A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Part 3, Chapter 8 : A New Age Dawns (Einstein's Universe) | Summary



According to Bryson, many people at the close of the 19th century believed all of the major scientific discoveries had been revealed. They were mistaken; the atomic age was just about to emerge. In this chapter Bryson relates the events that ultimately led to the development of quantum physics.

The first major breakthrough was by J. Willard Gibbs, a Yale professor who in papers published in 1875–78 showed the principles of thermodynamics not only applied to large machines such as steam engines; it also applied to small molecular reactions. Shortly afterward, physicist Albert Michelson and chemist Edward Morley discovered contrary to the precepts of Newtonian physics, the speed of light was constant and not dependent on the position or location of the observer or on their motion. These discoveries set the stage for what German theoretical physicist Max Planck called quantum theory. The theory, unveiled in 1900, said that energy "is not a continuous thing like flowing water but comes in individualized packets" that Planck called quanta.

However, Bryson claims the largest breakthroughs came from German physicist Albert Einstein. As a "young Swiss bureaucrat" with "no university affiliation," Einstein published in 1905 papers that defined and explained various aspects of quantum theory, including the theory of relativity. Soon afterward, he defined the relationship of energy to mass and the constant speed of light with his equation E=mc2 which equates mass and energy and shows that 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." Bryson explains the general theory by saying it says "space and time are not absolute, but relative to both the observer and the thing being observed." It also shows "time is part of space."

Later, researchers discovered the universe was continuously expanding outward. American astronomer Edwin Hubble built on the work of a woman named Henrietta Swan Leavitt to show galaxies existed beyond Earth's Milky Way, to measure vast distances in space, and to discover other galaxies were moving away from ours. However, it was Belgian scholar Georges Lemaître who brought together Einstein's theory of relativity with the discovery of an expanding universe together in his "fireworks theory." It suggested the universe "burst into glory [during the big bang] and had been moving apart ever since."


While Bryson argues in many cases ideas are an artifact of the time and context of the state of the world, he shows without Einstein's insights, the world may still not have discovered the revelations that poured from his mind. Most science occurs as a progression of ideas, one building on top of another. While Einstein's equation, E=mc2, and his theory of relativity were to some degree built on the work of others, they redefined the understanding of the universe so completely that Einstein's discoveries stand out as the unique product of an exceptional mind.

At the same time, Bryson notes Einstein was not without faults. For instance, he failed to recognize the universe needed to be constantly expanding for his theory of relativity to work. In addition, while his own equation, E=mc2, spawned the study of quantum mechanics, Einstein himself failed to recognize the field's importance.

Both Einstein's breakthroughs and Planck's quantum theory came at a time when people were beginning to believe all the major breakthroughs within the field of physics had already occurred. Bryson points this out as a nod to the ingenuities that continue to occur in science and the brilliance of individual scientists who significantly advance a scientific field.

The chapter itself contains numerous different theories and complicated ideas. However, Bryson concisely articulates the various concepts and organizes them chronologically, providing humanizing vignettes about the scientists. He describes Einstein, for instance, as a "young man staring out the window of a patent office" with "an awfully big thought"—providing a break from the dense complexities of the scientific concepts.

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