Read this book: A short history of nearly everything

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 It covers both what we consider good science and old and outdated ideas, but importantly, how those came about and what evidence and experiments caused the change in thought.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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5 Responses to “Read this book: A short history of nearly everything”

  1. 1 david nystuen 02/01/2010 at 11:52 pm

    You can never read too much, that includes museum guide books. If it is too hard, this shows how little you know, if it is too easy, then make sure you know as much as you think you do.

    • 2 David Hone 03/01/2010 at 1:45 pm

      I’m not sure if that’s directed at me or just a general comment. If the former, I would note that I do read an awful lot, both as part of my job and for my own interest and education and I’m not sure where i gave the impression that I didn’t. I was referring to the reading I do for fun, not what I do for my job where of course I do read lots of technical literature on all kinds of subjects. I do read physics texts as part of my job, but I don’t do it to relax of an evening.

      In either case, I would note that you really can’t read everything – even within a realtively narrow field like dinosaurs you could read non-stop for years, literally, and not cover all of the literature – the are tens of thousands of papers out there, if not hundreds of thousands and the number is accelerating.

  2. 3 Michael P. Taylor 05/01/2010 at 2:00 am

    I second this recommendation — it’s as good an all-of-science book as I’ve ever read.

  3. 4 Alex 13/01/2010 at 11:31 am

    Was just browsing through what feeds Google Reader would recommend for me, and was quickly flipping through your blog when I hit upon this very post and I knew I had to subscribe;

    This is my most favorite book EVAH! I read a lot of stuff, especially science, from academic tomes that drives you up the padded walls to more poppy sciency stuff you bring to parties, but Bryson’s book simply stands out and makes me want to go into the world and figure something out, right now! The language flows, it’s funny as hell, and very pointed. The storyline is great, and he even gives life to lots of people who otherwise would have been long forgotten. I simply can’t endorse this book more, and would – in some weird demonstration of mental floss – love to have it as mandatory reading at all schools everywhere. I surely push it on everyone I know. Just simply adore it.

    And if you endorse it, you must be worth reading. 🙂

    • 5 David Hone 15/01/2010 at 9:59 pm

      I really do push it on everything and I am *exactly* of the opinion that it should be required reading in schools! I genuinely wish I had read it during my A-levels and I honestly believe I’d have learned a significant amount of useful information from it and it would have helped me. I will continue to prothelyse! Hope you enjoy the site and thanks for the comment.

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