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Know It All

James Trefil

A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bill Bryson. xiv + 544 pp. Broadway Books, 2003. $27.50.

No question about it, writing a history of the universe is a daunting task. Even in a thick book like this one, 478 pages long (not counting the endnotes), cramming in the 14 billion or so years since the Big Bang means that you have to cover, on average, nearly 30 million years per page. Bill Bryson, who brings considerable writing skills to the enterprise, has produced an intriguingly written book that shows both a sense of humor and a sense of adventure. A Short History of Nearly Everything is just a plain good read.

Bryson begins with an engaging essay marveling at how unlikely it is that all of the atoms in the body of the reader should happen to have assembled themselves at the very moment that the book became available. The point, of course, is that the life of the reader, or any life at all for that matter, is rather improbable in the grand scheme of things. That we live in a universe in which life exists is a source of wonder, a fact that Bryson exploits beautifully in his opening.

So well written is the introduction, in fact, that it almost succeeded in quieting a small voice that I always hear when arguments like this are advanced. It's the voice of my old statistics prof, who loved to expound on what he called the "Golf Ball on the Fairway." "Look," he said, "before you hit the ball, you can't predict which blade of grass it will land on. After you've hit it, however, it's no good talking about how unlikely it was for the ball to land on that particular blade of grass, because the fact of the matter is that it had to land somewhere." In the same way, if your atoms weren't currently occupied in forming your body, they'd be doing something else equally improbable. In the words of the old country-and-western song, "Everybody's got to be somewhere, so I might as well be here."

Bryson proceeds to do his "short history" in 29 chapters devoted to various topics, followed by a brief farewell chapter about human-induced extinctions in recent times. Keeping to the Alice-in-Wonderland dictum "Begin at the beginning," the first chapter deals with the Big Bang and the origin of the universe, and the story goes on from there, packed with interesting anecdotes, through such episodes as the story of continental drift, the discovery of fossils and the unraveling of human evolution by the examination of our genome.

Bryson's motive in writing this book is interesting. As a child, he was fascinated by a diagram in one of his science books showing a cutaway view of the Earth's interior. It wasn't so much the information in the diagram that attracted him, but the question of how you could know about something thousands of miles beneath your feet. In his adult life, this puzzlement translated into a resolve to write a book so as to have an excuse to find out the answer to this question and others like it. Having frequently taken on the task of writing a book to give myself the opportunity to learn about a field that interested me, I felt an immediate resonance with this motive.

Bryson also chose an interesting way to go about his research. Instead of going back to textbooks and scientific papers, he decided to make use of what I consider to be the greatest underutilized resource in education—the growing popular literature on science. The history of the past few centuries shows that when the educational system doesn't do a very good job of equipping people to understand the world they live in, alternative systems of education arise. In the 19th century, many of the great British scientists routinely gave public lectures—there are stories of 5,000 factory workers assembling to hear Michael Faraday talk about electricity, for example. In our own time, this parallel system includes numerous television shows (PBS's Nova comes to mind), all sorts of museums, newspaper and magazine articles, and, of course, books. People want to know what's happening in the sciences and to understand the world they live in, and if they can't get it from the schools, they will get it in other ways.

Thirty years ago, serious scientists who wanted to address a popular audience had to hope that the rest of the scientific community wouldn't hold it against them. Stooping to talk to the general public was slightly disreputable—somehow beneath a real scientist. As research money has become harder to acquire, however, explaining science to laypeople has regained respectability. Consequently there is now a rich literature about the most recent advances. Bryson has come along and mined this, turning it into "a short history of nearly everything."

Ensuring that such a history remains "short" inevitably involves making choices—some subjects will have to be skipped, others slighted. This is largely a matter of taste. I would probably have concentrated a bit more attention on the formation of stars and galaxies, rather than skipping from the Big Bang to the solar system as Bryson does. One could also take issue with his decision when discussing the solar system to focus on the mysterious region outside the orbit of Pluto—a fascinating subject, but not really in the center of planetary science these days.

But these are quibbles. This is an enormously entertaining book that covers, in an enjoyable and easy style, nearly everything you might want to know about the universe.—James S. Trefil, Physics, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia

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