A Short History of Nearly Everything

by

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Bill Bryson

Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa. Both his parents were journalists, and they provided a strong foundation for Bryson’s interest in writing. Bryson reflects on many of his childhood experiences in Iowa in his book The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. Despite his early interest in writing, Bryson dropped out of college, opting to travel in Europe instead, before settling in Britain and marrying a nurse named Cynthia Billen. The pair eventually returned to the United States for a brief spell so that Bryson could complete his degree, before permanently settling in Britain. Bryson worked as a journalist in the 1980s, rising to the rank of chief copy editor at The Times and national news editor at The Independent. Bryson then turned to writing memoir and nonfiction, centering on his personal experiences but interwoven with humor and cultural history. Notably, Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods captures his experiences hiking the Appalachian Trail while offering a history of this trek as a cultural phenomenon. Bryson has won numerous awards for his writing. His international bestseller A Short History of Nearly Everything alone earned Bryson five prestigious international science writing prizes between 2005 and 2012. In 2006, Bryson was knighted in Britain for his contributions to literary culture, and the mayor of Des Moines declared October 21, 2006 Bill Bryson Day in honor of Bryson’s depiction of his childhood in Iowa.
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Historical Context of A Short History of Nearly Everything

Bryson’s focus is the history of scientific discovery in Europe and North America, centering on developments in science since the 1600s. Bryson effectively captures the advances of science after the Scientific Revolution, which occurred gradually between 1500 and 1600, though it is largely attributed to Copernicus’s 1543 publication of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres and culminates in Newton’s 1688 Principia Mathematica. Scholarship during this time shifts from a God-centered worldview advanced by the Catholic Church to a human-centered worldview based on observable facts about the world, giving rise to modern science and the formation of the scientific disciplines. Bryson often alludes to tensions between religious values and scientific values in A Short History of Nearly Everything, emphasizing how often religious ideas can hold up the task of scientific discovery, despite the shift in authority toward scientific over religious worldviews that occurred after the Scientific Revolution.

Other Books Related to A Short History of Nearly Everything

In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson switches from his usual memoir genre to instead focus on scientific discovery. He discusses hundreds of scientific books and articles as he recounts a history of scientific thought ranging back to the 1600s. These include canonical texts like Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1686), Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker (1988), and Charles Lyell’s The Principles of Geology (1830–1833). Bryson also addresses scientific books that get overlooked because they are so poorly-written that the ideas are hard to follow, calling out James Hutton’s Theory of Earth (1788) in particular. Bryson was inspired by writers who strive to write engaging science, especially the “godlike” Richard Feynman (who wrote Six Easy Pieces) and Richard Fortey (who wrote the “wry” and “splendid” Life: An Unauthorized Biography), both published in 1998. Other influences include Timothy Ferris’s 1998 books Coming of Age in the Milky Way and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril, and Tim Flannery’s 2001 book A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World’s Extinct Animals. Other writers who—like Bryson—offer popular takes on scientific research include David Attenborough, who addresses life’s biodiversity on Earth in his 1984 book The Living Planet: A Portrait of the Earth, and Richard Dawkins, who offers a genetic take on evolution in The Selfish Gene. Like Bryson, Dawkins favors the use of metaphors, anecdotes, and engaging prose over technical writing.
Key Facts about A Short History of Nearly Everything
  • Full Title: A Short History of Nearly Everything
  • When Written: 2002–2005
  • Where Written: Surrey, England
  • When Published: 2005
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Popular Science; Nonfiction
  • Climax: Bryson argues that life in the universe is extremely rare and precarious, and that humans take grave risks in treating our planet carelessly.
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for A Short History of Nearly Everything

Happy Accidents. Bryson emphasizes that many scientific discoveries happen by accident, including the discoveries of phosphorous (in glowing urine), radioactivity (from a lump of uranium left on a photographic plate), and the particle collider (which was supposed to be a cloud machine). Bryson aims to show that science has as much to do with luck and circumstance as it does with genius thinkers and formulas.

Funny Stories. Bryson often infuses his writing with quirky, irreverent, humanizing biographical details that aren’t typical in science writing. Examples include Isaac Newton’s odd affection for doing bizarre things out of sheer curiosity (such as poking needles into his eyes or staring into the sun until he can’t see), the Reverend William Buckland’s culinary desire to taste every animal on Earth, and Humphry Davy’s recreational nitrous oxide (laughing gas) habit.