A Short History of Nearly Everything

July 8, 2008

What would you like to know about the world around you? A little? A lot? How about (nearly) everything about (nearly) everything? If that is all you are looking for, then you simply must read A Short History of Nearly Everything, but I warn you, if you really want to know something for keeps, don’t let yourself read more than a few pages at a time. Or maybe ever. Otherwise, you will fall into the trap that I fell into, namely, that reading a few pages deeper into the book is the very best way to erase all recollection of past pages read. The chapter on the Ice Ages will make you forget the chapter on the Big Bang. The DNA chapter will destroy all recollection of the Ice Ages, and so on, and so on, until you finally put down the book, many happy pages later, wondering what you have actually learned.

It would be tempting to blame the author, Bill Bryson, for this. After all, if the book had been just a little more boring, I might not have been tempted to read it so quickly. To his credit, he does put a few speed bumps in the way. There is also a lightly repetitious quality to some of the stories: again and again you will discover that famous scientists were cads and (students take note!) many, perhaps most, of the scientists who make great discoveries never receive adequate credit for them, and again and again you will discover that many scientific facts can only be understood by using numbers and these numbers tend to  be incredibly vast or vanishingly small. But this kind of repetition is not really the author’s fault. It is simply the way science is.

And speaking of repetition, it certainly isn’t the author’s fault that I received my copy of A Short History … for my birthday, an event which I dearly love to celebrate, but whose repetitious quality is driving my family to distraction in their quest to find a gift that I will enjoy as well as appreciate. They succeeded beautifully with this gift (they had an idea that I might appreciate it since I had just happily finished The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid a few days earlier), but they might have suspected that, seeing as how A Short History … had been a bestseller about science, I might have already purchased my own (unopened) copy. Oh well.

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