Non-Fiction Reviews

A Short History of Nearly Everything

(2003) Bill Bryson, Black Swan, £9.99, pbk, 667pp, ISBN 978-0-552-99704-1


There is something about Bill Bryson’s writing that I have always enjoyed and this book is no exception. As the publication date attests, it has been sitting on my to-be-read shelf for far too long.

Although it calls itself a 'short' book, it as actually quite long. However, it covers all of time and the universe so it really is short given the subject matter. The page count includes three pages of Acknowledgements and an eight-page Introduction, taking the main text to 574 pages. These are followed by 63 pages of Notes, 15 pages of bibliography, and an index of 15 pages.

He divides his history into six sections, commencing with ‘Lost in the Cosmos’. It starts, not surprisingly, with the Big Bang and covers (briefly) such things as atoms, protons (‘spatially unassuming’ as he describes them), and the like, and the importance of gravity in bringing everything together. It moves on to our solar system in particular then he finishes the section by visiting astronomer the Reverend Robert Evans (one of many experts he meets in the course of his researches) in Australia’s Blue Mountains as part of his overview of cosmology.

Moving on to ‘The Size of the Earth’ he looks at early attempts to explore our world and understand it, in particular measuring (or at least estimating) such things as our planet’s size, weight, and age. Thus the science of geology came into being and the planet’s history was divided into geological periods, epochs, and so on (with much disagreements to how it should all be determined and organised). When fossils started to be discovered in large numbers there was more cause for dissention and argument about our distant past. Meanwhile, our knowledge and understanding of chemistry was increasing, as was our understanding of radioactivity and the advantages and problems it would bring.

Next comes ‘A New Age Dawns’ in which he describes the development of the laws of physics and how scientists continued to unravel the workings of both the cosmos and atomic structure. He looks at some of the problems that these advances produced, such Thomas Midgley’s researches which lead to the widespread use of tetraethyl lead (the lead in ‘leaded petrol’) and CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons); both were intended to help mankind but have caused many problems and their ill affects are still with us. He describes the discovery of sub-atomic particles, the coming of string theory and membranes, and debates the size of the universe and the particles that emanate from it. We return to our planet and take a look at the growing theory (now generally accepted) that there had once been a single super-continent, Pangaea, and how the land is shaped by plate tectonics.

Following on, ‘Dangerous Planet’ tells of the natural catastrophes that can befall us: being hit by meteors (both in the past and those yet to come) as well as volcanoes and earthquakes. This takes him to looking at how our planet is built beneath the surface; in particular he considers what we have discovered at Yellowstone and the potential impact of super volcanoes.

We arrive at the longest section, ‘Life Itself’, and this starts with the observation that our planet is the only place in the universe where life is known to exist and, what is more, life struggles to exist even here. It seems, at least as far as we know, that everything has to be just right for life as we recognise it to exist at all and, as he notes, we evolved to live in this environment - and just this environment. He looks at our atmosphere and its weather, at the oceans and what is at the bottom of them, at the long-term carbon cycle, and, of course, the damage we are doing to these systems.

For life to rise, the changing chemistry of the planet had to somehow stumble upon amino acids and proteins; from these cyanobacteria could develop and, using the oxygen they released in vast quantities, the oxygen breathing bacteria followed. We discover that bacteria are everywhere, all over us, inside us, even deep under the ground; whilst many have become essential to larger organisms, some can be, or can become, deadly and pose a devastating threat. He points out that life is still mostly very simple (and the simplest survive the longest) and in moving from the sea onto land it faced a very harsh environment. Plants added to the oxygen and this in turn to the rise of more complex creatures, but there were also many occasions of mass extinctions (for example, oxygen killed off the cyanobacteria, and the impacts of meteors were devastating). Although we have found many fossils it turns out that fossils are in fact very rare and so (scientists infer) we have missed the existence of most past species as they never left a trace. He talks about the Burgess Shale outcrop (in British Columbia) and its record of what was once thought of as the Cambrian explosion of life forms, but then explains that we are now aware that, in fact, there was much complex life long before, it is just that it was getting bigger.

He looks at collections and the massive problem of classifying everything, especially as there is much debate about just how everything should be organised and classified. He adds that the world may be huge but much of its life is tiny. There are simple cells, complex cells, and multi-cellular life forms; the last of these have great complexity and boast a vast range of specialist cells. He discusses mitochondria and ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the ‘battery packs’ of a cell, and notes that when a cell dies it is recycled by its host and little is wasted. He describes the studies of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace and how they developed their understanding into the origin of species, as well as Gregor Mendel and his ‘dominant’ and ‘regressive’ Elemente (or genes as we now call them). The section ends with a look at DNA and RNA and concludes that all life on this planet is remarkably similar when you examine it at this level.

The book concludes with ‘The Road to Us’. It seems that for most of its history our world was generally a hotter place but over the last fifty million years or so tectonic movements of the continents have lead to a series of ice ages and interglacial periods (there have been an estimated seventeen glacials in the last 2.5 million years). Amongst many other effects, these have lead to the drying of Africa and encouraged certain apes to adapt by standing upright, thus leading to Homo erectus. He describes the discovery of human-like bones in Germany’s Neander valley and the Cro-Magnon cliff in France, the discovery of earlier pre-human bones by Richard Leakey’s team in the region around Lake Turkana in Kenya, as well as discoveries from other parts of the world. There is much evidence of tool development and the movement of humanlike people across Africa, Europe, and Asia, and to the recognition of many varieties of hominid, of Homo-this and Homo-that. Modern science can examine mitochondrial DNA and relate ‘these’ people to ‘those’ people - but there are still very(!) few examples, from widely scattered sites, and there is much argument about the significance of the differences and about how many hominid types there were and how they are related. He finishes by reminding us that all the hominids seem to have one thing in common - species become extinct at an unnatural rate whenever we appear on the scene. If the human race is to survive in the long term, it will have to take better care of itself and its surroundings - so far we have been lucky, but we will have to do better than that.

To his discussion on the history of hominids I would repeat his observation that there is much disagreement between experts and that more discoveries are being made, that techniques are constantly improving, and that existing data is therefore always being reinterpreted. This book was first published in 2003 and already more recently published books on this subject take some of the arguments further or in different directions. He has wisely refrained from giving us a definitive history of the rise of the human race, simply passing on his understanding of the current state of knowledge - and of disagreement - at the time of writing.

Apart from all the major facts mentioned above, what makes this book particularly enjoyable is all the other ‘little’ facts and the stories it contains, its many asides and comments. As well as talking to a number of modern experts in many fields, the author gives us lots of insights into well known scientists of the past - and some of these were very strange fellows indeed (and often insignificant in every other way). He notes the way that scientific discoveries and theories often evolve: 1. somebody introduces a theory, 2. he is ridiculed by the (then) current experts and he and his theory are dismissed and forgotten, 3. the theory is rediscovered years later and the new guy gets all the credit (often with the theory being named after him rather than its originator).

The author’s approach and insights are often amusing and his writing remains light and enjoyable to read throughout. Without apparent effort, it tells you a lot about our world and where it came from; it is stuffed with interesting facts yet he ensures that the reader is never in danger of getting bogged down in them. Bill Bryson has a wonderful way with words and his observations left me with many wry smiles; I was educated and entertained at the same time - and that is no mean feat!

Peter Tyers

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