A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Key Figure Analysis


Albert Einstein

Einstein was a young German-born bureaucrat who had an undistinguished education in Switzerland. After graduating from the Zurich Polytechnic Institute in 1900, he began to contribute papers to a physics journal, producing the theory of relativity in 1905. A few months later he would publish the famous equation E=mc2 which equates mass and energy and shows the speed of light is constant. In 1917 Einstein built on his theory of relativity with the publication of a paper called "Cosmological Considerations on the General Theory of Relativity." The General Theory posited space and time are not absolute, but relative to the observer and the thing being observed. Einstein received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.

Charles Darwin

As a young naturalist, Darwin traveled on the HMS Beagle beginning in 1831 and gathered the data that would eventually result in his insights into natural selection and evolution. While he returned to England in 1836, his landmark On the Origin of Species was not published until 1859 due to the massive amount of data Darwin needed to organize and his understanding of the controversy it would generate. When he received a draft of a paper written by a younger colleague (Alfred Russel Wallace) that echoed many of Darwin's ideas, he decided to move his book into publication. His The Descent of Man, published in 1871, applies the theory of evolution to humans.

Isaac Newton

While Newton's brilliance was unquestionable, he was also highly eccentric. His interest in alchemy, the attempt to turn base metals into precious ones, resulted in his body having high concentrations of mercury, for instance. A query by Halley about the elliptical orbit of the planets resulted in Newton's two-year production of his masterwork, the Principia. The treatise, credited with inventing calculus, quantified the force of gravity and stated Newton's three laws of motion.

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