Reading from the wrong corner

A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson/Fajar Nurdiansyah

One of the unfortunate things about science is that once you get to a certain level you either tend to get it, or you don’t. For those of us who find that working through formulae and lab practicals is all a bit much, the only future seems to be to give up any hope of ever understanding more complex science and concentrate on those English texts.

Not so with Bill Bryson’s book, ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, which seeks to provide just that: a basic summary of the central aspects of science. Although I picked the book up with some wariness, having guilted myself into buying it so that I could at least try to keep up with my science studying friends, what I found inside was a pleasant surprise: an extremely accessible and easy to read book about science. From the Big Bang to evolution, with chemistry and history in between, Bryson uses colourful biographical details to bring the scientists and their discoveries to life.

Although the book lacks the total coverage that you might get from spending a few weeks in the Radcliffe library, and it fails to examine too far beyond biology, chemistry and geology, it touches on what most people genuinely want to know. It even does it in enough detail that you feel like you actually learn something. A lot of what is covered is admittedly present in your science GCSEs, although I for one didn’t pay much attention to those anyway (and I’m sure I’m not alone), but some of it, such as the concise and careful description of particle physics, is so accessible that I found myself flicking back to it when CERN made its big announcement this summer, and again when I last visited the Museum of Natural History (where they claim the first dinosaur bones were found in Oxford – a slightly dubious accolade, as Bryson describes it).

The trick of the book is that it’s just so readable. Bryson’s years as a writer have enabled him to convey what he knows brilliantly, in neat little segments, so that you can pick the book up and put it down days or weeks apart and not lose the thread. But for this reader the book’s real brilliance was in the fact that it was a science book about people. As time and time again, Bryson points out the people who were brushed aside by scientific history for being before their time or just not loud enough, you come to feel a much greater connection to the scientists of history than any textbook could evoke.

So, for readability, clarity, and for just getting it right, this book makes a great casual read for the scientist and non-scientist alike.