A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Context

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Science Writing for the Public

A Short History of Nearly Everything follows in a long tradition of popular science writing. During the scientific advances of the 18th and 19th centuries, educators, scientists, and others made an effort to make science more accessible to a receptive general public. Public lectures on science attracted large audiences, and nonscientists consumed books such as Treatise on Astronomy (1835) by John F.W. Herschel and On the Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin.

During the second half of the 19th century, scientists began to publish separate works within academic journals meant for other scientists and scholars, and books for public consumption with the aim of a "public appreciation of science." The tradition continued into the 20th century with popular works such as The Science of Life (1931) by H.G. Wells, Julian Huxley, and G.P. Wells. Newspaper and magazine journalists also began writing about science for public consumption. In this context Bill Bryson follows in the steps of numerous journalists in the past.

By the late 20th century, science writings for public consumption were still strong with the publication of works such as A Brief History of Time (1988) by Stephen Hawking, The Selfish Gene (1976) and The Blind Watchmaker (1986) by Richard Dawkins, Cosmos (1980) by Carl Sagan, and books by authors such as Margaret Mead and Paul Ehrlich.

Bryson's critical and public success comes from his independence from the scientific and media communities. While he comes from a journalism background, he quickly transitioned to nonfiction science writing. Thus, A Short History of Nearly Everything occupies a unique niche within the field of science writing.

Bryson's work has also received acclaim because he is able to translate science for the public. First, he provides a substantial amount of information in an engaging manner through choice wording and phrasing of concepts. In addition, he applies scientific information to real-life issues people are likely to have engaged with. Lastly, he humanizes scientists through storytelling techniques. Conversational phrases such as "I hardly need point out" and "on that rather unsettling note, let's return ..." create a casual tone throughout the book. He uses examples such as a discussion of the volcanic explosion of Mount St. Helens and an explanation of cancer to contextualize some of the more complex scientific concepts. Finally, he provides a variety of stories about scientists within the book to present them as real people, not just practitioners of a particular discipline.

Public Education

Throughout A Short History of Nearly Everything Bryson highlights a series of scientific insights he feels are important for public awareness. His main message is the planet and its capacity for life is unique, so people should be considerate in their treatment of the oceans, the atmosphere, and terrestrial and aquatic life. While science has provided amazing technological and intellectual advances, it has also furthered human ability to destroy and pollute. Bryson does not reprimand readers, but his facts show current policies of corporations and governments are contributing to the planet's degeneration.

In particular Bryson outlines the impact on the atmosphere of leaded gasoline and chlorofluorocarbons. He notes the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere has resulted in massive climate change and emphasizes unless policies change, human life on Earth will likely end. Bryson also notes the extinction of multiple sea species and the destruction of numerous ocean habitats, especially coral reefs. An astounding lack of understanding of the ecosystems that characterize the oceans as well as the propensity to disregard its importance to the overall health of the planet has led to destructive practices, such as the disposal of radioactive waste into the oceans. On land the record of human society is no better—numerous species have gone extinct because of economic activity during the course of history, a point Bryson emphasizes in the last chapter of the book. While the book is not meant as a call to action, it does further general understanding of humanity's place on Earth and the need to change practices to ensure the continuance of life on the planet.

Research in Different Scientific Fields

When Bryson discusses current research occurring in various fields, he does so within the context of the histories of specific scientific disciplines. The following are some of the basic areas of research needed to understand his presentation.

Astronomy

Astronomers are concerned with the discovery, location, and motion of the planets, stars, galaxies, and smaller bodies such as asteroids and comets. Subjects that excite astronomers are the formation of the universe and the potential for interstellar travel and life on other planets. Astronomers are concentrated in academic departments in universities around the world; however, there are jobs available outside of academia, such as in national or governmental observatories. Collaboration among astronomers and physicists has provided many breakthroughs in the scientific understanding of the cosmos.

Chemistry

Contemporary research in chemistry is primarily concerned with different chemical substances and properties. The majority of chemists are concerned with the practical applications of their research, such as advances in drinking water disinfection or the discovery of new cancer drugs. However, chemistry is pursued in a variety of contexts: academia, government, nonprofit foundations, and biotech and related industries.

Physics

Physicists are concerned with understanding the physical properties that govern motion and energy on Earth and throughout the universe. As a field physics tends to overlap with biology, astronomy, and chemistry. Within the field there are numerous subfields such as particle physics, nuclear physics, optical physics, and the physics of fluids, among many others. While there are opportunities to work in theoretical physics, mainly in academia, most physicists develop practical applications such as the use of molecular imagery for the early detection of disease.

Biological Anthropology

Uncovering the ancient human past through the discovery and analysis of hominid fossils is the principal concern of biological anthropologists. Even though at certain points biological anthropology overlaps with archaeology, biological anthropologists are concerned with understanding the physical characteristics of hominid and modern human remains. The majority of biological anthropologists today are concentrated within academia. The practical applications developed in this field are found in the study of genetics, primates, and biomechanics, or the study of the mechanical laws relating to the movement and structure of living things.

Geology

Geologists today research the material composition of the planet to explain processes governing minerals and climate. They also research the movement of tectonic plates, the major and minor pieces of Earth's crust and topmost mantle responsible for the formation of earthquakes, volcanoes, and other geological activity. Geologists work in academia, government, and business, such as the oil industry. Bryson specifically discusses two important fields within geology: paleoclimate reconstruction, which looks at past climate conditions, and the geology of specific states. The understanding of the composition of past environments helps provide context for current climate change on Earth. State geologists help assess land for the construction of public works and help to predict and detect natural disasters.

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