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.
Unofficial subtitle: “Bill Bryson Tells Us About All The Gross Stuff He Did as a Kid in 1950’s Iowa”
Not much to say really beyond the subtitle. It’s a (short) collection of Bryson’s humorous reminisces about growing up, as well as a look back on what life in middle America was like in the Fifties. At one point, Bryson nicely summed up the decade as one of “undiluted optimism and eager despair” — never before had standards of living risen so high so quickly for so many, but also never before had there existed the real possibility of total annihilation (from Soviet atomic weapons). Even still, people seemed fascinated by the new technology, just as they were by the newest model cars or new washing machines.
On that note, one of the more memorable accounts in the book was of the largest-ever atomic drill conducted in New York City, which took place in 1951. Everybody was expected to drop whatever they were doing and hasten to the nearest designated fallout shelter. Well almost everybody. The only citizens excepted were restaurant patrons and workers. It was thought that if customers were excused for an hour or so, very few would return to pay their bill!
Another note – Bill Bryson reads the audio version himself, and by golly he has a very strange accent! From Iowa, of course, but he moved to England in his 20’s and has lived there more or less since. So he has quite an odd British-American combo accent, I thought.