I do read an awful lot of books but in general shy away from the whole popular science genre. The general stuff on major aspects of biology I find too simplistic (and often repetitive, I mean, I know a lot about evolution), the historical stuff I tend to find dull (I’m just not that interested in history), I have narrow tastes, so won’t bother with chemistry or archaeology books say, and the heavy technical stuff I find too much like hard work (it can be great, but I won’t read it for relaxation). It’s probably largely a result of being a scientist, I doubt many art historians go home and read museum guidebooks or the ‘Idiot’s Guide to Da Vinci’. However, I do make it through a bit on occasion (and will do book reviews of a couple when I get around to it), and one book that has absolutely enthralled me since I first picked it up is Bill Bryson’s ‘Short History of Nearly Everything’.
I absolutely cannot recommend this book highly enough. I have learned a huge amount from it, it put a lot of things straight in my head that had confused me for years, the writing is excellent, fun and accessible, and it crams a huge amount into a surprisingly small space. (OK, so it’s over 500 pages of small type, but still).
The book basically goes from the big bang to the evolution of mankind in a fairly logical sequence (as far as all the sciences are fundamentally intertwined and overlapping) moving from the origin of the universe, the formation of stars and planets, geology, to particle physics, chemistry, the origin of life, evolution, extinction and, ultimately man and in just 575 pages in the paperback version. Bryson is understandably not noted as a science writer, but I have honestly never come across something quite like this. Both the depth and breadth are excellently judged.
The book covers more than just the science, but also the history of the research, historical and sociological context and lots of interesting and entertaining asides and anecdotes. It covers both what we consider good science and old and outdated ideas, but importantly, how those came about and what evidence and experiments caused the change in thought. Bryson has clearly trawled a massive amount of the scientific literature and as seen in the acknowledgements spoken to just about every major authority and science populariser going which accounts for the accuracy, clarity of explanation and astonishingly few errors that have crept in.
The book was first brought to my attention by a friend who is an astrophysicist (who gave it the kind of recommendation that I just have) and I know of other colleagues in other disciplines who like it just as much as we do. I can really only suggest wholeheartedly that you go out and get it and read it and enjoy it. No matter your profession or knowledge of science I can guarantee you’ll learn something from this and there are few books on science of which that can be said.
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