“If you are in good health and averagely diligent about hygiene,
you will have a herd of about one trillion bacteria grazing on your
fleshy plains—about a hundred thousand of them on every square
centimeter of skin. They are there to dine off the ten billion or
so flakes of skin you shed everyday, plus all the tasty oils and
fortifying minerals that seep out from every pore and fissure. You
are for them the ultimate food court, with the convenience of warmth
and constant mobility thrown in. By way of thanks, they give you
This is one of the many fun facts
about science in the 2003 best seller from author Bill Bryson. In
A Short History of Nearly Everything the celebrated travel
writer takes us on the ultimate adventure. Bryson begins to tackle
our scientific history by exploring the birth of our universe. The
miracle of Bryson’s prose is that he can be technical, detailed
and comedic in a single sentence. His ability to recount the many
wonders of our universe in scientific terms that both the learned
scientist and scientifically challenged can understand makes for
a refreshing read. Your mind is equally challenged and entertained.
(He explains how this is possible in Chapter 28, The Mysterious
The creation of our universe is
a subject that is debated: science vs. faith. However, Bryson tells
the story in a way that proves that the Big Bang and Genesis can
co-exist. It is refreshing because never once does he mention a
divine creation of the universe but his description of the supposed
events detail the true miracle of the universe and let the reader
fill in the spiritual blanks. The question of how we are here is
detailed in this 544-page book, but the answer to why we are here
is still open for debate.
Tackling a book that covers “nearly
everything” is no easy task. Bryson has organized his book
more by subject matter than chronological order, but within each
subject we journey back to the origins of scientific research.
The pioneers of physics, chemistry,
geology, astronomy and biology (to name a few), are all given attention.
This book is so much more than a bland accounting of scientific
research past. Bryson gives an intriguing history of researchers
from the past to the present, as well as a look into the many controversies
and rivalries in the science community. Bryson does an excellent
job of giving the reader all sides of an issue and allows the reader
to come to their own conclusion based on the evidence. I have not
been this excited to learn about science since fourth grade. All
of the facts and details are woven into a colorful story that plays
out like a fictitious novel, revealing another clue to the mystery
of life with each flip of the page.
The most stunning thing is that
this is not a work of fiction. Many times during my extended read
of A Short History of Nearly Everything I had to put down
the book and truly absorb what I had just read. For example,
- From Earth, Pluto is barely one fifty-thousandth of the way
to the edge of our solar system.
- Every day, the Gulf Stream carries an amount of heat to Europe
equivalent to the world’s output of coal for ten years,
which is why Britain and Ireland have such mild winters compared
with Canada and Russia.
- Under the western United States there was a huge cauldron of
magma, a colossal volcanic hot spot, which erupted cataclysmically
every 600,000 years or so. The last such eruption was just over
600,000 years ago. The hot spot is still there. These days we
call it Yellowstone National Park.
- The distance from the surface of the Earth to the center is
3,959 miles, which isn’t so very far. It has been calculated
that if you sunk a well to the center and dropped a brick into
it, it would take only forty-five minutes to hit the bottom (though
at that point it would be weightless since all the Earth’s
gravity would be above and around it rather than beneath it.)
- Altogether there are about 5,200 million million tons of air
around us—25 million tons for every square mile of the planet.
- Of the 3 percent of the Earth’s water that is fresh,
most exists as ice sheets. Only the tiniest amount—0.036
percent—is found in lakes, rivers and reservoirs, and an
even smaller part—just 0.001 percent—exists in clouds
or as vapor.
- Every human body consists of about 10 quadrillion cells, but
about 100 quadrillion bacterial cells.
The overwhelming message throughout
A Short History of Nearly Everything is that we should
all be very grateful to be alive today because it truly is a miracle.
From the beginning of our universe, to the creation of life and
the “lucky breaks” we have received as a species, everything
in the history of our universe has aligned itself perfectly to allow
us to be here today. Bryson takes great care to simultaneously warn
us and teach us about the subtleties of life that are essential
to our creation and survival. This is a very personal and intimate
book because it is the micro and macro history of YOU.