Bill Bryson’s affable style can work for more than travel – science, it turns out, is just as whimsical and revealing as any other human activity.
When I first heard of A Short History of Nearly Everything I did not know it was about science. At a guess, I thought that it would be about the broad sweep of human history: empires and cultures and languages. Wrong!
Instead, it includes a history of science and current thinking on plenty of topics. The solar system and the universe, the weird world of the sub-atomic, continents that move around on an earth filled with hot liquid metal, dinosaurs and their bony evidence, the life of cells, the history of hominids, and much more (sorry, no steak knives).
In short, it a great example of popular level big history.
Bryson introduces this book as written by a science noob. Maybe that was true, but he hides it well with impressive chapters covering the whole sweep of many complex arguments. And, when possible, he tells us the fun details that – I believe – should be more central to all science education.
Some stories are old. I think people might be more interested in all the stuff Isaac Newton did if we mention the experiment of shoving a leather-working needle in his eye socket and jiggling it around to see what would happen (page 41).
Some stories are more modern. Did you know, for example, that the man who developed leaded petrol (thus spawning a very profitable industry who lied through their teeth about the ‘non’ damage of lead toxicity) also developed chlorofluorocarbons? Thomas Midgley, therefore, not only poisoned the air and earth, but also burnt holes in the ozone layer with a greenhouse gas 10,000 times more efficient than carbon dioxide. (See chapter 10.)
Quite often the tales reveal a lot about the paradox of humanity. Take the story of a US songbird, Bachman’s Warbler.
…by the 1930s the warbler vanished altogether and went unseen for many years. Then, in 1939, by happy coincidence two separate birding enthusiasts, in widely separated locations, came across lone survivors just two days apart. They both shot the birds.
As a vaguely science-interested guy, I only found a couple of slightly questionable parts to the book. I reckon that’s an acceptably low number of potential ‘errors’ for such a wide-ranging work, although I know my science knowledge is very limited. (But I was disappointed that Bryson seems to have gone for mythology of the famous but misrepresented debate between T. Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce.)
But some other reflections are in order. Particularly this: why is this book history, not science?
‘History’ makes the whole of physical reality a story, it seems to me, rather than mere events. Bryson never imposes a meaning on anything, he’s much too genial to force worldviews on people. But he has chosen a style that inherently assumes a story going somewhere – and this even when when (correctly) identifying that genetic modification and evolution as non-directional.
The Bible, of course, also has a history of everything: an extremely short history of everything, in one verse. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).
I don’t believe Bryson’s book has any conflict with God’s book, in this regard. It’s just that God’s summary is even more concise. And God goes on to explain the story itself: the reason and purpose of creation, the why and who questions, and the answer to all questions in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:23).
It’s great to enjoy knowing some of ‘the all’. It’s essential to know Jesus, who is the one who ‘fills the all’ with life purpose and certainty.