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A Really Short History of Nearly Everything    by Bill Bryson order for
Really Short History of Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson
Order:  USA  Can
Doubleday, 2008 (2003)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Bill Bryson, who also wrote A Short History of Nearly Everything, begins A Really Short History of Nearly Everything with the question: 'Have you ever closed your eyes and tried to imagine just how big infinity is?' He then tells us he's here to help with such 'brain-straining questions'. He does so via paragraphs of explanatory text accompanied by bold sideline snippets of commentary - like 'I grew up convinced that science was extremely dull - but suspecting that it needn't be' - and amusing cartoon illustrations, as well as color photographs. Bryson also interjects regular 'So, here we are ...' summary pages that reinforce what came before.

He organizes his eminently readable compendium of answers to 'how this universe of ours is put together' under sections that address: Lost in the Cosmos; The Size of the Earth; A New Age Dawns; Dangerous Planet; Life Itself; and The Road to Us. I love Bryson's unique insights (e.g. about inadvertently watching 'the birth of the universe' in TV static); out-of-the-box presentation techniques, such as his 'Recipe for cooking up a universe' and his portrayal of our evolution; amusing historical accounts of scientists' escapades and character defects (e.g. Linnaeus' lack of modesty); and timely warnings, such as the fact that most of Yellowstone park is a volcanic caldera that 'blows roughly every 600,000 years', the last being 630,000 years ago!

Bill Bryson makes science accessible to all of us, showing us new ways to look at old ideas and making excellent points. For example, he tells us that 'The universe is an amazingly fickle and eventful place and our existence within it is a wonder.' and reminds us that 'We live on a planet that has an endless capacity to surprise us.' His parting comments underline the fragility of our knife edge existence, and humanity's poor track record as caretakers of the planet's life forms. I highly recommend A Really Short History of Nearly Everything, not just to science geeks but to anyone interested in the environment, where we came from, and where we're heading.

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