A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Part 3, Chapter 9 : A New Age Dawns (The Mighty Atom) | Summary



Bryson begins by discussing the composition of an atom and the molecule, "the basic working arrangement of atoms." The first major realization made by John Dalton, born in 1766, about atoms was they were "small, numerous, [and] practically indestructible." While Dalton (first introduced in Chapter 7) was not the first to discover and characterize the atom, he created the principles that framed future research.

However, it wasn't until 1910 Ernest Rutherford—born in New Zealand in 1871 and educated in England—provided the first real evidence for the existence of the atom. During a trial known as the gold foil experiment, he discovered an atom was composed of a nucleus that was surrounded by mostly empty space. A few years later Niels Bohr proposed the idea of a "quantum leap," which explained why electrons were not pulled into the nucleus of the atom, while Rutherford came up with the idea of neutrons to explain why the nucleus did not explode. Bryson explains their discoveries as follows: positively charged protons and neutrons, which have no charge, are "packed into" the nucleus while electrons, with a negative charge, "spin around outside." The nucleus is tiny but "fantastically dense" as it contains "virtually all the atom's mass."

However, scientists still had questions about electrons. Sometimes an electron behaved as a particle and other times as a wave. In 1926 German physicist Werner Heisenberg explained the behavior with the development of quantum mechanics and his uncertainty principle. It stated one could determine the speed or the location of an atomic particle, but not both simultaneously. The act of measuring either the speed or location disturbs the atom, distorting the measurement, and better instrumentation will not change this fact. This means measurement can only determine the probability a certain particle will be at a certain position at a certain time, and one can never know exactly where this particle is or how fast this particle is going at any particular time. The result of these realizations was the development of two bodies of theory that governed the interactions of energy and matter in the world: quantum theory at the atomic level and relativity theory at the level of the universe. Despite numerous efforts to devise the one grand theory that could explain all the energies and their interactions—both at the atomic level and galactic level—physicists, cosmologists, and others are still seeking this grand unifying theory.


The atom is one of the most basic structures of life and governs much of modern chemistry and physics today. Yet, as Bryson shows, the basic structure of the atom was not correctly described until the beginning of the 20th century, and neutrons were not discovered until the 1930s. The discovery of neutrons gave the world atomic bombs and atomic energy, scientific advances the world is still exploring; but these discoveries occurred less than 100 years ago.

While not explicitly stated, this chapter is framed around the concept of accelerating or exponential discovery. This idea posits the rate of scientific development accelerates exponentially over time so there are more discoveries now than there were 100 years ago. The discovery of the atom exemplifies this. Not even 30 years after the first accurate characterization of the interior of the atom, Einstein and others created an entirely new body of laws to explain a seemingly separate set of properties of energy and matter at the atomic level. Einstein's general theory of relativity explains how gravity affects energy and matter at the level of galaxies and the two, quantum theory and relativity theory, have not yet been reconciled into one consistent theory to explain all energy and matter.

Furthermore, despite Max Planck's assertion in the late 19th century all of the major physics breakthroughs had already been discovered, scientists still are not sure about how some of the properties that govern the universe operate. Despite the stunning breakthroughs that have occurred in the past century, many aspects of the universe are still only barely understood.

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