Short History of Nearly Everything (Bryson)

A Short History of Nearly Everything 
Bill Bryson, 2003
Random House
560 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780767908184

This brand-new edition of the colossal bestseller is lavishly illustrated to convey, in pictures as in words, Bill Bryson's exciting, informative journey into the world of science.

In this acclaimed bestseller, beloved author Bill Bryson confronts his greatest challenge yet: 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. The result 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.

Now, in this handsome new edition, Bill Bryson's words are supplemented by full-colour artwork that explains in visual terms the concepts and wonder of science, at the same time giving face to the major players in the world of scientific study. Eloquently and entertainingly described, as well as lavishly illustrated, science has never been more involving or entertaining. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—December 8 1951
Where—Des Moines, Iowa, USA
Education—B.A., Drake University
Awards—(see below)
Currently—lives in Norfolk, England, UK

William McGuire "Bill" Bryson is a best-selling American author of humorous books on travel, as well as books on the English language and on science. Born an American, he was a resident of North Yorkshire, UK, for most of his professional life before moving back to the US in 1995. In 2003 Bryson moved back to the UK, living in Norfolk, and was appointed Chancellor of Durham University.

Early years
Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, the son of William and Mary Bryson. He has an older brother, Michael, and a sister, Mary Jane Elizabeth.

He was educated at Drake University but dropped out in 1972, deciding to instead backpack around Europe for four months. He returned to Europe the following year with a high school friend, the pseudonymous Stephen Katz (who later appears in Bryson's A Walk in the Woods). Some of Bryson's experiences from this European trip are included as flashbacks in a book about a similar excursion written 20 years later, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe.

Staying in the UK, Bryson landed a job working in a psychiatric hospital—the now defunct Holloway Sanatorium in Virginia Water in Surrey. There he met his wife Cynthia, a nurse. After marring, the couple moved to the US, in 1975, so Bryson could complete his college degree. In 1977 they moved back to the UK where they remained until 1995.

Living in North Yorkshire and working primarily as a journalist, Bryson eventually became chief copy editor of the business section of The Times, and then deputy national news editor of the business section of The Independent.

He left journalism in 1987, three years after the birth of his third child. Still living in Kirkby Malham, North Yorkshire, Bryson started writing independently, and in 1990 their fourth and final child, Sam, was born.

Bryson came to prominence in the UK with his 1995 publication of Notes from a Small Island,  an exploration of Britain. Eight years later, as part of the 2003 World Book Day, Notes was voted by UK readers as the best summing up of British identity and the state of the nation. (The same year, 2003, saw Bryson appointed a Commissioner for English Heritage.)

In 1995, Bryson and his family returned to the US, living in Hanover, New Hampshire for the next eight years. His time there is recounted in the 1999 story collection, I'm A Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to American After 20 Years Away (known as Notes from a Big Country in the UK, Canada and Australia).

It was during this time that Bryson decided to walk the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen Katz. The resulting book is the 1998 A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. The book became one of Bryson's all-time bestsellers and was adapted to film in 2015, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.

In 2003, the Brysons and their four children returned to the UK. They now live in Norfolk.

That same year, Bryson published A Short History of Nearly Everything, a 500-page exploration, in nonscientific terms, of the history of some of our scientific knowledge. The book reveals the often humble, even humorous, beginnings of some of the discoveries which we now take for granted.

The book won Bryson the prestigious 2004 Aventis Prize for best general science book and the 2005 EU Descartes Prize for science communication. Although one scientist is alleged to have jokingly described A Brief History as "annoyingly free of mistakes," Bryson himself makes no such claim, and a list of nine reported errors in the book is available online.

Bryson has also written two popular works on the history of the English language—Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (1990) and Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States (1994). He also updated of his 1983 guide to usage, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words. These books were popularly acclaimed and well-reviewed, despite occasional criticism of factual errors, urban myths, and folk etymologies.

In 2016, Bryson published The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in England, a sequel to his Notes from a Small Island.

In 2005, Bryson was appointed Chancellor of Durham University, succeeding the late Sir Peter Ustinov, and has been particularly active with student activities, even appearing in a Durham student film (the sequel to The Assassinator) and promoting litter picks in the city. He had praised Durham as "a perfect little city" in Notes from a Small Island. He has also been awarded honorary degrees by numerous universities, including Bournemouth University and in April 2002 the Open University.

In 2006, Frank Cownie, the mayor of Des Moines, awarded Bryson the key to the city and announced that 21 October 2006 would be known as "Bill Bryson, The Thunderbolt Kid, Day."

In November 2006, Bryson interviewed the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair on the state of science and education.

On 13 December 2006, Bryson was awarded an honorary OBE for his contribution to literature. The following year, he was awarded the James Joyce Award of the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin.

In January 2007, Bryson was the Schwartz Visiting Fellow of the Pomfret School in Connecticut.

In May 2007, he became the President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. His first area focus in this role was the establishment of an anti-littering campaign across England. He discussed the future of the countryside with Richard Mabey, Sue Clifford, Nicholas Crane and Richard Girling at CPRE's Volunteer Conference in November 2007. (From Wikipedia. Adapted 2/1/2016.)

Book Reviews
The more I read of A Short History of Nearly Everything, the more I was convinced that Bryson had achieved exactly what he'd set out to do, and, moreover, that he'd done it in stylish, efficient, colloquial 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. The basic facts of physics, chemistry, biology, botany, climatology, geology — all these and many more are presented with exceptional clarity and skill.
Ed Regis - The New York Times

Bryson relies on some of the best material in the history of science to have come out in recent years.... [T]o 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.... [A] trip worth taking for most readers.
Publishers Weekly

Writing with wit and charm, Bryson...takes us on a scientific odyssey from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization. Reflecting his gift for making science comprehensible yet fun, he tells the story of the discoveries and the people that have shaped our understanding of the universe. —James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Lib, Chicago
Library Journal

Bryson...asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.... Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. This book presents science as a series of questions—mostly unanswered. Is this surprising to you? How was science presented to you when you were in school?

2. Bryson mentions that, several times in the past, scientists thought that all the big questions were answered. Some even believe we have reached that point today. Still others wonder if we might soon reach the limits of our intellectual ability to understand the strangeness of atomic particles or explore multiple universes. Any thoughts?

3. A major theme of the book is resistance to new scientific ideas despite solid evidence for them. Bryson gives a number of examples—the Big Bang and plate tectonics are two. What other theories faced initial rejection?

4. Follow-up to Question 3: At the same time, Bryson addresses the idea of scientists clinging to widely accepted but disproven ideas—a young earth and Ether are two that come to mind. What are some of the others in the book?

• Why do you think scientists are resistant to change?
• Are scientists any different from lay people in their resistance to change?
• What current widely held idea do you think might be disproven in the future?

5. Bryson often cites examples of global crises that may have influenced the Earth in the past—meteor strikes, salinity crisis, volcanoes, changes in solar output. How does this relate to the current consideration of global warming?

6. Follow-up to Question 5: Considering the Bryson's examples of powerful global forces beyond human control—including hurricanes, plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and ice ages—do you think differently about human ability to control what happens on earth? To what extent are we "masters" of the earth?

7. What is the connection between human beings and extinction of other species? Consider, for instance, how the dodos and passenger pigeons became extinct? Bryson makes a number of statements on the subject. What do you think?

• Over the last 50,000 years or so, wherever we have gone, animals have tended to vanish, in often astonishingly large numbers.
• The people who were most intensely interested in the world’s living things were the ones most likely to extinguish them.
• It’s an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe’s supreme achievement and it’s worst nightmare simultaneously.
•  We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even to make it better.

8. How has this book affected your thinking about evolution? Do you agree that evolution may be "a lottery" or that, as human beings, "we are not the culmination of anything”?

9. Do a little research into Drake’s equation for the possibility of  life on other worlds. Do you think life in the universe is inevitable or rare? Why? How about other complex (multi-cellular) life? How about intelligent life?

10. Bryson presents scientists as human beings with very human stories. Many died unhappy receiving no recognition or credit for their work. How would you feel if this happened to you? Which story touches you the most?

11. Consider the common question: “Why are there so few women scientists?” Does this book agree there is a shortage, or does it tell us why we don't hear about female scientists? Consider doing some research on Mme Lavoisier, Curie, or Franklin.

(Questions adapted from the Penguin Random House Teachers Guide.)

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