe is only one of many and disconnected from the others, is complete speculation.

On the other hand, Bryson neglects events that have been observationally established. Big Bang Nucleosynthesis, in which the nuclei of the three lightest elements were made, is glossed over in one paragraph. Recombination, the process of electrons combining with nuclei to form atoms, is not covered – an unfortunate omission because it is the source of the cosmic microwave background radiation (When nuclei capture electrons, radiation is given off). Bryson simply refers to the cosmic microwave background radiation as something "left over from the Big Bang", a description lacking true insight.

As another example of misplaced emphasis, much of the chapter entitled "Welcome to the Solar System," is on Pluto and its discovery and on how school charts poorly convey the vast distances between planets. Although the Sun is not even treated, Bryson ends the discussion with "So that's your solar system."

Here is another example in which Bryson's lack of scientific training hurts the content of the book. In Chapter 27 entitled "Ice Time, he discusses as through it happened with certainty the "Snowball Earth." It, however, is a very controversial proposal in which the entire planet was engulfed in ice at the end of the Proterozoic Era. The book says, "Temperatures plunged by as much as 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The entire surface of the planet may have frozen solid, with ocean ice up to a half mile thick at high latitudes and tens of yards thick even in the tropics." While it is true that this period was the most severe ice age ever to transpire on Earth, it is unlikely that the weather became so cold as to create the conditions described in the above quote.

Then the chapter on hominid development does the opposite by presenting the situation as highly unknown and debatable. It is true that the fossil record for the transition from apes to Homo sapiens is quite fragmentary and that anthropologists are dividerd over certain important issues such as how to draw the lines between species to create the family tree, how Homo sapiens spread over the globe and what caused brain size to increase. However, the overall pattern of homonid evolution is understood.

The reader gets to journey along the paths that led scientists
to some amazing discoveries – all this
in an extremely simple and enjoyable book.

Bryson has a nice way of summarizing atoms: "The way it was explained to me is that protons give an atom its identity, electrons its personality." The number of protons in the nucleus of an atom, also known as the atomic number, determines the element type. Hydrogen has one proton, helium two, lithium three and so on. The electrons of an atom, or more precisely the outermost or valence electrons, determine how the atom binds to other atoms. The binding properties of an atom determines how it behaves chemically.

Every important topic in A Short History of Nearly Everything can be found in Jupiter Scientific's book The Bible According to Einstein, which presents science in the language and format of the Bible. Jupiter Scientific has made available online many sections of this book. The ones that contain content overlapping with A Short History of Nearly Everything are
(1) the birth of the Universe and the Big Bang: Genesis I: The Planck Epoch and Genesis II: The Big Bang, (2) Inflation: Genesis V: Inflation, (3) Big Bang Nucleosynthesis: Deuteronomy, (4) the cosmic microwave background radiation: Exodus IV: Recombination, (5) superstrings: Chapter V: Superstring Speculation: Truth or Superstition? of Moments in Modern Science, (6) Einstein's theory of gravity: General Relativity and Gravity, (7) Einstein's life and ideas: Einstein, (8) a supernova explosion: Exodus X: Nucleogenesis, (9) dark matter: Chapter IV: Dark Matter of Moments in Modern Science, (10) the evolution of humans: Homogenesis, (11) Darwin's life: Darwin, (12) the Cambrian explosion: The Cambrian, (13) the extinction of the dinosaurs: Chapter XVI: Nature's Holocaust through Chapter XIX: Dinosaurs and Man of The Cretaceous, (14) "snowball Earth": Chapter XXVIII: The Longest Ice Age of The Proterozoic Eon, (15) the recent ice age: Chapters I - V of The Pleistocene, (16) the human-induced mass extinction: Chapter VI: Massive Growth and the Last Mass Extinction of The Pleistocene, (17) Newtonian physics: Classical Physics: Chapters I-IV, (18) Newton's Life and Work: Newton, (19) quarks: Chapter IV: The Recent Developments of History of Elementary Particles, (20) the Higgs boson: Chapter VIII: The Mystery of Fundamental Mass of Moments in Modern Science, (21) atoms: Chapters I-III of Atomic Physics and Atom, (22) history of quantum mechanics: Chapter I: Quantum Mechanics History of History of Elementary Particles, (23) history of classical electromagnetism: Chapters I-III of History of Electromagnetism, (24) Earth (size, weight, structure, atmosphere, tectonics, weather): Earth, (25) plate tectonics: Chapter IX: Plate Tectonics of The Proterozoic Eon, (26) Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9: Chapter XVIII: Shoemaker-Levy Strikes of Catastrophes, (27) near Earth impact: Chapter XVII: A Close Encounter of Catastrophes, (28) hot spot under Yellowstone National Park: Chapter V: Hot Spots of The Miocene, (29) Mount Saint Helens: Chapter XVI: Mount Saint Helens of Catastrophes, (30) bacteria: Chapter VII: Bacteria of Biogenesis, (31) cells: Chapter III: Cells of Biology and Chapter VI: Cellular Biology of Biology, and (32) DNA: in Chapter VI: Cellular Biology of Biology.

Subjects in Bryson's book that are also discussed on Jupiter Scientific's myriad webpages are
(1) History and age of the universe, (2) Big Bang Nucleosynthesis, (3) Inflation, (4) Inflation as a solution to theoretical problems, (5) Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe's measurement of the cosmic microwave background radiation, (6) Dark matter, (7) Dark matter (radio conversation), (8) Accelerating universe, (9) Type Ia supernovae, (10) General relativity, (11) General relativity as an historical accomplishment, (12) String theory, (13) Comet and meteor impacts, (14) Comet and meteor impacts (movie reviews), (15) Particle physics, (16) Quantum mechanics, (17) The Michelson-Morley Experiment, (18) Book review of Fortey's Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth, (19) Book review of Gould's Wonderful Life, (20) DNA, and (21) Great unsolved problems in science.

After reading A Short History of Nearly Everything, we are impressed by how isolated Earth is in the solar system and how the solar system is so far away from anything else, by the shear number of species that have existed or do exist on Earth – tens of millions of them, by how little we directly know of Earth's interior or, for that matter, of the matter that makes up most of the Universe – be it dark or whatever, by the severity of the mass extinction currently be created by humans in which several hundred species of all kinds of life vanish every week, by the bizarre behavior that governs an atom, and by many other things that are near to us but usually go unnoticed.

A Short History of Nearly Everything is available through the internet at Amazon.com. Jupiter Scientific participates in Amazon.com's Associates Program.

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