Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Book Review

[A book review of A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson - This review of mine appeared in the latest quarterly issue of our office magazine]

As a child, I wished, like probably many others did, that my textbooks were like storybooks, so that I could read them as easily, and with as much interest. But then I would chide myself - you cannot explain science like a story, can you?

You can.

Bill Bryson, in his book "A short history of nearly everything", has done just that.

The book is a short journey through the history of science. Not only does it give us facts and figures in a way that we can understand and enjoy it, but also tells us how we came to know what we know.

Bill Bryson is an acclaimed travel-writer. This is his first foray into science writing, and hopefully, not his last. He says he wrote this book because one fine day, he sat up and realized that he did not know the first thing about the world he lived in. He “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 and couldn’t imagine by what means anyone deduced such a thing."

So he set out to remedy that. He spent three years reading books, talking to the people who wrote those books, went looking for trivia in unlikely places, and obviously had lots of fun on the way. Then he sat and put it all down, and the result is this book, crammed with information and tidbits about the world around us. It speaks about the expanse of the cosmos and the smallness of the proton, and everything in between.

The book reads almost like a novel, without a central theme. It is a group of longish essays, each dealing with a different aspect of the world around us. There are six chapters in the book.

Lost in the cosmos talks about the expanse of space, the beginning of time, the origin of the earth, and the remarkable personalities who figured all this out.

The size of the earth tells us about the earth, what is in it and on it, and about the interesting investigations that led to discovering its age and size.

A new age dawns speaks about new revolutionary discoveries, like the concept of the atom that stumped the foremost intellectuals and entirely changed the outlook of humanity.

Dangerous planet warns us about the seemingly placid planet we live on. There are inherent risks like volcanic eruptions, and threats from outer space like meteor impacts. And just in case you are interested, the earth is statistically overdue for both these occurrences. And they may happen without any warning whatsoever.

Life Itself takes us back in time to the beginning of life, explores why the Earth is the only planet around that is conducive to life, and then traces developments to the present age. He talks about evolution, DNA, genes, and much more.

The road to us is about us, humans, and our evolution to what we are now. It also speaks about our role in the extinction of a number of species of life, and the strong conservationist in him tells the tale in poignant words.

The book is full of interesting characters, incidents, and situations. Scientists and thinkers, who were until now, just names which were associated with theories – for example, Brown of Brownian motion, or Halley of Halley’s comet – all these people take on a distinctive identity.

It also tells us more about scientists we already knew about. Newton, who to us, was just a scientist in a wig, with the habit of sitting under apple trees, comes to life as a brilliant, eccentric, absent-minded, and terribly secretive man.

The author also narrates heart-rending stories of brilliant scientists who worked in drudgery for years, some of whom were rewarded with recognition, but most of whom just faded into oblivion due to various circumstances. He tells us about scheming people who stooped so low as to take credit for other people's work. He talks evocatively about bitter rivalries and successful partnerships.

What is special about this book is that the author enables you to comprehend the magnitude of everything. For example, he says that if an atom is the size of a cathedral, then the nucleus is the size of a fly in the cathedral, but a fly which weighs much more than the cathedral. He points out that the solar system can never be drawn to scale in a book. In an attempt to do so, even if you represent Mars as the size of a pea, you will have to draw Jupiter 300 m away, and Pluto more than 2 km away.

Each page is sprinkled with his trademark wit and humour. In the middle of grasping an ostensibly out-of-reach topic like the space warp, you spontaneously burst out laughing at a funny offhand remark that he makes.

The book enlightens us about how much is yet to be discovered in science, despite all that we already know. Also, about how everything that we think is true, might not be so at all.

This is an ambitious book. It covers a huge range of topics, but as can be expected, everything is just touched upon. If you are the kind who, after reading a bit, is tempted to delve deeper and know more, this book will not suffice.

This delightful, interesting book makes science seem accessible. If you are the kind who is fearful and wary about science, fear no more. This book is just for you.


rajeev said...

Thx for pointing out this book- will go get it soon.
Have you read any of the James Michener books- he treats the natural history of earth in a similar story kind of format. I loved his Covenant - thats about South Africa

Ranjit Nair said...

Wow - sounds cool. Gotta get a copy of this one - have seen it around, but never got details about it so far. Thx!!

Shruthi said...

Rajeev: I am so glad to see that someone knows Michener! He is one of my favourite authors - right at the top! I liked Covenant, but The Source(about Israel) and Hawaii are my favourites!!

Ranjit: My pleasure! :) It's a very interesting read.

RK said...

Lovely post. Will surely take it home today. Surely, how I wish I had such a teacher in school!
By the way, my latest post is on declining standards of teaching. Do visit this link: http://ramblingwithbellur.blogspot.com/2006/07/system-in-decline.html

raj plus said...

Shruti, this is a great book and I loved it. In fact, on many occassions such as birthdays, weddings, etc of friends, I have gifted this book, rather than give some useless stuff like flower vase or curio set. Bill Bryson has a lovely style of 'dramatising'- for example, if he has to explain how a heart works, he will give you statistics on the volume of blood it needs to pump in 70 years, the no. of times it needs to beat, etc- which would serve to stimulate your interest.

If you haven't already. do read his travelogues too.

rajeev said...

Michener is someone i recommend blindly :). And I had a quite an interesting introduction to him- i had a favorite book shop in Aurobindo Place in Delhi that keet a rack full of books outside the main shop - all these were at a special price of Rs 50. I never found a book worth buying there until the day I chanced upon "Creaturs of the Kingdom". I picked it up, facinated by the name. I believe, anybody who reads that would fall in love with Michener's writing. At least thats the way it happened with me.

But, I haven't read either of the Source or Hawaii (though Hawaii is on my book shelf !! - got it recently from a second hand book shop). Will start on that after Centennial that i am currently reading.

Supremus said...

If you like such books, then you must read "A brief history of time" by Stephen Hawking, and "The code book" by simon singh - they cover different aspects, but are so brilliantly written.

Comparitively I found this book a tad disappointing - I dunno why!

Your review rocks though!

Keep inking.


Viky said...

Lastest Quarterly issue na? Andre innu nim office magazine publish agalwa?

Shyam said...

Bill Bryson is one of my all-time favourite travel writers - he's HILARIOUS and informative at the same time. Who could ask for more! BTW, I've got a beautiful hardbound copy of A Short History... and read it at least two times so far (in between a zillion other books, ofc) :) Nice review!

Nirwa said...

//As a child, I wished, like probably many others did, that my textbooks were like storybooks, so that I could read them as easily, and with as much interest.

:O :O :O

As a child, I never liked books, let alone expecting them to be storybooks. In fact, I still don't like my textbooks!

Hmm.. nice review.. though, I doubt if I could read so much science.. Science always gave me the shivers!


travel plaza said...

Great review! Thanks for bringing such a great book to all my attention. BTW, I didn't have a chnace to read your prevous posts over the last few days. I must say, the one about the doctors was hilarious and at the same time disturbing! Who knows what those pills are!
But the other one 'A prick in the concience' really got to me. Very well written. Like you said, I think with age we just learn to move on, not letting the plight of others really get to us. Your post really moved me. Thnaks for pointing out the piece by Anitha.

endevourme said...

hmmm....i liked dis blg,
writing abt buks is a gud idea.
keep poshting :-)

Anu said...

Shruthi, WOw, good review!:) I loved the book too. and I will continue the comment adressed to Raj and Rajeev.
Rajeev, I too was so pleased to see someone else outside my family who is interested in Michener. Source and Covenant are my favourites too. And I have always wondered why he didnt write about India. Too complicated for him? recently I came across his Memoirs. very good.
Raj, I am not a great fan of lengthy travelogues , but having read this book, I was curious about Bryson's other works. When in the library I came across a cassette where his travel tales of Europe was read out (spoken word cassette I think), it was perfect. I brought it along to enteratain me while I cooked. I just loved it!

Inder said...

nice review!!!
i haven't yet gone farther fictions. the day i make that step, i would remember the names bill bryson and james michener. from the review, i think that books on science and travelogues seem to be more interesting than i thought...

Anonymous said...

i like bill bryson's style of writing, but i did think this was, as you so rightly put it, an ambitious book, and it's difficult to really do justice to the topics. like his travelogues much better.


Shruthi said...

RK: Seriously! I wish that our textbooks had been this interesting!

Raj Plus: Yes! In fact, it did cross my mind that this would make a wonderful present. And yes, that dramatising trick makes you immediately comprehend the magnitude of everything.
Hmmm I haven't read his travelogues yet. They are in my list!

Rajeev: I haven't read Creatures...! The first Michener book I read was, I think, Hawaii. AFter that I moved to Source, Covenant, Poland, Caravans(about Afghanistan) and Sayonara(Based in Japan). Each one is a masterpiece!!

Suyog: I have read A Brief History of Time. One braintwister! And when you understand it, it's so wonderful! :D Haven't read The Code Book. Will look out for it.
Actually when I started reading this book, I had expected something else, and I was slightly disappointed. But when I accepted that this is what I am going to get, then I enjoyed it totally! ;)
And Thank you!

Shruthi said...

Viky: OOOOPs!! Thanks for pointing that out :D

Shyam: Yeah, I think this is a book you can use for reference, and if you want to stun people a little, huh? :D

Nirwa: Then try this book! Seriously! It will take away those shivers!

Travel Plaza: Hey, glad you liked the posts.:) Anitha is a great writer. Check out her other stuff too!

Shruthi said...

Endeavourme: Thank you! And thanks for stopping by! :)

Anu: Thank you :D
Michener's memoirs?? Nange beku!!

Inder: Oh yeah.. do make the transition soon! It's worth it!

Ano: Have to check out his travelogues soon. I have heard quite a few opinions that they are better than this book!

rajeev said...

Shruthi, Anu,
I have had a feeling that the first Michener book that one reads, stays the personal favorite - its like a first kiss.
Creatures of kingdom is a collection of excerpts from his other works, and concentrates on the evolution (or just some story) of animals. After that I read Covenant, Alaska, Texas, Chesapeake - in that order. I plan to get The Source next.

its a pity he didn't take up writing about India- probably would have needed a 3 volume series :).

Shruthi said...

Rajeev: You might have a point there! :D Haven't read those you have mentioned.
Yes, Anu and I have discussed many times why Michener hasn't written about India, and we came to the same conclusion. That he would need an entire lifetime, and a ten volume book to write about it :D

RK said...

Shruthi, Bought the book, one of the best I 've bought(Half way thru). Thanks a lot for introducing me to it. God bless you.

(Now, I can teach so many 'difficult' Science lessons to my son as if it were the simplest of things!!)

Shruthi said...

RK: Wow!! That was quick! Really glad you liked it :))

Viky said...

Whoa...going by the comments, it really seems to be a good book, and hence has gone into my book wishlist.

I have come across so many good books while reading the tags and reviews here that I have created a wishlist. As and when my financial condition permits, I plan to buy those books and make a library of my own...

Let's see how far I will go in this endeavour of mine.

And I'm reproachful about the first comment. I was rude enough not to write anything about your review while pointing out that mistake. Sorry.

Shruthi said...

Viky: Ho that's perfectly fine, no need to apologize :D
But there is something you DO need to apologize for. I write such a long review, praise the book and all that, and you conclude that it's a good book only going by the comments?? Fume! Fume! :D

Viky said...

He he, what I meant was the review was not only your opinion. Lot of people corroborated your views. One even bought it and put a comment while he was halfway through. It can't get better than that, right?

Shruthi said...

Viky: Heh heh ;) Oh yeah it definitely cannot get better than that!! :D

RK said...

Imagine winning a Science Book prize beating professional scientists! And moreover, the guy who won it is a travel writer. What audacity!

Well, Bill Bryson won the Aventis Science Book Prize for "A Short History of Nearly Everything". To read The Guardian article click here:

By the way, this was in 2004.

Vj said...

That sounds like an intesting book . The analogy "atom is the size of a cathedral, then the nucleus is the size of a fly in the cathedral, but a fly which weighs much more than the cathedral" reminds me another science book i read by author scientist Stephen Hawing in his book a brief history of time .This is an anecdote about an encounter between a scientist and an old lady: goes like this .

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the Earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.

At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise."

The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?"

"You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down."

Shruthi said...

RK: Audacity indeed! :) Thanks for the link!

VJ: Ha ha! That's an interesting story :)

RK said...

Read the book from cover to cover. Bryson writes in such an amazing manner, makes it look so easy!

As it has been written at the beginning of the book, the world around me looks different NOW!

Thanks again (and again)

Shruthi said...

RK: The pleasure is all mine!! :)

anoop said...

i remembered that you had reviewed a book (history something) and highly recommended it. so, when i was in a book store i remembered it, accessed your blog and searched for the keyword 'history'. found it. bought it. starting to read it. I love technology!

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