A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
You will probably be familiar with the Desert Island Discs formula – 10 songs, a luxury item and one book. In the extremely unlikely event I ever appeared on the show, I know that my book would be A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.
I think the strengths of this book are threefold.
First, and perhaps most importantly is Bryson’s ability to explain very complex concepts in layman’s terms without being patronising or simplistic. This book can be read by a teenager (I would say should be read by every teenager!) but the scope of the book is such that almost any reader is likely to find something new – even startling.
Secondly, Bryson puts the progress of science into context. There are a great many good popular science books available, but they tend to be focused on one discipline. As the title implies, Bryson brings together the whole of scientific discovery so you get a sense of the inter-relationship of the fields of study, and an insight as to how advances in one area impact on others.
Finally, Bryson makes science human. The book is full of anecdote, sometimes humorous, occasionally tragic, but always entertaining about the men and women behind the many discoveries and inventions that have led to our modern day world.
Who should read this book? Quite simply everyone – probably more than once – there is simply too much to take in on the first read. Given that our secondary school curriculum seems to be becoming increasingly selective and focused, I would especially recommend it to any student as a painless way of both filling in the gaps as well as getting an understanding of the inter-relationships of the various fields of scientific endeavour.
Is the book perfect? No, the rate of scientific progress means that some elements of the book were out of date the moment it was published (it is now over 10 years old), and there are a few factual errors. But it would be pedantic to focus on these, and overlooks the overall achievement of the work.
For those who want to pursue any of the topics covered in more depth, Bryson provides an extensive bibliography. A copy is available in the Library.