Based on the title, I expected this to be something like A Short History of the World by H. G. Wells, which offers a complete world history in a piece of writing the length of a novel. Though I was disappointed that this isn’t what this is, I was equally pleased by what it actually was – which is a history of science. It goes into many areas of scientific knowledge, and does so in such a way that somebody with next to no knowledge can appreciate and understand what’s being explained.
My favourite parts dealt with the creation of the Earth in space, and the creation of the universe before it. Bill Bryson talks about the Creationist theories from a couple of hundred years ago, and explained how they slowly evolved into current ideas of evolution, and offers examples of different historic beliefs, such as the person who was sure that the Earth was created in late October, some several thousand years B. C. and that the even happened around midday.
As much as it is fascinating to learn about what we now know about the early days of the universe and of our planet, I found it even more interesting to learn about what we don’t know – which is a lot. The universe is a very mysterious place, and this book does a wonderful job of highlighting that.
The universe is also a very bleak place, which this book also highlights well. If you are quite an anxious person, then you might want to avoid reading this, because the author goes over several ways in which our species, or at very least our civilisation, could be wiped out relatively easily. He also really highlights how miniscule we are in occupying such a tiny amount of space and time. I could imagine somebody becoming quite low-spirited after read those parts.
On the flip-side of that, it’s quite a funny book sometimes. It goes into a lot of detail about things that scientists just happened to name after their home town, or people they know, that we take for granted as the name for certain scientific terms. It also explains many of the petty rivalries and disputes that they had which each other throughout history, with many of these scientists having eccentric personalities. The human drama element was often quite entertaining.
So if you’ve ever wanted to know more about the history of science, to find out what we know so far, and where that knowledge came from, I definitely recommend this book. Bill Bryson’s light and conversational tone is highly accessible and I think most people will learn a thing or two from it.