There would be many more scientists in America if schools threw
out their textbooks and began teaching with Bill Bryson's fabulous
new history of modern science, "A Short History of Nearly
Everything." In a little over 500 pages, Bryson takes readers on a
roller-coaster ride from the big bang to the advent of man, and
there is rarely a tedious moment.
From the opening page, Bryson adopts a tone of chummy curiosity;
it's a tone that assumes we all share this yen to know how things
work and what they're made of. His attitude can be quite catching.
Bryson wisely starts with the cosmos and the big questions: How
did the stars get here? Where is here? How long have the planets
Such questions make a fine mental warm-up for this book.
Considering the hugeness of our solar system always puts one in a
contemplative mood, and in the following chapters, Bryson takes
advantage of this mood. He coaxes us into realms of science that
have always seemed, well, a little dry - like geology. He doesn't
bog us down with detail once he gets there, though. He builds his
story not around knowledge but around the people who worked so hard
to establish it.
Each chapter of "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is filled
with five or six minibiographies. Some feature well-known
scientists, to whose stories Bryson always lends a new tweak. For
example, Mason & Dixon are famous in this book not for dividing the
North and South but for taking one of the century's most accurate
measures of a degree of meridian.
Again and again, Bryson dazzles with such tales about the
arbitrariness of scientific fame. The real gems in this book often
concern folks most Americans have never heard of, such as Benjamin
Thompson, who was born in Woburn, Mass., but fled to Europe where he
became Count von Rumford following some work for the Bavarian
military. His tertiary discoveries included thermal underwear and
the drip coffeemaker.
Zigzagging toward the modern day, Bryson hits all of the biggest
eureka moments in the past five centuries, from Newton's laws of
motion to the invention of the periodic table and the discovery of
quantum physics. Many of the concepts Bryson summarizes here are so
complex they have their own discipline of science, but Bryson always
manages to make each new theory seem self- evident.
His breakdown of the Laws of Thermodynamics runs as follows: "As
Dennis Overbye notes, the three principal laws are sometimes
expressed jocularly as (1) you can't win, (2) you can't break even,
and (3) you can't get out of the game. …