Bill Bryson is best known for his bitingly funny travel books, but he is also a master of the explanatory thesis. If anyone would like to understand the English language or Shakespeare, Bryson’s works are the way to get a quick, clear precise explanation. Since he has studied English and been a journalist and writer, this makes perfect sense.
But now with “A Short History of Nearly Everything” he has taken on the entire history of the world.
I am tempted to say this book is “The Cosmos Light”, but Bryson is so capable of explaining in clear but simple detail, that the reader does come away with a real understanding of most of the basic principles of the universe and mankind . His secret is that he makes every topic he explains relevant. Like most of us, he learned his science by rote and never really understood the theories behind the beginning of the universe, of life, and especially of mankind.
In this book, one of the most important contributions Bryson makes is that he not only explains the “what” of scientific knowledge, he also explains how science came to this knowledge.
Bryson clearly loves his topic and explains the many phenomena he treats with an almost childlike awe. For the layman who would really like to understand the basics of the big bang theory, the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and other such heady topics, Bryson is your man. Admittedly, I had to read several sections over a few times to understand, but this was not at all like reviewing science for a test. I did it because he made it so interesting that I wanted to be able to follow it better. Bryson also builds on one topic to develop the next, so having a clear understanding of each in turn is a big help.
Bryson is able to bring together all of the mysteries of the cosmos into what almost becomes a biography of the earth and its inhabitants. From T- 0 (what happened immediately before the big bang?) to the Cambrian explosion (when complex life began) to the emergence of present day man, a complex novel, with mysteries continually being solved, emerges. The mystery is even deeper when he explains how small the chance was that any of it even happened in the first place!
The other aspect of the book that makes it easy reading is that most non scientists are people persons, and Mr. Bryson takes the time to delve into the lives of each of the discoverers of science’s and life’s mysteries.
They are an interesting bunch, and interjecting their fears and foibles made their discoveries more valuable in my eyes. One chemist had all his discoveries stolen from him, his wife walked out on him, and he was struck by a horse and buggy and practically paralyzed. He finally killed himself, but his spine was so deformed by the accident, that it was retained for study and ended up in the office of the scientist who stole his discoveries! Vignettes such as this make science come alive, at least for me.
Add to the three years of careful and thorough research, interviews (how does he get through all those doors?), Bryson’s acerbic wit that have made his travel books so entertaining, and you have nothing short of a masterpiece.
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