A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Main Ideas


Science Is Accessible

Bill Bryson's premise is science should be accessible to the majority of the public. Scientific concepts are often presented as too complicated for the average individual to understand, but in actuality, it is often the presentation, not the concepts, that can make the ideas difficult to follow or understand.

By tackling the histories of numerous scientific disciplines, Bryson is able to simplify and clarify some of their most complicated topics, such as Einstein's theory of relativity. The author's argument, laid out at the outset of the book, is science should inspire curiosity, wonder, and fascination. Equally important, he argues scientists are accessible to the public, even though some may be decidedly strange. Throughout the book he humanizes past and present scientists by sharing details of their personal lives.

The History of Science Is Biased

Bryson argues throughout A Short History of Nearly Everything the history of science is biased against individuals who did not receive initial acclaim for an idea, were not as gregarious as their competitors, or were unlucky for any number of reasons. In many cases the scientist who initially conceptualized an idea was either lost in history, or later scientists appropriated the idea.

It is also the case the public's view of scientific discoveries changes as the history and politics of a particular society change. For instance, while the theory of evolution is well known today, during Darwin's life it was little known outside of scientific and religious organizations. Furthermore, while Wallace and Darwin initially presented the theory of evolution together at the same conference, modern recognition of the theory is given to Darwin. Bryson takes the stance the lack of recognition for Wallace stems from an unlucky accident of history. He was simply not recognized for his contributions. By presenting science through the lens of history, Bryson is able to recognize and rectify some of these biases, creating a fuller picture of science and scientists.

Finally, the history of science is inevitably biased toward the existence of evidence. While this might seem like an obvious point, readers can see its impact in everything from the initial rejection of Darwin's evolution theory to the confusion over classifying hominids to the controversy over the advent of Homo sapiens.

Science Connects to Everyday Life

Throughout the book Bryson connects scientific theories and discoveries to aspects of everyday life. For instance, in his explanation of cells, he ends the chapter with a brief discussion of cancer, contextualizing how and why cancer forms. By connecting abstract concepts to more concrete aspects of the physical world, Bryson is able to better explain scientific ideas. He argues science plays a role in the everyday lives in both positive and negative ways. For instance, the discovery of radioactive elements resulted in the calculation of the age of Earth; however, it also ultimately resulted in the creation of the atomic bomb through nuclear fission.

Everything known about Earth, from the history of the species on the planet to the potential for volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and asteroids, is a result of scientific investigation. Bryson argues every individual's daily life is fundamentally intertwined with any number of scientific disciplines and as a result, science is an integral part of everyday life.

Collaboration Among and Within Fields Is Critical

Bryson argues collaboration both among and within scientific fields is vitally important, not only for the advancement of science, but also because of the practical applications that can result. He gives examples of both successful collaborations and disastrous results of failures to collaborate. For instance, the discovery an impact event caused massive extinctions 65 million years ago was the result of collaboration among a geologist, a physicist, and a chemist. And while Crick and Watson are the scientists most closely associated with the discovery of the structure of DNA, the discovery was made possible by Franklin's X-ray images of the structure of DNA. However, an understanding of tectonic plate theory by oil geologists was not shared with the larger scientific community because "oil geologists didn't write academic papers." Bryson also attributes the lack of understanding of Earth's composition to the failure of geologists and geophysicists to communicate.

Rivalries within fields, such as the epic one between paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh over their aggressive searches for fossil remains, can undermine scientific advancements. Attempts to grab credit for discoveries, like Richard Owen's predatory approach to the work of Gideon Mantell in the field of dinosaur anatomy, also work against the sharing of knowledge. Considering major controversies and gaps in understanding exist today in fields from geology to gene research, collaboration is critical.

Living Things Are Lucky to Be Alive

In Bryson's words "To have a planet suitable for life, you have to be just awfully lucky." He touches on this idea in the first paragraph of Chapter 1, when he says, "Getting here wasn't easy" to describe the chance of life occurring in the universe at all. Bryson devotes most of Chapter 16 to a discussion of the "helpful breaks" that allowed life to take root on Earth. For example, the planet is an ideal distance from the sun to support life; its molten interior and the presence of a moon are other factors that help life survive on Earth.

Bryson closes the book by saying, "If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here." By "we" he means all living things. Humans are doubly lucky, he adds, because they have the intelligence to appreciate life and make it better. Always reluctant to get on a soapbox, he doesn't use the book's ending to reiterate the fact humans contribute in many ways to the present destruction of life on Earth. He does not need to; he has already made the point very clear.

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