A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Part 1, Chapter 3 : Lost in the Cosmos (The Reverend Evans's Universe) | Summary



Bryson opens the chapter with a description of an amateur Australian scientist, the Reverend Robert Evans. In his spare time this clergyman finds supernovae, or dying stars. Evans has a remarkable talent for spotting the pricks of light that signify a supernova within a star field. Supernovae are the result of a large amount of energy being released during the collapse of a star. Fritz Zwicky, the astrophysicist who coined the term supernova, and Walter Baade were the first scientists to describe the formation and explosiveness of supernovae and neutron stars, the small, dense cores of collapsed stars. Zwicky was also one of the first people to envision dark matter, a hypothetical form of matter that exerts a gravitational pull. Despite Zwicky's work, it was Robert Oppenheimer, a colleague who led the team that developed the atomic bomb, who became associated with the idea of dark matter.

Bryson goes on to note supernovae, rather than the big bang, are believed to have created the heavy elements, such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, necessary for life on Earth. He credits the work of an English cosmologist named Fred Hoyle, who also coined the phrase big bang, for this understanding. Having described the event necessary to create the materials needed for life, Bryson sets the stage for the rise of life on Earth. He describes how Earth formed, beginning as a collection of gas and dust approximately 4.6 billion years ago that rapidly formed into a large, Earth-sized collection of debris. About 100 million years later, the moon formed through a collision of an object "the size of Mars" with Earth. Soon afterward the atmosphere began to form, and "somehow life got going."


Bryson emphasizes the concept of a citizen scientist is not a new one. As long as there have been scientists, there have been citizens eager to contribute. Science has its roots as a "citizen" occupation, and today many scientists rely on the assistance of normal citizens to obtain mass amounts of data that would otherwise take an inconceivable amount of time to obtain. What makes Robert Evans different from many other amateurs is the subject of his interest and his skill. He looks for supernovae and is quite skilled at finding the notoriously elusive dying stars.

Bryson also comments on a particular artifact of scientific history. In some cases the researcher who is known for a particular idea or discovery is not necessarily the one who did the first or the majority of research on the topic. Fritz Zwicky, for instance, has been relatively forgotten despite being an initial researcher on supernovae. Bryson suggests the reason is due to the nature of Zwicky's personality‚ÄĒdespite his brilliance, he was regularly regarded as "aggressive," "abrasive," and a "buffoon." As a result, colleagues generally ignored his ideas until they were later discussed by Robert Oppenheimer, a highly esteemed physicist. Fred Hoyle, too, was an eccentric who did not receive a Nobel Prize for his work although a collaborator did. Bryson suggests science and scientific history, in some respects, revolve around the personalities of the scientists themselves.

Bryson also shows how, in some cases, the meaning of concepts change after they are brought into the public view. For instance, Fred Hoyle originally coined the term the big bang in 1952, even though he was a proponent of the steady state theory rather than in the idea the universe was created in one moment of massive expansion. While the term big bang has the same meaning today, it is no longer used as a term of disdain for the concept, but rather as a widely accepted term. This suggests not only are scientific terms subject to change over time, but public perception of an idea may not accurately represent its initial purpose.

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