A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Part 1, Chapter 1 : Lost in the Cosmos (How to Build a Universe) | Summary



The chapter begins with a discussion of the creation of the universe with the sudden expansion of an infinitesimally compact spot. This event, now known as the big bang, occurred around 13.7 billion years ago. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the big bang accidentally. Working at Bell Laboratories, the two astronomers found white noise—noise containing many frequencies of equal intensities—that a fellow scientist, Robert Dicke, recognized as "cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang."

After the big bang, the universe expanded instantly, and in the expansion emerged the forces of gravity and electromagnetism and, "an instant later," elementary particles. This expansion, explained by inflation theory, was conceptualized by a particle physicist named Alan Guth. The universe can be described as "boundless but finite." Any attempt to reach the outer edges would fail because the universe bends.

Bryson ends the chapter with two contradictory facts. All of the matter necessary for life was not created during the big bang; yet compounds such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen require the energy of a big bang for their creation. He ends the chapter here, with the promise to elucidate the matter in a later chapter.


Bryson continues to fulfill his goal of making science understandable to readers. He invites the reader to "imagine," "wish," and "visualize," placing the reader in an active role that provokes engagement with the ideas in the text. He uses a narrative approach to explain the discovery of the big bang and supports the reader's understanding of scientific terms and figures with examples and simplified description. In addition he sprinkles questions through the chapter and ends with a cliffhanger.

He reminds readers humans are but one thing in a universe of infinite things. Human beings are made from the infinitely small and live in an infinitely large universe, yet somehow, humans appeared. Bryson's sense of wonder at this accomplishment—what he calls in the introduction "an extraordinary string of biological good fortune"—is clear.

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