A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Summary

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Part 1: Lost in the Cosmos

Bill Bryson opens with a discussion of the beginning of the universe. He starts with the discovery of the big bang and an explanation of how it occurred. He then moves to the outer edges of the solar system and describes the discovery of Pluto, the existence of the Oort cloud of icy objects far out in the solar system, "Planet X"—a hypothetical planet orbiting the sun beyond Pluto, and the potential for extraterrestrial life.

Throughout the book Bryson introduces many contemporary scientists, discussing the lives and idiosyncrasies of both famous contributors to the field and those who are less well known. In Part 1 he discusses Reverend Robert Evans, an amateur astronomer studying the outer edges of the universe through the discovery of supernovae, or dying stars. Bryson then explains the composition of the Milky Way galaxy and the discovery of supernovae, neutron stars—the small, dense cores of collapsed stars—and dark matter, a hypothetical form of matter that exerts a gravitational pull. He ends the section with a discussion of Earth's formation about five billion years ago.

Part 2: The Size of the Earth

Bryson begins Part 2 with a discussion of how a bet between four scientists prompted the discovery of the dimensions of Earth by explorers in France. This bet also resulted in the creation of Isaac Newton's Principia in 1687. Newton's famous treatise on mathematics includes his three laws of motion, equations that changed human understanding of the fundamental physical forces of the universe.

After describing the dimensions of Earth, Bryson tells how scientists attempted to ascertain the age of Earth. The discovery was prompted by scientists such as James Hutton, the father of geology, and Charles Lyell, who proposed the theory of uniformitarianism—Earth was shaped gradually over millions and billions of years. Bryson also describes the characteristics of the different geological time periods.

After a discussion of geology, Bryson describes the rise of paleontology in the late 18th century and discusses the major researchers in the field, such as French naturalist Georges Cuvier, English geologist and mapmaker William Smith, and English fossil collector Mary Anning. At the end of the chapter Bryson returns to the question of the age of Earth. While a massive number of fossils had been collected and research conducted by the end of the 19th century, scholars had not yet agreed on Earth's age.

In the last chapter of Part 2, Bryson describes the advancements in chemistry that led to the discovery of the age of Earth. Ultimately the discovery of radioactivity resulted in the development of dating methodology for geological formations.

Part 3: A New Age Dawns

Having determined the age of Earth, Bryson moves on to an explanation of the development of physics and Einstein's quantum theory, which says light behaves as if it is made up of waves and also as if it is made up of particles. Bryson also describes the work of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who studied the brightness of stars and their astronomical differences, and Edwin Hubble, who built on Leavitt's work to discover the universe is expanding. Combining quantum theory and an expanding universe led to the idea of the big bang.

Bryson moves on to a discussion of the atom, describing the history of its discovery and the understanding there appear to be two sets of laws governing the universe. One directs large-scale relationships involving immense gravitational forces and the other, atomic-scale relationships involving electromagnetic forces.

After discussing the development of atomic theory, Bryson describes how in a 1956 paper Clair Patterson provided the age of Earth from his work dating lead isotopes in meteorites that had struck Earth. Isotopes are chemical elements with different numbers of neutrons; radioactive isotopes decay over time, so measuring them provides an accurate way to date an object. His work also contributed to the decrease of lead isotopes in gasoline and CFCs in the atmosphere. In his research to determine the age of Earth, Patterson set the groundwork for much of modern climatology science.

Bryson then explains the discovery of subatomic particles, which form atoms, and the theory that explains their energy and motion. Quantum theory raises more questions than answers and leaves scientists with the realization humans still have much to learn about the universe. As new evidence comes in using newer technologies, scientists continue to debate the age and makeup of the universe.

Part 4: Dangerous Planet

Bryson begins Part 4 by discussing the dangers surrounding Earth and those inherent within it. He explains the composition of Earth and the development of the theory of plate tectonics, which governs the movement of the major and minor pieces of Earth's crust. He tells what science knows about Earth's past based on its crust and composition. Discussing the discovery of the meteorite impact site that signaled the end of the dinosaurs, he notes a similar impact could occur again at any point. He then moves to the core and hot outer layers of Earth and discusses the potential for the explosion of a super volcano at Yellowstone National Park. Throughout his descriptions of the potential for destructive Earth forces, he emphasizes these cataclysmic events also provided Earth with the capacity for life.

Part 5: Life Itself

In Part 5 Bryson examines how life came to be on Earth. He starts with a discussion of the "lucky breaks" that have allowed the possibility of life on the planet. He next moves to a discussion of the atmosphere and of the tenuous conditions that remain in place for Earth to maintain equilibrium. Bryson then explains how scientists believe life arose on the planet and some of the first life forms that have been identified, such as cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. In general he points out bacteria are immensely diverse, resulting in both beneficial and potentially devastating results for the evolution of life.

Bryson explains the majority of what science knows about primordial life is framed within the context of fossils and the interpretations scientists have made about them. As a result, while scientists know when life left the underwater environment, they are unsure what species first left the primordial oceans to populate the land and evolve into all the other land species of the planet. While there is still more to discover about life in the past, there are also many species to be discovered. He describes the creation of the Linnaean system for classifying living things and why a huge amount of research is still necessary to further the understanding of life on Earth.

Bryson then describes the inner workings of cells as a preface to explaining the rise of evolutionary theory. While scientists Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace provided the evidence and theory to explain the process of evolution through natural selection, it was Gregor Mendel who explained how new species originated. Bryson then moves on to a discussion of DNA, the material that carries a body's genetic code, and how a deepening understanding of genetics has led to an exponentially deeper understanding of life.

Part 6: The Road to Us

Bryson ends the book with a section dedicated to the rise of Homo sapiens, beginning with a discussion of the various ice ages that have characterized Earth's past. He then moves to a discussion of the discovery of hominid fossils and of the issues inherent in paleontological research. As a result of these problems, early human history is minimally understood. Bryson explains what is currently known about the evolution of the species as a result of fossil and genetic evidence. Finally, he discusses the various extinctions of species that have occurred and are currently happening on Earth. He ends with a call for humanity to be more conscientious about the important role human society now plays as environmental steward of Earth.

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