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Bill Bryson


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2005).

Bryson is best known as a travel writer but here he has gone in a new direction by attempting a survey of modern science, no less. This might seem like an insanely ambitious undertaking but in fact Bryson has done his homework thoroughly, both by reading (there are extensive notes to back up his statements) and by interviewing a vast number of scientists. The result is a pretty comprehensive and superbly readable book.

Assiduous readers of New Scientist, Scientific American, and a good selection of the often excellent popular science books that are currently available will not be in for too many surprises, although even they will undoubtedly learn things they didn't know previously. Bryson is particularly good at providing character sketches and biographical vignettes of the people whose discoveries he relates, and this adds a human dimension to the science that is his main subject. He also manages some quite striking analogies to illustrate the scales of the very large and the very small.

The book has three main section. The first is concerned with the physical universe and covers cosmology, the structure of matter, and the nature of our Earth. Bryson's account of the reluctance of geologists to accept the movement of continents is especially good; rather than accept the fact, many people went on desperately postulating more and more land bridges, across ever wider expanses of ocean, to explain the similarities in the life forms of widely separated areas. There is of course no question that continental movement is real, but Bryson points out that there are still anomalies that remain unaccounted for.

The second, and longest, section is about life: how it may have originated, how it exists on our planet, its precariousness. Although he does not emphasize it too much, Bryson seems to follow S.J.Gould in believing that there is nothing inevitable about the way life has developed on earth and that it could easily have followed quite a different route. This comes out particularly in his well-written account of the demise of the dinosaurs. Here he offers a striking and vivid depiction of what a large meteor impact would look like to anyone who was far enough away to enjoy the spectacle for a second or two before being obliterated. He makes it clear that we would almost certainly have no warning of such a disaster, and that even if we could detect an incoming object on a collision course for Earth there would be nothing we could do about it in the probably available time.

The final section looks at the evolution of modern humans. What we know about this has perforce been built mainly on a tiny base of fossil remains and there are great uncertainties about almost everything. There are also big questions about the reliability of some of the research on which claims about our descent are based. The "Africans" who provided the DNA for the Berkeley 1987 study that was quoted in support of the "out of Africa" hypothesis were in fact African-Americans! While this theory is accepted by most though not all palaeontologists, many questions remain and Bryson believes that there are plenty of surprises to come.

One theme that keeps recurring as one reads this book is the sheer serendipity of much scientific discovery. Luck comes up as a factor again and again: someone being in the right place at the right time, or doing the right thing for the wrong reason but nevertheless stumbling on the truth. And this in turn prompts the thought: what major discoveries that might have been have we missed through sheer bad luck?

19 April 2005

%T A Short History of Nearly Everything
%A Bryson, Bill
%I Black Swan
%C London
%D 2004
%P 687 pp
%K science
%O paperback

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