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A Short Summary of A Short History of Nearly Everything

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Chris Anderson

on 3 June 2015

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Transcript of A Short Summary of A Short History of Nearly Everything

Summary
A Short History of Nearly Everything
is exactly what the title says it is; a scientific explanation on everything leading up to us. Bill Bryson takes the reader from everything to the outer reaches of the universe to the Earth's formation to the unclear history of how humans got here today. It also mentions common beliefs on scientific theories and mistakes scientists have made in the past.
Theme
The first part of
A Short History of Nearly Everything
focuses on how the universe came to be and the improbability that it showed up in the first place. It also explains how insanely massive the universe is as a whole, and how even our own solar system is gigantic. This is where we see our first instance of the theme that we are lucky to be here.
Theme in Part I
A Short History of Nearly Everything
has two central themes that I noticed; the first is that the entire existence of humans required a lot of lucky breaks. The other is that people can act stupid a lot, endangering everything around us.
Theme in Part II
The prevalent theme in part two is the theme that people are stupid. It's 4 chapters (56 pages!) about how long it took scientists to learn the Earth's mass and age. One example of human stupidity was from chapter 6; two feuding archaeologists (Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh) "discovered" a single dinosaur species 22 times throughout their lifetimes.
Theme in Part III
Part three, starts off by showing the first theme by explaining the confusing way subatomic particles work and how lucky we are that they even
do
work. It then goes back to the theme of how dangerously ignorant humans are, by dedicating an entire chapter to Thomas Midgley, Jr., a man who single-handedly raised the amount of lead in the atmosphere to 200 times normal levels, and then deteriorated the Earth's ozone by inventing CFC's.
Theme in Part IV
In part 4, Bryson discusses solely the many dangers our entire existence faces every day, from unnoticed asteroids hitting Earth to the super volcano under all of Yellowstone National Park erupting, to massive earthquakes unexpectedly striking. Needless to say, part four shows that our existence is constantly in danger because of forces beyond our control and we're lucky nothing's happened yet.
Visual representation of the Big Bang.
Midgley got rich putting tetraethyl lead in gasoline, leading to high amounts of lead in the atmosphere.
A Short Summary of A Short History of Nearly Everything
Theme in Part VI
Part six is about humans specifically, and how the most we know about how we got here is that ancient humans somehow migrated all over the world, with fossil evidence that other humanoids also migrated and disappeared. There's also a chapter on how human stupidity has lead to multiple unfortunate extinctions in history, and humans seemingly causing extinctions well before recorded history.
The thylacine (aka Tasmanian tiger), extinct because of human interference.
Theme in Part V
The longest part in the book, part five of
A Short History of Nearly Everything
explains how life happened, and where it went from there. A small bag of chemicals somehow had all the right chemicals to be alive and it multiplied, and mutated, and mutated some more, and eventually lead to every living thing on Earth. These living things miraculously survived every mass extinction event to get here, and even then had to be lucky enough to not go extinct on their own, proving more than ever that we're lucky to be alive.
Conclusion
Bill Bryson conveys his themes of our existence being a coincidence and humans being stupid to the point of it being dangerous surprisingly well. In a book that seems very much scientific (and it is), it contains a lot of the author's personality and makes you think. Not only about what you just learned, but what it implies.
Full transcript