I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realise.”
Not the words of a proud wealth planner congratulating a client on achieving their long-term goals (although they could be). No, these are the opening words of A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.
In this series we’ve picked apart some great books, some of them very well known, others less so, but what they’ve all had in common is they seek to impart key lessons, whether about work, life or successfully balancing the two. I hope that if you’ve been inspired to read any of these recommendations, they’ve proven as valuable to you as they have to me, but for this last entry, we’re looking less at life lessons, and instead, exploring the wonders of life itself.
What makes it great, in a nutshell?
A Short History of Nearly Everything is a genuinely lovely book with a decent claim to being Bryson’s most well-known (and ambitious) work. At close to 700 pages, it makes a valiant attempt to distill history from the big bang to right now, taking in what we know about the nature of our world, the universe, time, space and even what the future might hold.
Lost in the cosmos
The book is divided into six key sections, which makes the gargantuan task Bryson sets himself feel much more approachable. In the first, ‘Lost in the cosmos’ he transports us back to the moment of the Big Bang – an explosion of unfathomable magnitude and speed, which according to current theory created 98% of the known universe in a matter of minutes.
He segues to inflation theory, which is the idea that the universe is continually expanding and fittingly, this is perhaps the most mind-expanding section of the book, filled as it is with an exploration of how vast the universe really is. Here we touch on the hundreds of billions of stars in our own galaxy, the hundreds of billions of other galaxies just like it, and the calculator-defying thought that the universe is about 100 billion lightyears across, or if you prefer, 946,800,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometres…give or take.
The size of the earth
In section two, we scale down to take a closer look at the planet we call home. Here Bryson flits between physics, chemistry and geology, moving through Newton’s universal laws of motion and his work to determine the size and mass of the planet. From there, we move on to the work of James Hutton, who correctly anticipated plate tectonics (not that he was respected for his ideas at the time) before shifting to the rise of recreational geography and its relationship with what would in time become palaeontology.
As we turn our attention to chemistry, Bryson does more digging, explaining Mendeleyev’s periodic table, familiar to every person reading this article, and we visit the achievements of Marie Curie, the only person to win Nobel Prizes in both physics and chemistry.
A new age dawns
In section three, our light-speed rattle through billions of years of history brings us to the dawn of the 20th century, when the amassed scientific knowledge of humanity is boosted by the appearance of Messrs Einstein and Planck, responsible for relativity theory and quantum theory respectively. We learn about the complex and speculative theories, which don’t always find themselves in agreement, as scientists strive for the holy grail of science, the so-called ˜theory of everything”.
But as modern scientists begin to understand the universe at ever more intricate levels, we also get the first nods to the damage the species is doing to the planet. At the time of writing, CFCs and the hole in the ozone layer were the challenges getting most coverage. As time has passed, the focus may have shifted, with some challenges being addressed and new ones uncovered, but the more we learn about the balance of nature, the more we learn about human nature too.
With 2020 being the year it’s been so far, readers may feel inclined to skip section four,”Dangerous Planet”, a treatise on just how much of a tightrope our very existence is and always has been. The Earth certainly has precedent when it comes to surprising natural disasters. While it’s generally accepted that being sucker-punched by an asteroid was at least partly responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs, the threat did not die along with them.
According to Bryson it’s not at all uncommon for celestial bodies with the potential to wipe out humanity to come into close proximity (on a cosmic scale) to our planet. And that’s just what’s going on outside – Earth has plenty of terrestrial tricks up its sleeve, that could wreak havoc, the Yellowstone ‘supervolcano’ for one.
In section five Bryson turns back the clock again to focus on the complex conditions required to create life. From the microbes that kick-started the process, through plants, ocean life, dinosaurs and mammals, to us. It may seem like a linear development, albeit on a truly awe-inspiring scale, but it isn’t. The fact that we’re here at all is largely down to luck and happy accidents, Bryson suggests, as he explores natural selection, looking at inherited traits and their role in evolution.
Once again, as scientists peel back the layers of mystery, they find our fingerprints in places that they shouldn’t really be. Bryson draws our attention to the delicately balanced nature of life and the need to protect it from heavy-handed human behaviours. Life is fragile, our own included. Bryson notes that 99.5% of Earth’s habitable space isn’t suited for humans, so we ought to be more respectful of the part that is.
The road to us
While the book routinely raps us on the knuckles for our folly and short-sightedness, the overall outlook is a positive one. Yes, we deserve to be called out on our mistakes, but Bryson’s message is really to take a moment to appreciate the true majesty of beauty of life, and the ‘miracle’ that it’s here at all.
In the final section he explores the dawn of humanity, as we make our fashionably late entrance just one hundred millennia ago, outliving our close cousins the Neanderthals (and others too). He notes that this branch of science is in its infancy, the very distant past remains a mystery, but he’s upbeat about the future, which can be bright, bold and beautiful if we pay close attention and commit to acting responsibly. Appreciating what we stand to lose is a key step in that process.
Have we covered everything? Nearly
Bryson wrote this book because he felt his own appreciation of science was lacking and he found conventional science books dull. That’s a brave admission and one that many of us might secretly identify with. Science is fascinating but it’s also vast and complicated and it’s easy to be put off in our attempts to learn more. With this book, Bryson does a sterling job of encouraging that spark of curiosity and fanning the flames.
He promises (nearly) everything and takes a good swing at providing just that. We’ve got the likelihood of advanced aliens, battles over quantum theory, the age of the planet and the nature of time. We take in space, gravity, the value of bacteria and why we still don’t really know very much about the oceans (we actually know more about Mars).
This is a fascinating book that deftly covers a huge array of subjects, always fascinating and never outstaying its welcome on a subject before racing to the next one. It won’t make you an expert on everything – or anything, to be fair – but it’s a brilliant read, it makes a great gift and you’ll be infinitely more interesting at dinner parties.