A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything

by Bill Bryson


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767908184
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 09/14/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 560
Sales rank: 14,338
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Bill Bryson’s bestselling books include A Walk in the Woods, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, In A Sunburned Country, Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, Bill Bryson's African Diary, and A Short History of Nearly Everything. He lives in Norfolk, England, with his wife and children.


Hanover, New Hampshire

Date of Birth:


Place of Birth:

Des Moines, Iowa


B.A., Drake University, 1977

Read an Excerpt


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 what we think we know we haven't known, or thought we've known, for long. Even the notion of the Big Bang is quite a recent one. The idea had been kicking around since the 1920s, when Georges Lem tre, a Belgian priest-scholar, first tentatively proposed it, but it didn't really become an active notion in cosmology until the mid-1960s when two young radio astronomers made an extraordinary and inadvertent discovery.

Their names were Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson. In 1965, they were trying to make use of a large communications antenna owned by Bell Laboratories at Holmdel, New Jersey, but they were troubled by a persistent background noise--a steady, steamy hiss that made any experimental work impossible. The noise was unrelenting and unfocused. It came from every point in the sky, day and night, through every season. For a year the young astronomers did everything they could think of to track down and eliminate the noise. They tested every electrical system. They rebuilt instruments, checked circuits, wiggled wires, dusted plugs. They climbed into the dish and placed duct tape over every seam and rivet. They climbed back into the dish with brooms and scrubbing brushes and carefully swept it clean of what they referred to in a later paper as "white dielectric material," or what is known more commonly as bird shit. Nothing they tried worked.

Unknown to them, just thirty miles away at Princeton University, a team of scientists led by Robert Dicke was working on how to find the very thing they were trying so diligently to get rid of. The Princeton researchers were pursuing an idea that had been suggested in the 1940s by the Russian-born astrophysicist George Gamow that if you looked deep enough into space you should find some cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang. Gamow calculated that by the time it crossed the vastness of the cosmos, the radiation would reach Earth in the form of microwaves. In a more recent paper he had even suggested an instrument that might do the job: the Bell antenna at Holmdel. Unfortunately, neither Penzias and Wilson, nor any of the Princeton team, had read Gamow's paper.

The noise that Penzias and Wilson were hearing was, of course, the noise that Gamow had postulated. They had found the edge of the universe, or at least the visible part of it, 90 billion trillion miles away. They were "seeing" the first photons--the most ancient light in the universe--though time and distance had converted them to microwaves, just as Gamow had predicted. In his book The Inflationary Universe, Alan Guth provides an analogy that helps to put this finding in perspective. If you think of peering into the depths of the universe as like looking down from the hundredth floor of the Empire State Building (with the hundredth floor representing now and street level representing the moment of the Big Bang), at the time of Wilson and Penzias's discovery the most distant galaxies anyone had ever detected were on about the sixtieth floor, and the most distant things--quasars--were on about the twentieth. Penzias and Wilson's finding pushed our acquaintance with the visible universe to within half an inch of the sidewalk.

Still unaware of what caused the noise, Wilson and Penzias phoned Dicke at Princeton and described their problem to him in the hope that he might suggest a solution. Dicke realized at once what the two young men had found. "Well, boys, we've just been scooped," he told his colleagues as he hung up the phone.

Soon afterward the Astrophysical Journal published two articles: one by Penzias and Wilson describing their experience with the hiss, the other by Dicke's team explaining its nature. Although Penzias and Wilson had not been looking for cosmic background radiation, didn't know what it was when they had found it, and hadn't described or interpreted its character in any paper, they received the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics. The Princeton researchers got only sympathy. According to Dennis Overbye in Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, neither Penzias nor Wilson altogether understood the significance of what they had found until they read about it in the New York Times.

Incidentally, disturbance from cosmic background radiation is something we have all experienced. Tune your television to any channel it doesn't receive, and about 1 percent of the dancing static you see is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang. The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe.

Although everyone calls it the Big Bang, many books caution us not to think of it as an explosion in the conventional sense. It was, rather, a vast, sudden expansion on a whopping scale. So what caused it?

One notion is that perhaps the singularity was the relic of an earlier, collapsed universe--that we're just one of an eternal cycle of expanding and collapsing universes, like the bladder on an oxygen machine. Others attribute the Big Bang to what they call "a false vacuum" or "a scalar field" or "vacuum energy"--some quality or thing, at any rate, that introduced a measure of instability into the nothingness that was. It seems impossible that you could get something from nothing, but the fact that once there was nothing and now there is a universe is evident proof that you can. It may be that our universe is merely part of many larger universes, some in different dimensions, and that Big Bangs are going on all the time all over the place. Or it may be that space and time had some other forms altogether before the Big Bang--forms too alien for us to imagine--and that the Big Bang represents some sort of transition phase, where the universe went from a form we can't understand to one we almost can. "These are very close to religious questions," Dr. Andrei Linde, a cosmologist at Stanford, told the New York Times in 2001.

The Big Bang theory isn't about the bang itself but about what happened after the bang. Not long after, mind you. By doing a lot of math and watching carefully what goes on in particle accelerators, scientists believe they can look back to 10-43 seconds after the moment of creation, when the universe was still so small that you would have needed a microscope to find it. We mustn't swoon over every extraordinary number that comes before us, but it is perhaps worth latching on to one from time to time just to be reminded of their ungraspable and amazing breadth. Thus 10-43 is 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000001, or one 10 million trillion trillion trillionths of a second.

Most of what we know, or believe we know, about the early moments of the universe is thanks to an idea called inflation theory first propounded in 1979 by a junior particle physicist, then at Stanford, now at MIT, named Alan Guth. He was thirty-two years old and, by his own admission, had never done anything much before. He would probably never have had his great theory except that he happened to attend a lecture on the Big Bang given by none other than Robert Dicke. The lecture inspired Guth to take an interest in cosmology, and in particular in the birth of the universe.

The eventual result was the inflation theory, which holds that a fraction of a moment after the dawn of creation, the universe underwent a sudden dramatic expansion. It inflated--in effect ran away with itself, doubling in size every 10-34 seconds. The whole episode may have lasted no more than 10-30 seconds--that's one million million million million millionths of a second--but it changed the universe from something you could hold in your hand to something at least 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times bigger. Inflation theory explains the ripples and eddies that make our universe possible. Without it, there would be no clumps of matter and thus no stars, just drifting gas and everlasting darkness.

According to Guth's theory, at one ten-millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, gravity emerged. After another ludicrously brief interval it was joined by electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces--the stuff of physics. These were joined an instant later by swarms of elementary particles--the stuff of stuff. From nothing at all, suddenly there were swarms of photons, protons, electrons, neutrons, and much else--between 1079 and 1089 of each, according to the standard Big Bang theory.

Such quantities are of course ungraspable. It is enough to know that in a single cracking instant we were endowed with a universe that was vast--at least a hundred billion light-years across, according to the theory, but possibly any size up to infinite--and perfectly arrayed for the creation of stars, galaxies, and other complex systems.

What is extraordinary from our point of view is how well it turned out for us. If the universe had formed just a tiny bit differently--if gravity were fractionally stronger or weaker, if the expansion had proceeded just a little more slowly or swiftly--then there might never have been stable elements to make you and me and the ground we stand on. Had gravity been a trifle stronger, the universe itself might have collapsed like a badly erected tent, without precisely the right values to give it the right dimensions and density and component parts. Had it been weaker, however, nothing would have coalesced. The universe would have remained forever a dull, scattered void.

This is one reason that some experts believe there may have been many other big bangs, perhaps trillions and trillions of them, spread through the mighty span of eternity, and that the reason we exist in this particular one is that this is one we could exist in. As Edward P. Tryon of Columbia University once put it: "In answer to the question of why it happened, I offer the modest proposal that our Universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time." To which adds Guth: "Although the creation of a universe might be very unlikely, Tryon emphasized that no one had counted the failed attempts."

Martin Rees, Britain's astronomer royal, believes that there are many universes, possibly an infinite number, each with different attributes, in different combinations, and that we simply live in one that combines things in the way that allows us to exist. He makes an analogy with a very large clothing store: "If there is a large stock of clothing, you're not surprised to find a suit that fits. If there are many universes, each governed by a differing set of numbers, there will be one where there is a particular set of numbers suitable to life. We are in that one."

Rees maintains that six numbers in particular govern our universe, and that if any of these values were changed even very slightly things could not be as they are. For example, for the universe to exist as it does requires that hydrogen be converted to helium in a precise but comparatively stately manner--specifically, in a way that converts seven one-thousandths of its mass to energy. Lower that value very slightly--from 0.007 percent to 0.006 percent, say--and no transformation could take place: the universe would consist of hydrogen and nothing else. Raise the value very slightly--to 0.008 percent--and bonding would be so wildly prolific that the hydrogen would long since have been exhausted. In either case, with the slightest tweaking of the numbers the universe as we know and need it would not be here.

From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents


1. How to Build a Universe
2. Welcome to the Solar System
3. The Reverend Evans's Universe

4. The Measure of Things
5. The Stone-Breakers
6. Science Red in Tooth and Claw
7. Elemental Matters

8. Einstein's Universe
9. The Might Atom
10. Getting the Lead Out
11. Muster Mark's Quarks
12. The Earth Moves

13. Bang!
14. The Fire Below
15. Dangerous Beauty

16. Lonely Planet
17. Into the Troposphere
18. The Bounding Main
19. The Rise of Live
20. Small World
21. Life Goes On
22. Good-bye to All That
23. The Richness of Being
24. Cells
25. Darwin's Singular Notion
26. The Stuff of Life

27. Ice Time
28. The Mysterious Biped
29. The Restless Ape
30. Good-bye


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A Short History of Nearly Everything 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 487 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love Bill Bryson books. My love for Bryson's clever and engaging writing style all started with A Short History of Nearly Everything. I picked this book up one day with no real intention to read it cover to cover 'it was purchased for my husband and was lying around our house'. After a chapter, I was hooked! I love this book and have recommended it to others, who also were delighted with it. I have read this book cover to cover at least 3 times. A Short History of Nearly Everything is an informative and interesting look at our world. If you like science (or reading in general), then I recommend this book. Bill Bryson presents information in a way that makes it fun to learn. It helps that Bryson is just plain funny. This book presents everything in a way that makes it donwright fun to read. As a side note, I also love A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country, also by Bill Bryson. I find myself a but sad when I come to the end of a Bill Bryson book because I enjoy reading them so much 'I never want the book to end!'. My solution is to run out and by something else he has written. Never have I enjoyed reading so much!
n00dlejester More than 1 year ago
I haven't much to say about this book, except that it's very fun to read while providing some very memorable anecdotes. The book literally tries to cover the history of everything, focusing mainly on science and social advances. Bryson wrote the book making it a point to sound as animated as possible, since this could be pretty dry material given the topic. And he does a great job of engaging the reader, using hilarious anecdotes and keeping the style lighthearted. I found it very amusing to go through, and very informative. Some parts were more entertaining than others, but that should be a given in a book like this. If you're a fan of science, learning, or dry humor, then this is a good choice for you.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent job of converting complex concepts into examples that can be grasped by most people. Potentially boring explanations come alive to help the reader understand some of the great mysteries of life.
DashaV More than 1 year ago
In this book Bill Bryson put together all the scientific and historical facts and discoveries that conclude what we now know about Earth and its' processes. The author is a writer, not a scientist, and tries to explain things in a non-scientific terms for a similarly non-scientific audience. Having a scientific background I already knew most of the physics, astronomy, and chemistry aspects that the author introduces, but how I wish my professors made us read "A Short History of Nearly Everything" instead of "A Brief History of Time"! This book is a very easy read. All science requires a lot of math, which is why most people struggle with it. In this book, Bill Bryson has eliminated math completely and wrote a book on the history of our planet while incorporating scientific principals and humor instead. I've recommended the book to several friends who now claim they have a basic understanding of particle physics without "all that math crap"!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bill Bryson is a wonderful writer, but Bill Bryson is not a scientist. This book is enjoyable and educational if you know little or nothing about contemporary science, but leaves you feeling very unsatisfied if you are scientifically informed to a reasonable extent, because Bryson generally just takes the "default" commonly accepted academic positions and explains them nicely. He provides very little in the way of depth, scholarly debate, alternative theories, cutting edge ideas, etc. Being from the latter group, I found this book to be shallow and a bit boorish.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a must read for anyone interested in anything. It puts into plain language how man discovered the physical world. I plan to re-read it since there is so much information, it is hard to absord in one read. Loved it!
scubasteve111 More than 1 year ago
I was very pleased with this book, this book tells you how scientists know what they know. I'd highly recommend this book for any science buff.
Father_of_5_Boys More than 1 year ago
This was a really interesting book - different than anything I've ever read before. It was basically a history of science, which sounds kind of boring, but it's told through a series of anecdotes and stories about different scientists (many you've heard of before and many that you haven't). It got slow in a couple spots, but overall it was a good read. I would make it required reading for every high school science student - just because you learn so much about the science itself when you're in school but you don't really learn much about the people and the history of scientific discovery. Plus, the biggest thing I think this book shows is how little we really know. When you're a science student in school, you can get the impression that there's nothing left to discover - that we're so advanced and have so much technology - but we really have only touched the surface in our scientific knowledge in a lot of areas. I have a new appreciation for some of the great scientists in history too, like Newton and Haley - these guys were truly amazing. It's unfathomable how they came up with some of the things they did - and how right on target they were.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In this book,the author covers everything from the beginnings of the universe to the beginnings of the human species. The topics covered in this book: The Universe,The Size or this Earth, Physics,the geography of the Earth,and the beginning of Humans and extiction of certain species. This particular book is different because Bryson uses humor to engage the reader. It is also an interesting book beacause he not only talks about the main topics discussed above but he gives a short biography of many of the scientists who were involved in important discoveries. This is any overall intriguing book because he covers such a variety of topics. This book should be used in schools to teach science.
AEC More than 1 year ago
I wish I had read this when I was young--except it did not exist then! A fascinating read from beginning to end. Mr Bryson combines his wonderful wit with a detailed layperson approach to science and the people who were/are the scientists. This is an excellent starter from which to expand into a detailed examination of most anything. I bought copies for my 40's something sons only to have them tell me "Dad! where have you been? We read this years ago!" Parents with 7 to 10th grade children might have fun reading it together (do they still do this?). Us older people will learn about a lot that has changed since we were students. Great fun. It is nice to write a review about something that deserves it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read the book and listened to it several times on audio book. I am a high school science teacher who would like to share this book with my class, but without a table of contents it is a tedious task to find the correct section on the CD to match the subject at hand. Can you help? Anyone?
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is unlike any other Bryson book publoshed. It is neither his recollections, encounters or observations -- rather, we are taken on an intellectual tour of the world of science. As a non-scientist who is helping my teenager study many of these topics in her 7th grade science class, I find this a wonderful alternative to the staid prose of the science textbook.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really like Bill Bryson, and I was really happy when I heard he had a new book coming out. Unlike his previous books, I found this one very easy to put down and forget about. Science is difficult to write about, and I think Bryson should stick to his travel books. It is the slowest book I have read in quite sometime.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
EricDrum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Great book to listen to! Since I'm fascinated with science, I loved this. It's great hearing all the stories behind the great discoveries and hearing about people that history forgot even though their discoveries changed the world. And Bryson's humor makes it much easier to get through. However I don't know if I could have finished the book if I had to read it.
NellieMc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Absolutely superb. It doesn't matter if you almost failed high school chemistry (I did), couldn't grasp physics, are confused about exactly what did Newton discover, this book will clear all the cobwebs away about science in a fascinating, no mumble-jumble fashion, in a way you can understand. I reread it annually and remain fascinated. And get the illustrated edition, it's definately worthwhile to have the illustrations.
dfullmer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book, actually made me interested in science.
gouldc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Listening to as an audiobook. Fascinating
bibliophile007 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Comprehensive science book showing that the most famous scientists were/are real people with their own personalities. This illustrated version brings the ideas listed to life. Recommended even for people who don't care for science in general.
datrappert on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
You really shouldn't be able to write a book like this and get away with it, but Bryson succeeds brilliantly. He is a smart guy, but not a know-it-all, and as he discovers the wonders in this book, he takes us along for the journey. Very well done.
dilldill on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book rocked my world.
justine on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The best science book for the general audience. A great pleasure to read.
chrisod on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In A Short History of Nearly Everything, travel writer Bill Bryson attempts to track down the answers to life, the universe, and everything. He does an admirable job of putting together a 500+ page book that covers the basics of what we know about the the origin of the Universe, the earth, mankind, etc., in an engaging and entertaining manner. My general impression after reading the book is that we don¿t really know a hell of a lot yet. The universe is big; really, really mind blowingly big. Earth is old, about 4.5 billion years old. Sometime about a million years ago early man started to expand geographically from our origins in Africa. However, the entire fossil record of man would fit into the back of a Ford F-150, so the details on just how we got from there to today are mostly conjecture at this point. Also, the geological history of earth would suggest that we are very lucky to be here. 99.99% of all species ever to exist are extinct, and humans have wandered the earth for about .0000001% of it¿s time in existence. (Might be off on the number of zeros ¿ too lazy to look up the actual number he referenced in the book.) The next big catastrophic comet / earthquake / volcano could hit tomorrow. Historically speaking, we seem to be overdue for the big one. All of which says to me that maybe we should all relax a bit about {inset cause de jour here}. None of it really matters.
beau.p.laurence on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bryson realized one day that he didn't understand how our world "works" so he researched a book on it. pretty interesting, science-wise, and as humourous as ou'd expect a Bryson book to be.
erica913 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was a little difficult to read at times because of all that "science stuff" I'm not too familiar with. The topics I understood, however, were fabulously written. It was educational, but in a very funny way. It made me think and appreciate everything around me. Who knew that when you sit in a chair, you're actually levitating? If I were a college science professor, I would absolutely require my students to read this. You learn a lot, but don't realize it because it's such a funny and entertaining read. Just make sure there are some notes available as parts of this book were tough to really 'get.'