Jan 152009

This is a hefty tome, but not one that should scare you away from reading it. Covering everything from the beginning to, well, the end of everything, this is a layman’s textbook of, well, nearly everything. In the beginning it covers, well, the beginning from the first pangs of the universe (as well as ideas about different beginnings of the universe(s)) through to the first bits of sludge that crawled out of the soupy oceans to life as we know it. It doesn’t cover the end of it all, which I guess is why it’s called (a) a short history and (b) of nearly everything.

The thing about this that shines out for me is both the easy introduction to topics that are fairly complex, and also the humanising of the people who made the discoveries. To contrast with another book of science, Dawking’s The God Delusion, this book shows that there were quite a few disagreements between those who should have known better. New science and theories came about because those who held onto the old theories died, retired or were pushed out of their cushy academic environment. One example Bryson briefly covers is the work of Archbishop James Ussher of the Church of Ireland, whose analysis indicated that the Earth was 4000 years old. Bryson also details how little seriously the Archbishop’s work was taken into the 19th Century.

Is this a book for everyone? Well, considering the 574 pages of text and then notes and index, it feels daunting. But it’s not a daunting book, not really. If you have to, read it in chunks. You can put it down and pick it up again later. I find myself thinking about sections and passages as I read other books, with that ah-ha sensation. Once read you can keep it in the bathroom to flick through at your leisure.