• Ananya Ak

A Short History of Nearly Everything Book Review



When I implied that I had never read non-fiction books till my resolution 2020, I wasn’t entirely truthful. There was one (actually, two. But Not Without My Daughter doesn’t count as non-fiction in my head. Don’t ask why) book that I had read when I was still in school: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

I didn’t read it by choice; not exactly. No. I read it because my dad bought the book and kept nagging me until I finally opened it and read the introduction. It starts like this:


And it completely hooked me! I knew already that everything is made up of atoms and that I’m made of those invisible things too. But I had never heard it said in quite the same way that Bill Bryson said it. The words intrigued me and made me want to read more.

The introduction continues with Bill Bryson’s own thoughts about how boring textbooks are (and who wouldn’t like that?) and how his main question was, “How the heck did the scientists figure things out?”

He made it his mission to find out. And he succeeded, of course. This book is the culmination of his quest.

A random writer at The Guardian (at the time of publication) – John Waller – calls the book a “rough guide to science.”

But I disagree. It is, as the title says, a history of science. It’s more about how the scientists made their incredible discoveries than the discoveries themselves (although, of course, you can’t learn the how without learning the what).

The book describes everything the scientists did to discover the things they did (even their failed attempts). It also describes the scientists themselves; in fascinating and somewhat eccentric detail.

The book describes all the drama surrounding discoveries. Because contrary to what you would expect, the community that’s expected to be most open-minded is actually quite dramatic and sometimes (don’t kill me; I love scientists) very dogmatic as well! Scientists cling to their beliefs just as conspiracy theorists cling to their theories.

If you don’t believe me, just look at this description of Einstein’s belief that the universe is fixed and eternal (it’s actually not. It’s expanding):


Anyway, the book captures the drama and the politics behind major scientific discoveries in startling detail. So much detail, in fact, that it gets pretty confusing. There are often several scientists behind a single discovery and it’s nearly impossible to keep track of everyone’s names and stories. Talk about information overwhelm.

But the thing is, even though reading the book feels remarkably like studying, it’s not nearly as boring. With his snide comments like

“Nearly every line he penned was an invitation to slumber”

and fascinating footnotes like

“If an atom were expanded to the size of a cathedral, the nucleus would only be about the size of a fly – but a fly many thousands of times heavier than the cathedral.”

Bill manages to keep it interesting throughout.

What I loved about the book:

  • The simplicity. Bill Bryson has a gift. He can make even the most boring, incomprehensible scientific fact interesting and easy to understand. He’s an excellent writer.

  • The humour. The author’s dry sense of humour keeps you reading the book. His sarcastic comments about eminent scientists are quite fun to read.

  • The information. I love science. Always have. So the incredible amount of information in the book is great for me.

What annoyed me a bit:

  • Information overload. I love science; I do. But you seriously can’t keep all the names and dates and everything else straight! I read it twice and still don’t remember a lot of it.

You should read it if:

  • You’re interested in science

  • You have time to read and absorb a lot of info

  • You’re okay with reading information-heavy non-fiction books

You may not like it if:

  • Science does not interest you

  • You’re already studying something heavy (like an engineering textbook or worse: medicine. Or law). Believe me; if you read the book when you’re supposed to remember something else, you’ll end up forgetting everything.

Verdict:

I don’t think this book needs a verdict. But in one line, I’d say:


It’s a must-read for all science enthusiasts who want a broad view of (much of) what’s been discovered in the world and outside it.
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