A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

The fate of nearly all living organisms . . . is to compost down to nothingness.
— Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

There is a great scene in Woody Allen’s film, Hannah and Her Sisters (YR?), in which Woody Allen’s character -– a neurotic at large –- thinks that he might have a brain tumor. After realizing that he doesn’t, he embarks on a mission to find the answers of the universe, specifically: if God exists. He arrives at the conclusion that he’ll never know if there is indeed an Almighty and resigns himself to this reality.

Woody Allen may have been relieved (or possibly alarmed) had he read Bill Bryson’s latest book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. In his latest tome, the great Bryson, who is known for his brilliant travel books (such as Notes From a Small Island and I’m a Stranger Here Myself), analyzes every miniscule detail pertaining to the universe, from atoms to microbes to dinosaurs to the arrival of humans.

Bryson is a brilliant wit and an astonishingly popular writer whose wry, accurate details of the people and goings on around him have earned him a notable position among the current reign of literary greats. His special knack is describing –- to our great joy -– the nuances and peculiarities of the various places around the world. Bryson fans can attest that when reading his books, they are miraculously transported to the places that he describes so astutely, in that oh, so Bryson fashion. His talent lies as a travel writer. Therefore, it’s odd that he decided to take on what can best be described as a science project, analyzing –- in layman’s terms -– what has already been discussed at length by scientists and the science textbooks that we all read in school.

As Bryson says in explaining the purpose of this book (as quoted on the book’s dust jacket):

I didn’t know what a proton was, or a protein, didn’t know a quark from a quasar, didn’t know how an atom was put together. . . . How can scientists be clever enough to know how the continents were arrayed six hundred million years ago . . . but can’t predict an earthquake or tell us whether we should take an umbrella with us to the races next Wednesday?

Ultimately, Bryson wanted to know the answers to all these questions; hence his 544-page manuscript which painstakingly details atoms, molecules, microbes, comets, dinosaurs, DNA, how the Earth evolved, and more interestingly, Darwin’s theory and the evolution of man. Unfortunately, we have to read through hundreds of pages before we finally arrive at the most interesting part.

Bryson writes that for the most part of our history, “we were in the same ancestral line as chimpanzees. Then about seven million years ago something major happened. A group of new beings emerged from the tropical forests of Africa and began to move about on the open savanna.” These folks were our ancestors, and one generation evolved into the next, gradually ridding themselves of “ape-like” features and developing more “human-like capabilities such as hunting, using fire, building tools, and so on. However, as Bryson states, it’s important to keep in mind that regardless of these so-called improvements, we are still “98.4 percent genetically indistinguishable from the chimpanzee.” So the moral of the story is: Darwin was right.

While providing tremendous insight into the history of science and the study of the world at large, Bryson’s most interesting observations lie in his fascinating description of said scientists and their peculiarities and obsessions. You would rather he forget the distracting details of the atom or the solar system altogether, and focus on the people who were obsessed with discovering all there was know about what makes our world (and other worlds that may exist in the great unknown solar system) tick.

There was the cosmologist Fred Hoyle, owner of the phrase “Big Bang,” who, according to his obituary in Nature magazine was “embroiled in controversy for most of his life” and “put his name to much rubbish.” There was the renowned and extremely odd Isaac Newton, a brilliant albeit strange character who, for unknown reasons, even “inserted a bodkin –- a long needle of the sort used for sewing leather — into his eye socket and rubbed it around . . . just to see what would happen.” There was Henry Cavendish, whose contributions to the physical sciences, including experiments with gases, electricity and heat, were enormous, and who was such a recluse that “even his housekeeper communicated with him by letter.” And then there was the wild-haired, pipe-smoking genius Einstein, who, aside from establishing himself as the greatest and most renowned scientist to date, had a child out of wedlock.

In one chapter of the book, Bryson calls for immediate attention to the accelerating problem of extinction:

Altogether, North and South America between them lost about three quarters of their big animals once man the hunter arrived with his flint-headed spears and keen organizational capabilities.

To Bryson, the world and its habitat are in great danger, and there seems to be little that we can do at this point to prevent the extinction of thousands of varieties of animals. As the author explains: “. . . we [humans] may be the living universe’s supreme achievement, and its worst nightmare simultaneously.”

Bryson’s efforts in A Short History of Nearly Everything (which took three years to write) are truly commendable, and the book deserves a spot on all bookshelves of diehard and loyal Bryson fans. It’s been praised by major newspapers and magazines and even received notable kudos from a few obscure scientific publications. Still, the author is at his best when his humor shines through, and that humor rarely surfaces in this serious and somewhat daunting tome. Advice to Mr. Bryson: Please, for your fans’ sake, return to writing travel books.