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Sunday, February 13, 2005

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

I picked this book up at the airport, thinking at first that it was a book about human history. I confess I did not know at the time who Bill Bryson is and was blissfully unaware of his widely acclaimed writing record. Obviously, the book turned out to be completely different from what I had expected. Bryson wrote a book about "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." In short, a story about the natural history of the world and much more.

Bryson's accomplishment inspires awe and envy. Here is a person with no scientific background who, driven by an insatiable desire to learn, has mastered biology, astronomy, paleontology, geology, chemistry and much much more, and then translated this knowledge into a readable account of "nearly everything". The New York Times Book Review wrote that A Short History of Nearly Everything "is destined to become a modern classic of science writing" and I fully agree. Bryson succeeds to explain where we came from and how our world works in terms that every person can understand, while at the same time peppering his tale with humouristic anecdotes about the greatest scientists in history: their lives, their mistakes and their feuds.

This book is a journey in space and time. It takes the reader from the core of the Earth to the infinite reaches of outer space, and from the beginning of time to the future outlook for our planet. In this journey, Bryson brings home two messages, over and over again. First, how insignificant our lives are in comparison with the age of the world and the forces of nature, especially when we take into account the improbable odds of our very existence. Second, how little we know and understand about how we came about, how our planet works or indeed who and what inhabits it besides us. The book is full of facts which leave the reader open-mouthed; several times I had to re-read a sentence just to make sure I understood the full implication of the facts presented in it.

The first thing I did today after finishing the book was to log on to amazon.com to search for other Bryson books and order them. I am looking forward to getting more acquainted with this wonderful writer in the very near future.

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