Now Bill Bryson Takes on the World

Article excerpt

Byline: WILLIAM LEITH

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

by Bill Bryson

(Doubleday, [pounds sterling]20)

BILL Bryson, who made his name writing long, ribald descriptions of supremely unimportant things, such as bad hamburgers, has changed tack; in this new book, he writes short, much less ribald descriptions of things that are supremely important, such as the Big Bang and Darwin's theory of natural selection.

This is not, as we have come to expect from Bryson, a book about how silly and vulgar human beings are in the present day; it is a 400-page history of science; a book about how brilliant and insightful human beings were in the past.

The author tells us how he came upon this project. On a long flight across the Pacific, Bryson looked out of the window. At this point, as with so many of the scientists he writes about in this book, he had a eureka moment.

"It occurred to me with a certain uncomfortable forcefulness," he tells us, "that I didn't know the first thing about the only planet I was ever going to live on." This, the reader is invited to think, was not the same uncomfortable forcefulness which prodded Bryson to write about, say, fast-food restaurants in Northern Australia. This was a different, and better, sort of uncomfortable forcefulness.

Bryson tells us that, as a schoolboy, he saw a textbook illustration: "I clearly remember being transfixed." It was a picture of the earth in cross-section, showing the crust, the "liquid outer core", and the molten "inner core".

How, Bryson wondered, did scientists know about all of these things? And, if the earth is molten in the centre, "why isn't the ground under our feet hot to the touch?" When he took the book home to find the answers to these questions, though, he was disappointed.

And he kept on being disappointed.

"There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors," he writes, "to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting. …