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A Short History of Nearly Everything    by Bill Bryson order for
Short History of Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson
Order:  USA  Can
Broadway, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Sally Selvadurai

Hats off to Bill Bryson! He has tackled a vast range of topics that few people would even consider trying to unravel. These subjects range from the birth of the universe to man's attempts at understanding our physical environment, and finally the evolution of life itself.

We begin with the infinite vastness of space: '... in a single cracking instant we were endowed with a universe that was vast - at least a hundred billion light-years across, according to the theory, but possibly any size up to infinite - and perfectly arrayed for the creation of stars, galaxies and other complex systems.' Then the author takes us to the minutiae of our own cells - we have about ten thousand trillion of them when we are born, each '... roomy enough to hold thousands of complicated structures like mitochondria, and millions upon millions of molecules.'

In between, Bryson shows us just how vulnerable Earth is to space debris, how this has shaped our weather and the evolution of life, and how are own planet, with its molten core, can have profound effects on the weather and the existence/extinction of various life forms. We learn that the Earth has been bombarded with asteroids in the past and, should another arrive in the future, '... it wouldn't be visible to the naked eye until it warmed up, and that wouldn't happen until it hit the atmosphere, which would be about one second before it hit the Earth. ... Unless it had been seen by someone with a telescope, and that's by no means a certainty, it would take us completely by surprise.'

Our existence on our own planet is incredibly tenuous, and humans as a species are very much the newcomers. However, '... every living thing is an elaboration of a single original plan. As humans we are mere increments - each of us a musty archive of adjustments, adaptations, modifications and providential tinkerings stretching 3.8 billion years. Remarkably, we are even quite closely related to fruit and vegetables ... It cannot be said too often: all life is one.'

Bill Bryson has managed to bring a host of scientific information to our understanding. He does this with humour and insight, showing us how our planet was shaped, and how we have been able to learn the laws of physics and the order of the natural world. In short, this is an amazing book. The wealth of information is enormous, and the anecdotes are wonderfully entertaining. It is certainly a book that should remain a major part of any home library, for reference purposes as well as entertainment value.

We should all keep in mind Bryson's closing remarks: '... we have been chosen, by fate or Providence or whatever you wish to call it. As far as we can tell, we are the best there is. We may be all there is. It's an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe's supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously.'

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