Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

Mount TBR 2013(I read this book as part of The Mount TBR Challenge. Here’s to a shorter list!)

Bill Bryson was on a plane flying over the Pacific Ocean when it occurred to him that he knew very little about the round ball we call home. Everything—from how the universe was created to how our cells work—was a mystery.

A Short History of Nearly Everything is the result of three years of Bryson’s effort to learn everything we know about our universe and how it came to be. Which, as it turns out, isn’t that much.

Big book, big story

I love reading Bryson’s books, but they’re so tough to review — I enjoy every word so much that it’s tempting to quote the entire book. It’s even harder to distill all my thoughts down into a short, solid review, but I’ll give it a try.

Bryson is an incredible storyteller. Nothing about any of the topics he discusses is simple, but he manages to present them to the reader in ways that make them easier to comprehend — no easy feat when you’re talking about both the incredible hugeness of the universe and the unbelievable tininess of the atoms of which it is composed.

You may not feel outstandingly robust, but if you are an average-sized adult you will contain within your modest frame no less than 7×1018 joules of potential energy—enough to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.

The chapters on how the universe was created were especially intense — trying to comprehend such a huge thing, and your relative smallness besides, is just a little nauseating.

All in all A Short History of Nearly Everything was informative and entertaining, marked by Bryon’s penchant for dry humor and exacting eye for detail.

If you want a quick summary of the book and its tone, look no further than this quote from Bryson himself:

The upshot of all this is that we live in a universe whose age we can’t quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances we don’t altogether know, filled with matter we can’t identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don’t truly understand.

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