A lively journey through the history of the world

Aug. 1, 2003
It is a remarkable book that manages to take the reader from the origins of the cosmos to the origins of modern man and our place in that cosmos.

There would seem to be a certain amount of what the British call "cheek" in attempting to write a book immodestly called "A Short History of Nearly Everything" (Broadway Books, New York, 2003). The author, Bill Bryson, is probably the leading American contemporary travel writer (If you've never read Bryson, I recommend "In a Sunburned Country," a hilarious saga of Bryson's travels and misfortunes in Australia). "How could a travel writer author a serious book on the theory of cosmic development and the evolution of life?" you might ask. Is it possible to go from trolling the Great Barrier Reef to the evolution of homo sapiens? Bryson does just that with the wit and clarity that marks his travel books.

As Bryson admits at the outset of his book, "I 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 Bryson took a sabbatical from travel writing and devoted three years to "reading widely and devotedly and, as necessary, finding saintly, patient experts prepared to answer a lot of outstandingly dumb questions." The result is a remarkable book that, in some 500 pages, manages to take the reader from the origins of the cosmos to the origins of modern man and our place in that cosmos. That Bryson dared to write such a book shows that he not only had plenty of cheek but also the rare ability to sift through arcane scientific jargon and make his commentary not only amusing but also informative to the scientist and non-scientist alike.

Here is Bryson talking about water: "The nature of a water molecule means that it engages in a kind of dance with other water molecules, briefly pairing and then moving on, like the ever-changing partners in a quadrille, to use (science writer) Robert Kunzig's nice phrase. A glass of water may not appear terribly lively, but every molecule in it is changing partners billions of times a second. That's why water molecules stick together to form bodies of water like puddles and lakes, but not so tightly that they can't be easily separated as when, for instance, you dive into a pool of them. At any given moment only 15 percent of them are actually touching." Bryson made me look again at the glass of ice-water standing quietly by my computer display.

And here is Bryson discussing the evolution of modern man, "Bipedalism is a demanding and risky strategy. It means refashioning the pelvis into a full load-bearing instrument. To preserve the required strength, the birth canal must be comparatively narrow. This has two very significant immediate consequences and one longer-term one. First, it means a lot of pain for any birthing mother and a greatly increased danger of fatality to mother and baby both. Moreover, to get the baby's head through such a tight space it must be born while its brain is still small—and while the baby, therefore, is still helpless. This means long-term infant care, which in turn implies solid male-female bonding." The author uses clear and simple language that imparts a great deal of information without throwing the reader off with abstruse scientific jargon.

Bryson points out in his concluding chapter that humans have existed for only about 0.0001% of Earth's history. And, in fact, even surviving for that short a time has required a remarkable number of lucky events. "We really are at the beginning of it all. The trick, of course, is to make sure we never find the end. And that, almost certainly, will require a good deal more than lucky breaks." In the meantime, there will certainly be enough time for you to read this stimulating and entertaining book. Bryson's travels through the cosmos are every bit as amusing as his travels on terra firma. May we look forward to another big, thick book on, say, a history of human genetic developments, Mr. Bryson?

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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