With witty humour and an entertaining prose, Bill Bryson manages to condense 13 billion years of history – from the Big Bang to the evolution of modern man – into just a few hundred pages. Bryson’s main aim is to answer the question of what we know about the world around us, but more importantly: how we know what we know. In the beginning of the book, Bryson recounts a childhood memory of staring at a picture, in a school textbook, depicting the different layers of the earth’s interior (i.e., the crust, the mantle, the outer liquid core, etc), and although he trusted what the book said, he could not help wondering:
“how any human mind could work out what spaces thousands of miles below us, that no eye has ever seen and no X-ray could penetrate, could look like and be made of” pg 21.
How do we know the earth is 4,5 billion years old? How do we know that living creatures evolve? How do we know that the atom consists of electrons, neutrons and protons? Not only does the book provide a history of the universe, but it also provides a history of science in an attempt to answer the question of how we know what we know. Bryson recounts the many stories of the brave, and sometimes incredibly strange, individuals who contributed to our knowledge (for better or worse) of the world around us.
The book also stresses how vulnerable life is on this planet. A few chapters discuss the potential threats to life: super volcanoes, asteroids, and climate change. After reading the book, one is left with a sense of amazement at the fact that we are here at all. As Bryson notes:
“If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here – and by ‘we’ I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life at all in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans, we are doubly lucky, of course. We enjoy not only the privilege of existence, but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a trick we have only just begun to grasp” pg 573.
The only slight concern I have regarding the book are the multitude of facts that are included in the text. Although the facts make for fascinating reading, some of them – and I could be wrong here – seemed a bit dubious, and I found myself wondering if Bryson used reliable sources for one or two of the facts listed. For example, Bryson writes that Robert Broom, the South African palaeontologist and physician, buried his dead patients and then exhumed their bodies later on to conduct experiments on them. I’ve read a little on the life of Robert Broom in a number of other books, and this is the first time I’ve come across this macabre fact.
Otherwise, this book is easy to read, and also highly entertaining. If you are interested to know a little more about the history of science, but you don’t yet feel ready to tackle more comprehensive works such as John Gribbin’s Science: A History, or Ricky Kolb’s Blind Watchers of the Sky, then this book might be a good start.