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A Short History of Nearly Everything

Cover of A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything

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One of the world's most beloved and bestselling writers takes his ultimate journey — into the most intriguing and intractable questions that science seeks to answer.
In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson trekked the Appalachian Trail — well, most of it. In In A Sunburned Country, he confronted some of the most lethal wildlife Australia has to offer. Now, in his biggest book, he confronts his greatest challenge: to understand — and, if possible, answer — the oldest, biggest questions we have posed about the universe and ourselves. Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world's most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining.
From the Hardcover edition.
One of the world's most beloved and bestselling writers takes his ultimate journey — into the most intriguing and intractable questions that science seeks to answer.
In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson trekked the Appalachian Trail — well, most of it. In In A Sunburned Country, he confronted some of the most lethal wildlife Australia has to offer. Now, in his biggest book, he confronts his greatest challenge: to understand — and, if possible, answer — the oldest, biggest questions we have posed about the universe and ourselves. Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world's most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining.
From the Hardcover edition.
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  • From the book

    1 HOW TO BUILD A UNIVERSE

    NO MATTER HOW hard you try you will never be able to grasp just how tiny, how spatially unassuming, is a proton. It is just way too small.

    A proton is an infinitesimal part of an atom, which is itself of course an insubstantial thing. Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this i can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them, rather more than the number of seconds contained in half a million years. So protons are exceedingly microscopic, to say the very least.

    Now imagine if you can (and of course you can't) shrinking one of those protons down to a billionth of its normal size into a space so small that it would make a proton look enormous. Now pack into that tiny, tiny space about an ounce of matter. Excellent. You are ready to start a universe.

    I'm assuming of course that you wish to build an inflationary universe. If you'd prefer instead to build a more old-fashioned, standard Big Bang universe, you'll need additional materials. In fact, you will need to gather up everything there is--every last mote and particle of matter between here and the edge of creation--and squeeze it into a spot so infinitesimally compact that it has no dimensions at all. It is known as a singularity.

    In either case, get ready for a really big bang. Naturally, you will wish to retire to a safe place to observe the spectacle. Unfortunately, there is nowhere to retire to because outside the singularity there is no where. When the universe begins to expand, it won't be spreading out to fill a larger emptiness. The only space that exists is the space it creates as it goes.

    It is natural but wrong to visualize the singularity as a kind of pregnant dot hanging in a dark, boundless void. But there is no space, no darkness. The singularity has no "around" around it. There is no space for it to occupy, no place for it to be. We can't even ask how long it has been there--whether it has just lately popped into being, like a good idea, or whether it has been there forever, quietly awaiting the right moment. Time doesn't exist. There is no past for it to emerge from.

    And so, from nothing, our universe begins.

    In a single blinding pulse, a moment of glory much too swift and expansive for any form of words, the singularity assumes heavenly dimensions, space beyond conception. In the first lively second (a second that many cosmologists will devote careers to shaving into ever-finer wafers) is produced gravity and the other forces that govern physics. In less than a minute the universe is a million billion miles across and growing fast. There is a lot of heat now, ten billion degrees of it, enough to begin the nuclear reactions that create the lighter elements--principally hydrogen and helium, with a dash (about one atom in a hundred million) of lithium. In three minutes, 98 percent of all the matter there is or will ever be has been produced. We have a universe. It is a place of the most wondrous and gratifying possibility, and beautiful, too. And it was all done in about the time it takes to make a sandwich.

    When this moment happened is a matter of some debate. Cosmologists have long argued over whether the moment of creation was 10 billion years ago or twice that or something in between. The consensus seems to be heading for a figure of about 13.7 billion years, but these things are notoriously difficult to measure, as we shall see further on. All that can really be said is that at some indeterminate point in the very distant past, for reasons unknown, there came the moment known to science as t = 0. We were on our way.

    There is of course a great deal we don't know, and much of...

Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine From the Big Bang to the ascent of man, author Bryson has condensed the history of science into 15 valuable hours, using an entertaining style that neither demeans a scientist nor overwhelms the layperson. Bryson documents his up-to-date sources and shows surprising scholastic rigor for a nonscientist. The British narrator (although the author is American) never misses on any of the thousands of scientific terms. However, he accentuates the last word of every phrase or sentence by dropping his voice in a drawn-out slur that to American ears may sound disparaging or snobbish--a noticeable incongruence with Bryson's lighthearted scientific "audio primer" of fresh old thoughts. J.A.H. (c) AudioFile 2003, Portland, Maine
  • Publisher's Weekly

    April 7, 2003
    As the title suggests, bestselling author Bryson (In a Sunburned Country) sets out to put his irrepressible stamp on all things under the sun. As he states at the outset, this is a book about life, the universe and everything, from the Big Bang to the ascendancy of Homo sapiens.
    "This is a book about how it happened," the author writes. "In particular how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since." What follows is a brick of a volume summarizing moments both great and curious in the history of science, covering already well-trod territory in the fields of cosmology, astronomy, paleontology, geology, chemistry, physics and so on. Bryson relies on some of the best material in the history of science to have come out in recent years. This is great for Bryson fans, who can encounter this material in its barest essence with the bonus of having it served up in Bryson's distinctive voice. But readers in the field will already have studied this information more in-depth in the originals and may find themselves questioning the point of a breakneck tour of the sciences that contributes nothing novel. Nevertheless, to read Bryson is to travel with a memoirist gifted with wry observation and keen insight that shed new light on things we mistake for commonplace. To accompany the author as he travels with the likes of Charles Darwin on the Beagle, Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton is a trip worth taking for most readers. First printing 110,000; 11-city author tour.

  • Library Journal

    December 1, 2003
    Bryson is one of the wittiest, most talented writers we have today. His travel books on England, the United States, and Australia are classics and will keep readers in stitches with his special talent-his gift!-for storytelling. But now he offers us this glimpse into scientific areas he admits he didn't understand as a student and tries to make palatable for his loyal listeners. Geology, astronomy, quantum mechanics, vulcanology, plate tectonics-if it weren't for Bryson's outstanding skills as a satirist and as a wry commentator on today's society, most listeners would have gone screaming into the night believing they were trapped in some hellish replay of college courses they flunked the first time around. Even though it's a pleasure to hear the author's comments on the petty rivalries of scientists and how many things were discovered almost by accident (this CD version is energized by an outstanding narration by Richard Matthews, who reads Bryson's words with wry British humor), we are still talking about subjects few people understand. Bryson's obvious success at self-education in the various scientific areas he discusses is to be applauded, but quantum mechanics is still quantum mechanics, no matter how many zingers he throws at squabbling scientists and long-held ridiculous theories. Recommended with the caveat that much of this book is a stretch to get through and only Bryson's wit takes us to the end, panting and gasping all the way.-Joseph L. Carlson, Allan Hancock Coll., Lompoc, CA

    Copyright 2003 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • The New York Times

    "Stylish [and] stunningly accurate prose. We learn what the material world is like from the smallest quark to the largest galaxy and at all the levels in between . . . brims with strange and amazing facts . . . destined to become a modern classic of science writing."

  • People "Bryson has made a career writing hilarious travelogues, and in many ways his latest is more of the same, except that this time Bryson hikes through the world of science."
  • Seattle Times "Bryson is surprisingly precise, brilliantly eccentric and nicely eloquent . . . a gifted storyteller has dared to retell the world's biggest story."
  • Simon Winchester, The Globe and Mail "Hefty, highly researched and eminently readable."
  • National Post "All non-scientists (and probably many specialized scientists, too) can learn a great deal from his lucid and amiable explanations."
  • Ottawa Citizen "Bryson is a terrific stylist. You can' t help but enjoy his writing, for its cheer and buoyancy, and for the frequent demonstration of his peculiar, engaging turn of mind."
  • Winnipeg Free Press "Wonderfully readable. It is, in the best sense, learned."
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A Short History of Nearly Everything
A Short History of Nearly Everything
Bill Bryson
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