Review of A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

I originally read the first half of this book and had to return it to the library before finishing. I remembered that reading experience as: “What a great book! But then work got really busy before I could finish.” This is almost never the case; if you love a book throughout, it simply doesn’t get crowded out. I bought it and read through the whole work.

The first half is my favorite, filled stories about the eccentrics of the scientists and their passion for some tiny piece of the unknown. Human knowledge lurches forward in fits and starts, and the knowledge endures.

It wasn’t simply that [Mary] Anning was good at spotting fossils — though she was unrivaled at that — but that she could extract them with the greatest delicacy and without damage. If you ever have the chance to visit the hall of ancient marine reptiles at the Natural History Museum in London, I urge you to take it for there is no other way to appreciate the scale and beauty of what this young woman achieved working virtually unaided with the most basic tools in nearly impossible conditions. The plesiosaur alone took her ten years of patient excavation. Although untrained, Anning was also able to provide competent drawings and descriptions for scholars. But even with the advantage of her skills, significant finds were rare and she passed most of her life in poverty.

In few words, Bryson completely summarizes and captures a relevant detail. Not just one detail but the whole of geekery and the scientific pursuit.

The book paints a clear picture of a scientific establishment — an industry. It’s difficult to industrialize the pursuit of knowledge. Throughout the narrative, people who act as the gatekeepers are regarded as successful by their academic degrees and publications — but not necessarily by advancing knowledge. Propagating that system is equally or more important than generating new knowledge. Like most human systems, it’s lossy and flawed, as illustrated an early attempt to correctly categorize dinosaur bones, Gideon Mantell:

Aware that his finding would entirely upend what was understood about the past, and urged by his friend the Reverend William Buckland [of Oxford] to proceed with caution, Mantell devoted three painstaking years to seeking evidence to support his conclusions.

Mantell prepared a paper for delivery to the Royal Society. Unfortunately, it emerged that another dinosaur had been found at a quarry in Oxfordshire and had just been formally described — by the Reverend Buckland, the very man who had urged him not to work in haste.

I found these stories moving and inspiring — not because selfish people exist everywhere, even in science! — but that science and human knowledge moves on despite such people. A person’s singular passion, inside or outside the industry, can advance human understanding. It just won’t necessarily make you happy, famous, or rich.

Unfortunately, the closer Bryson gets to the present, the drier and more information-dense the book becomes. By the end, it’s a very long lecture — a wonderful one, and I learned a lot. Atomic theory, genetics, and other topics are all elegantly and concisely summarized. But I wouldn’t have reread the book if it were just the second half.

He seemed to stop telling stories about the people behind the science. Didn’t realize it at first, but it’s exactly when I stopped reading. The best I can guess is that either the tragic figures in question are still alive (or their immediate descendents are), or history hasn’t given us enough time to develop an objective view. Regarding the latter: the scientific community loses a lot of time getting caught up in an idea and then cooling off and realizing that perhaps it’s not a valid one. Bryson describes this in loving detail many times in Short History; for example, with ether:

As late as 1909, the great British physicist J. J. Thomson was insisting: “The ether is not a fantastic creation of the speculative philosopher; it is as essential to us as the air we breathe” — this more than four years after it was pretty incontestably established that it didn’t exist. People, in short, were really attached to the ether.

I’d say that the first half of this book is brilliant, and the second half is competent and suffers only in following the first. I love this book, I recommend it to everyone.

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