A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Part 2, Chapter 7 : The Size of the Earth (Elemental Matters) | Summary



In this chapter Bryson shows how the advancement of chemistry as a field ultimately led to the correct determination of the age of Earth. The field dates to 1661, with the publication of a book called The Sceptical Chymist that made a distinction between the work of alchemists and chemists. Early discoveries were made through trial and error, and credit for them went to the "more celebrated chemists" who spoke English.

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, born in 1743, was the first to bring "rigor, clarity, and method to chemistry." While he never discovered an element, he identified and named oxygen and hydrogen. He also described the law for the conservation of mass. In general, however, chemistry lacked major breakthroughs in the beginning of the 19th century, in part because it was the provenance of businesspeople. The important discoveries came a little later in the century.

Count von Rumford, born Benjamin Thompson in 1753, precipitated some of these later advancements in the field of chemistry by creating London's Royal Institution in 1799. For a while, it was the only "institution of standing to actively promote the young science of chemistry." Humphry Davy, the institution's professor of chemistry, discovered a dozen new elements and developed electrolysis, the technique of applying electricity to a molten substance. British scientist John Dalton described the nature of an atom in 1808, while in 1811 Italian scientist Lorenzo Avogadro discovered a more accurate way of weighing and measuring atoms.

In the second half of the 19th century, chemistry began to standardize. Sweden's J. J. Berzelius prompted the use of Latin abbreviations for elements. Russia's Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev structured the periodic table of elements by combining the two ways in which they were usually grouped—by atomic weight and by common properties. At the end of the 19th century, Marie Curie discovered and experimented with radioactivity. In 1904 Ernest Rutherford realized radioactive materials decayed at a set rate called a half-life and this fact could be used to determine the age of fossils and rocks. His discovery finally allowed scientists to calculate the age of Earth.


The calculation of the age of Earth was important for scientists to be able to conceptualize the timescale needed for many of Earth's processes such as geological formation and evolution. However, the idea the age of Earth was older than the previously accepted 24 million years would not come until the beginning of the 20th century. This was because the field of chemistry did not advance as rapidly as other scientific fields. Bryson argues the reason why was partly "limitations of equipment," but also "chemistry was, generally speaking, a science for ... those who worked with coal and potash and dyes, and not gentlemen, who tended to be drawn to geology, natural history, and physics." Once again he emphasizes the point scientific breakthroughs often go hand in hand with social and personal issues.

As a result, some of the impetus to address large-scale questions that didn't have immediate practical applications was absent from chemistry for a long time. The field was driven, not by advances made by men and women of relative leisure, but by practical concerns. This relates to the idea people who have the time to think of larger-scale questions have the leisure to do so. During the 18th and 19th centuries these individuals were "gentlemen"; thus, the same large-scale advances did not characterize a science populated by chemists who served business interests.

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