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Book Review
A Short History of Nearly Everything
Bill Bryson
Doubleday Canada, 2003

This review, which has been produced by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, is in the public domain, and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged--released October 2004. For comments or questions please contact Ian Johnston.

 A Short History of Nearly Everything

The first thing one notices about a new Bill Bryson book in recent years is the disproportionately large size of the author’s name on the cover—bigger than the title by a few orders of magnitude.  That’s appropriate, I suppose, for an author who has emerged as North America’s most popular writer of non-fiction, with legions of fans around the world, perhaps even something of a cult figure, who can sell anything on the strength of his name alone.

Bryson’s recently published book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, is certainly a departure from what he has written so far.  It’s a bold and ambitious attempt to tell the story of our earth and of everything on it.  Initially motivated by the most admirable of scientific feelings, intense curiosity about something he admits he knew virtually nothing about, Bryson spent three years immersing himself in scientific literature, talking to working scientists, and travelling to places where science is carried on, so that he might “know a little about these matters and . . . understand how people figured them out” and then produce a book which makes it “possible to understand and appreciate—marvel at, enjoy even—the wonder and accomplishments of science at a level that isn’t too technical or demanding, but isn’t entirely superficial either.” 

The result is a big volume recapitulating the greatest story ever told, from the beginnings of the universe, to the physical history of the Earth, to the development and evolution of life here—an attempt to provide, as the title indicates, an all-encompassing and  continuous narrative, crammed with information on everything from particle physics to plate tectonics, from cloud formations to bacteria.

For all the obvious natural clarity and organization within science, writing well about the subject is not as easy as it may appear.  It demands that the writer select an audience and then deliver what he or she has to say in a style appropriate to that readership, in the process risking the loss of other potential readers.  Bryson has clearly thought about this point and introduces into writing about science a style very different from, say, the brisk omniscience of Isaac Asimov, the trenchant polemics of Richard Dawson, the engaged contextual scholarship of Stephen Jay Gould, or the leisured and fascinating historical excursions of Simon Winchester (to cite some recent masters of the genre). He brings to bear on science his impressive talents as a folksy, amusing, self-deprecating spinner of yarns, assuming considerable ignorance in his readers and inviting them to share his newly discovered excitement at all the things he has learned, obviously trying with an atmosphere of cozy intimacy and friendship to ease any fears they may bring to a book about so many unfamiliar things.  This feature will almost certainly irritate a great many people who already know a good deal about science (who may feel they are being patronized) and charm many of those who do not.

The information is presented here in an often off-beat and amusing and certainly non-intimidating way.  Bryson sticks to his resolve not to confront the reader with numbers and equations and much complex terminology.  So he relies heavily on familiar analogies to illustrate scientific theories, and these are extremely effective—inventive and illuminating.  There is a wealth of interesting and frequently surprising facts about everything from mites to meteorites, conveyed with a continuing sense of wonder and enjoyment.  Bryson delivers well on his promise to provide an account of what we know and (equally important to him) of the enormous amount we still do not know.

Bryson is not all that interested, however, in the second part of his announced intention, to explore how we know what we know.  He pays little to no attention to science as a developing system of knowledge, to its philosophical underpinnings (hence, perhaps, the omission of any treatment of mathematics) or to the way in which certain achievements in science are important not merely for the “facts” they confirm or reveal but for the way in which they transform our understanding of what science is and how it should be carried out.  So for him “how we know” is simply a matter of accounting for those who came up something that turned out to be of lasting value (no wonder he is somewhat baffled by Darwin’s delay in publishing his theory of natural selection—the notion that Darwin’s theory may have presented some important methodological difficulties of which Darwin was painfully aware does not seem nearly as important as Darwin’s mysterious illness).

Bryson is at his very best when he can anchor what he has to say on a particular place and on conversations with particular working scientists there.  Here his considerable talents as a travel writer and story teller take over, and the result is an often amusing, surprising, insightful, and always informative glimpse into science as a particular activity carried on by interesting individuals in all sorts of different places.  The sections on Yellowstone Park, the Burgess Shale, and the Natural History Museum in London, for example, are exceptionally fine, mainly because we are put in imaginative touch with science in action, we hear directly from the scientists themselves, and our understanding of science is transformed from the knowledge of facts into a much fuller and more satisfying appreciation for a wonderfully human enterprise taking place all around us.  Here Bryson provides us with a refreshingly new style in writing about science.  Indeed, these passages are so striking in comparison with other parts of the book that one suspects that Bryson’s imagination is far more stimulated by scientists at work than by the results their work produces.

This impression is reinforced by Bryson’s habit of plundering the history of science for amusing anecdotes about interesting characters, obviously something which he finds imaginatively exciting.  He’s prepared to interrupt the flow of his main narrative in order to deliver a good story, and routinely moves into a new section with a narrative hook based on a memorable character, a dramatic clash of personalities, or an unexpected location.  Many of these stories and characters will be familiar enough to people who know a bit about science already (e.g., the eccentricities of Henry Cavendish, William Buckland, or Robert FitzRoy, the arguments between Gould and Dawkins, the adventures of Watson and Crick, and so on), but Bryson handles these quick narrative passages so well that the familiar stories are still worth re-reading, and there are enough new nuggets to keep reminding the more knowledgeable readers just how fascinating the history of science can be.

Not that Bryson is very much interested in linking developments in science to any continuing attention to historical context.  He’s happy enough to refer repeatedly to the context if there’s a good yarn to be had—if not, he’s ready to skim over it or ignore it altogether.  This gives his account of developments a distinctly Whiggish flavour, a characteristic which will no doubt upset historians of science. At times, too, this habit of frequent quick raids into the past encourages a tendency to flippant snap judgments for the sake of a jest or some human drama.  But given the audience Bryson is writing for and his desire to keep the narrative full of brio, these criticisms are easy enough to overlook.  And speaking from my own limited experience in writing about the history of science, I can attest to the fact that once one begins scratching away at the lives of the scientists themselves, the impulse to draw on the wonderful range of the extraordinary characters one discovers is almost irresistible.

Bryson’s narrative gets into more serious difficulties, however, when he cannot write from his strengths, that is, when he cannot link what the subject demands to particular people and places.  Here the prose often tends to get bogged down in summaries of what he has been reading lately or inadequate condensations of subjects too complex for his rapid pace.  Thus, for example, the parts where his prose has to cope with systems of classifications (for example, of clouds, or bacteria, or early forms of life) the sense of excitement disappears and we are left to wade through a dense array of facts, without much sense of purpose.  At such times, Bryson seems to sense the problem and often cranks up the “golly gee” element in his style in an attempt to inject some energy into his account, but without much success. And not surprisingly, the world of particle physics defeats his best attempts to render it familiar and comfortable to the reader, as Bryson concedes in an unexpectedly limp and apologetic admission: “Almost certainly this is an area that will see further developments of thought, and almost certainly these thoughts will again be beyond most of us.” 

It’s very curious that Bryson makes no attempt to assist the reader through such passages with any illustrative material, which would certainly have enabled him to convey organized information in a much clearer, more succinct, and less tedious manner.  Early on, he lays some of the blame for his ignorance about science on boring school text books, so perhaps his decision to eschew visual aids has something to do with his desire not to produce anything like a school text (although, as I recall, diagrams, charts, and photographs were often the most exciting things about such books). Or perhaps he’s simply supremely confident that his prose is more than enough to carry the load.  Whatever the reason, the cost of that decision is unnecessarily high.

I suspect reactions to this book will vary widely.  Bryson fans will, no doubt, be delighted to hear the master’s voice again and will forgive the lapses in energy and imaginative excitement here and there in the story.  By contrast, many scientists and historians of science will find the tone and the treatment of the past not particularly to their liking.  I’ll value the book as a source of useful anecdotes and some excellent writing about scientists at work, but turn to less prolix and better organized accounts to enrich my understanding of our scientific knowledge of the world and its inhabitants.  But then again, if my grandchildren in the next few years begin to display some real interest in learning about science, I’ll certainly put this book in front of them.

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