A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

Hugely popular book, which is covered with effusive reviews about it being the best guide to science ever etc.. In fact it reminded me very much of Asimov's book: both set out to cover pretty much all branches of science and range from cosmology to quarks, from geology to evolution.

Bryson's self-confessed approach is to visit experts in each of the fields he's interested in, and to get them to explain things to him. I think this works fairly well, although it's a bit irritating how all the people he meets are really nice, with twinkles in their eyes or a wry sense of humour. But it did give me the sense that perhaps he (and therefore the reader) is getting a bit of a biased point of view based on the opinions of a selected few.

I can only imagine that most of Bryson's reviewers haven't come across the Asimov, because although Asimov may not quite have Bryson's conversational tone, and has somewhat fewer humourous asides, I think it has significantly more detail.

For the first half of the book, I found myself getting frustrated by the lack of information, and checking out the Asimov book to find clarification. Two examples I noted: he talks about the Michelson Morley experiment, but doesn't go into enough detail to explain exactly how the experiment worked. Cross reference to Asimov, and he does it much better. Later in the section he talks about Cepheids (stars that pulse in a characteristic way), and says that "by comparing the relative magnitudes of Cepheids at different points in the sky you could work out where they were in relation to each other". I didn't see how this followed from his description, so checked in Asimov: he goes futher and explans how the period of pulse is proportional to its brightness, and so by knowing pulse and apparent brightness you can tell how far away it is. These, and other examples, gave the impression that Bryson is oversimplifying a bit too much: it's sort of like he's mainly out to make you feel impressed, rather than to explain.

But in the second half, the book seemed less irritating and more interesting. Perhaps this is partly because it covers fairly recent work which wasn't available to Asimov (I think his book was last revised in 1980-something). A couple of other things I marked as I was reading:

And there are no pictures or diagrams! There were so many times when a diagram would really have helped, but the nearest you get is a copy of the periodic table.

Completed : 29-Jun-2006

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