“A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson

short_history_everything

The mark of a good journalist is being able to simply explain difficult concepts.  Bryson does so in an entertaining way in this history of science (similar ground covered by The Discoverers).  I also liked Richard Matthews’ crisp British accent in this unabridged audiobook.

The flow was very good.  Generally, it follows investigations into a few “big questions” that ultimately spawned entirely new scientific disciplines, or significant overhauls to existing ones: measuring the size of the Earth for astronomy and physics; estimating the age of the Earth for geology and biology.

One thing about science is that it is always changing.  Plenty of examples in this book about theories which were widely accepted in their day, but a completely discredited today in favor of something else.  This is good.  But whenever the current “correct” theory is discussed, Bryson seems to treat it as fact when it is simply our current best guess.  This is pretty excusable though — constantly harping on the uncertainties would cause the average reader to come away with more questions than “answers” … (but maybe that is good for science…)

The other takeaway is how seemingly vulnerable we are.  As an example of the civilization and perhaps species-ending events which may occur at any time and without warning are: a powerful solar flare which rips away the ionosphere and irradiates all life on Earth; the Yellowstone supervolcano blowing and covering North America in several feet of ash and inducing a new ice age; a large asteroid striking the Earth with a similar effect.

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