Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Bryson has created a primer for the physical sciences which should be a part of every ninth grade curriculum. This book is funny, fascinating, and extraordinarily informative. The title is remarkably apt; by the time you’ve reached the end of the book’s five hundred plus pages, you will know a great deal more about almost everything, from whales, to magnetism, to mathematics, to microbiology and cosmology. Bryon begins with the remarkable fact of your existence, and carries you through to several possible end of days scenario, stopping to have tea with nearly every major scientist and thinker of the last five hundred years along the way. And did I mention that it’s a delightfully funny book? Seems impossible, but it’s true. If A Short History of Nearly Everything were required reading in highschool or middle school in North America, within ten years, we would see our global math and science disadvantage shrinking. It really is that kind of inspiring. At least it was to me. By the end of each chapter, I found myself thinking, “Yes! That’s what I’m going to devote my life to studying! I never knew there was so much we still don’t understand about that topic!”

I will briefly address some critics who have (correctly) pointed out that Bryson shies away from delving too deeply into any particular topic, instead seeming to reach a certain point of complexity and then pull his focus away with a sort of “and gee isn’t this all just fascinating!” attitude. This is an accurate criticism of this book. As a primer on nearly everything, it doesn’t give you textbook depth of detail on any of the topics it covers, preferring instead to give you a rudimentary knowledge of the topic, the challenges, the current state of the art, and the major players in the field. For my money, that’s more than enough. If you want more on a particular topic, go buy books on that topic. As a primer and an onramp, ASHONE does what it intends to do.

I finished this one somewhere around three am over the pacific ocean in February. Upon arrival at home, I immediately bought copies for Mike, Vic & LAF, hoping that they would be as inspired by it as I was.

Run, don’t walk to get this book and read it. Thanks, Mr. Bryson.

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