A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson [Book Summary – Review]

How did humans end up here? What was the origin of the cosmos? What is the cosmos?

Prominent intellectuals and scientists have sought answers to these questions for thousands of years, however, it is since a very recent time that humanity started to almost achieve the formation of a full portrayal of our awe-inspiringly intricate and formidable cosmos.

In this summary, we will provide you with a quick lesson regarding every principal existential question. This summary will teach you the way the cosmos came into being, the way life emerged, and the way the world’s prominent thinkers devised their ideas that led to breakthroughs.

However, even though we have come a long way thanks to science, considering from the viewpoint of our knowledge regarding the world, there are a lot of questions that we are unable to answer for now. Numerous life forms existing in the profundities of our oceans, most of what constitutes the cosmos, and even elements of the world underneath our feet continue to be surrounded with mist.

Buy this book from Amazon

Chapter 1 – The Big Bang theory proposes the cosmos came to existence through a singularity in a concise moment.

In 1965, two radio mulled over a different noise that caught their attention when they were conducting experiments using a communications antenna. It was later found that this noise was more than mere noise.

The sound formed 90 billion trillion miles away, at the direct time of the cosmos’ formation: we call it today the Big Bang.

Even though the finding was lucky, the astronomers were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics and played an important role in spreading the Big Bang theory. This declares our cosmos’ root goes back to a single point of nothingness known as a singularity, a point compressed to such extent that we cannot talk about dimensions for that point.

In this only one, compact point the main elements of the universe used to be restrained. Abruptly, for reasons beyond our knowledge at the moment, this singularity ‘banged’ in “a single blinding pulse,” throwing around the future ingredients of our cosmos everywhere in the void.

Even though the causes of this explosion continue to be a mystery, scientists know more specifically when it comes to what happened after the explosion.

In the Big Bang, matter, or the ingredients inside that singularity, grew so quickly that the whole cosmos came into existence, lasting for only the moment in which one can prepare a sandwich. Almost instantly after the ‘bang’, the cosmos swelled substantially, growing twice as much in size every 10^-34 seconds – which means the process took place extremely fast. 

Today, humanity is cognizant that, together with the essential forces that rule our cosmos, close to 100% of all matter in the cosmos was formed in just three minutes. The cosmos today has a diameter of at a minimum one hundred billion light-years and is still expanding, even at this moment.

Chapter 2 – The vastness of the cosmos renders it probable that other thinking organisms may exist.

The cosmos’ enormity is such that it is nearly completely difficult for the human imagination to fully describe it. Astronomers guess that approximately 140 billion galaxies exist in the cosmos, all of which are visible to us.

Think about how it would be were each galaxy to be frozen peas: there would be a sufficient amount of peas to fit inside a large auditorium!

For a very long time, the enormity of the cosmos was a point of debate among scientists, which ended when Edwin Hubble made his appearance in the scene.

In 1924, Hubble showed that a constellation that used to be considered a gas cloud was in fact a whole galaxy, situated at a minimum 900,000 light-years away from Earth.

This information rendered our minds open to the thinking that our cosmos is not made up of solely the Milky Way galaxy – in which Earth is located – and we understood that there are numerous other galaxies in the universe. Put differently, the cosmos needed to be a lot more gigantic than any person had ever guessed.

Through this discovery, humans started to doubt that they were the sole thinking beings in the cosmos.

In Professor Frank Drake’s well-known equation from 1961, it is proposed that it is likely that humanity is nothing more than one of the millions of other superior civilizations.

Drake arrived at this inference by dividing the number of stars in a chosen portion of the cosmos by the number that possibly had planetary systems. He then divided that number by the number of systems that would be able to theoretically sustain life, ultimately dividing that number by the number where life may go through evolution and acquire intelligence.

Even if the number decreases considerably after every division – even when we keep the outcome as low as possible – Drake’s estimations about the number of advanced civilizations that are located in the Milky Way constantly add up to a number in the millions.

But, since the cosmos is so gigantic, scientists guessed that the average travel time from any hypothetical civilization to another one lasts at least 200 light-years – remember that one light-year is equal to approximately 5.8 trillion miles. Therefore even though we assume that there are other advanced civilizations except us, the likely travel time between us and them doesn’t allow the thought of a random weekend visit to these civilizations.

Thinking about the scope of the cosmos might make you a bit dizzy! Presently, the next chapters will talk about the way we discovered to measure the Earth itself.

Chapter 3 – Newton’s ideas as to the way the Earth moves, the way it is shaped, and how much it scales were very logical.

Newton was an unusual scientist. Aside from conducting experiments with a needle which he used to poke his eyeball and eye socket, and experiments involving looking fixedly at the sun for as long as he was able to, he was an ingenious and prominent mathematician.

His pioneering work, Principia Mathematica, entirely transformed how we considered motion.

Apart from describing Newton’s three laws of motion, Principia Mathematica reveals his general law of gravitation, which declares that all entities in the cosmos – no matter how enormous or tiny they are – exert a pull on all other entities.

These laws rendered it probable to carry out measurements that had been deemed unthinkable. For instance, Newton’s laws presented us with a means to gauge the weight of the Earth.

His laws aided us to comprehend as well that the world isn’t totally round. What Newton’s theories propose is that the force of the Earth’s spin should lead the globe to flatten a bit at its poles and swell at the equator.

This finding was a significant hit to scientists whose estimation depended on the presumption that the Earth was round.

To give it an example, consider the French astronomer Jean Picard, who had calculated the Earth’s circumference by means of a complex technique of triangulation – a scientific success that presented Picard with a fabulous fountain of pride. Sadly, Newton’s laws rendered Picard’s calculations wholly invalid.

Newton’s laws sparked an entirely novel comprehension of the way to gauge celestial objects. Aside from getting more knowledgeable about the Earth’s motion, shape, and weight, scientists expanded their knowledge with respect to motions of other planets, tidal motion, and importantly – what is the reason for our spinning planet to not fling us into the depths of the universe!

Chapter 4 – Rocks and fossils proved that the Earth was very aged, however, it was through radioactivity that we learned its age.

Even though this might sound surprising, what we know in regard to the Earth’s age is a newer discovery than the creation of instant coffee or the first appearance of television, even the discovery of atomic fission.

Actually, for a very long duration, the sole thing geologists knew was that the Earth’s history went far back.

Even if they could arrange diverse rocks by age – classifying them depending on the periods when the sediment had deposited – geologists did not know anything about the duration of these periods.

When humanity reached the twentieth century, paleontologists had become a part of the studies to estimate the Earth’s age by further separating these ages into epochs via fossil records.

However, none of them were able to give a number as to the age of any of the bones found, and their guesses varied between 3 million and 2.4 billion years.

Only after humanity had had a knowledge of radioactive materials were the scientists able to estimate the Earth’s age. 

In 1896, Marie and Pierre Curie found that particular rocks emitted energy without displaying any difference in size or shape. They called this phenomenon radioactivity.

Physicist Ernest Rutherford, who later found that radioactive elements decayed into separate elements in a fairly foreseeable manner became interested in their studies. To be more precise, he realized that it continuously lasted for the same amount of time for half the sample to decay – which is called half-life – and that it was possible to utilize this knowledge in calculating a material’s age.

Rutherford went on to apply his theory on a piece of uranium to see how old it is, which revealed that the piece of uranium was 700 million years old.

Only after 1956 when Clair Cameron Patterson came up with a more exact age-determining method did we began to achieve a real understanding of the Earth’s age. Through analyzing the age of ancient meteorites, he calculated the Earth’s age to be approximately 4.55 billion years old (plus or minus 70 million years) – which is quite similar to the present scientific consensus of 4.54 billion years!

As previously mentioned, comprehending the cosmos is an intricate process. The following chapters will examine scientific endeavors to build order from complexity: the theory of relativity and quantum theory.

Chapter 5 – Einstein’s theory of relativity played a rather important role in our comprehension of the universe as a whole.

In his school years, Albert Einstein wasn’t a successful pupil and student. Following the failure in his earliest college entrance exams, he began to be employed in a patent office. However, while working in the patent office, physics caught his interest and he wanted to study it, and in 1905 wrote a paper that would transform the world entirely.

His pioneering Special Theory of Relativity demonstrates that the concept of time is relative, and does not go further all the time in the same fashion as an arrow.

This idea is hard to comprehend for many since people don’t feel the impacts of relative time in our everyday lives. For light, gravity, and the universe itself, though, Einstein’s theory means a lot.

Basically, the theory puts forward that the speed of light is fixed, which indicates that it doesn’t alter for observers no matter how rapid they may travel. But, the opposite goes for time: should one entity moves faster than another, it’ll experience time such that time will appear to be slow.

What’s even further difficult to grasp apart from his special theory is Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which completely transformed the way we think about gravity.

Upon watching a workman fall from a roof, Einstein started pondering more about gravity, which was the last component of h,s special theory but he overlooked.

Issued in 1917, his general theory put forward that time is entwined with the three dimensions of space as spacetime.

It is possible to view spacetime as a sheet of stretched rubber. Should you put a large round object in the middle, the sheet will stretch and sag a little. Heavy objects, like the sun itself, perform the same thing to spacetime.

When you place a tinier object across the sheet, the object will strive to move in a straight line. But, when the smaller object approaches the bigger object and the gradient of the fabric, it will then begin rolling downward. Basically, gravity functions as a product of the bending of spacetime.

In one ingenious theory, Einstein demonstrated to the world the way time and gravity work!

Chapter 6 – Quantum theory played a large role in elucidating the subatomic world, however, it led physics to have two bodies of laws.

As the number of scientists who study atoms increased, so did the realization that it is improbable to explain atoms through the traditional laws of physics.

The traditional laws said that atoms aren’t supposed to exist: the positively loaded protons in the nucleus should push each other, leading the atoms to destroy, while the electrons that spin around them should be colliding with one another continuously.

Scientists surmounted this issue by introducing a novel theory, disclosing how the subatomic world works.

In 1900, the German physicist Max Planck proposed a quantum theory, according to which energy isn’t something eternal but rather is formed in separate packets known as quanta, particles even tinier than atoms.

His idea didn’t go beyond theory until 1926, in which another German physicist, Werner Heisenberg, introduced the notion of “quantum mechanics” whose objective was to render atoms’ strange behavior understandable.

What occupied the core of this discipline was the principle of uncertainty belongs to him, which showed that electrons possess the properties of both particles and waves. Consequently, it is impossible to foretell with full accuracy at which location an electron will be at any given time – The sole thing that we are able to do is to determine the probability that it is located at a particular point in space.

The development of quantum theory created as much uncertainty as it did elucidation, finally splitting physics into two sets of laws: one of them used for the subatomic world and the other for the bigger cosmos.

The theory of relativity does not apply to this subatomic world, and the quantum theory has no capability at all with respect to clarifying phenomena such as gravity or time.

This disorderedness annoyed Einstein to such a degree that the rest of his life passed trying to devise something he names as a Grand Unified Theory. However, he couldn’t succeed in his endeavor.

There are people for whom the most impressive things regarding atoms are the observable things they create and we can see, such as mountains and oceans. In the following chapter, you’ll continue learning about Earth and what makes Earth habitable.

Chapter 7 – Even if life on Earth is full of hurdles, it’s many thanks to the universe that it can even be present.

Notwithstanding the remarkable variety of life on Earth, the world is not even close to being a peaceful place to dwell.

Actually, as stated by one estimate, close to 100 percent of the Earth’s livable area is entirely inaccessible to humans since our species require land and oxygen to survive. What’s more, we don’t have much chance on land either: solely a little more than 10 percent of the world’s entire landmass has the right conditions that support human life.

There are scientists who have made huge efforts to show simply how weak humans actually are. Parent and child team John and Jack Haldane carried out experiments on their own bodies to demonstrate simply how difficult the conditions are if a human departs from the surface world.

Jack constructed a decompression chamber to reflect life at the most profound section of the oceans, and while carrying out this experiment, actually would poison himself when he felt the higher oxygen levels present in the deep sea. In one experiment, oxygen saturation made him experience such a fit so that some of his vertebrae were crushed.

Thinking about simply how difficult it is to exist on much of the Earth, it’s fascinating that there is such a thing as humanity!

Examining the discovered planets, it’s plain that locating a planet that supports life can be seldom done. Actually, a planet must fulfill four precise standards to be life-supporting.

For starters, the planet is required to be situated in the appropriate distance from a star – if the planet is too close, then anything on the planet will be in flames; if it is too far, basically the planet freezes.

The next thing is that the planet must have the capacity of forming an atmosphere that can protect us from cosmic radiation.

Third, humans would require a moon to balance the numerıus gravitational influences on this planet, important for spinning at precisely the right speed and angle.

Lastly, timing matters a lot. The complicated chain of events that brought about human existence had to play out in a specific way at specific times to allow life and dodge catastrophe.

Chapter 8 – There is very scarce information with regard to the laws that govern life in the oceans.

It is really interesting that we name this planet “Earth” and not “water” since you can find water anywhere on Earth!

Consider this: almost seven-tenth of our bodies are made up of water; and moreover, the volume of water that cover Earth is beyınd 1.3 billion cubic kilometers of water.

Thinking about the significant position of water for life, it’s interesting that humans engaged with seas scientifically very recently.

Despite the fact that almost a hundred percent of all water on the planet belongs to the ocean, the earliest genuine investigation of the oceans wasn’t arranged until a recent date. In 1872, a retired English war vessel was on a mission for three and a half years that involved navigate the planet, gather specimens from the waters, and get novel kinds of marine life forms, hence bringing about a novel scientific field: oceanography.

This exploration went on into the dark seas with two American adventurers whose names were Otis Barton and William Beebe.

In 1930, the Americans broke a world record by going 183 meters down into the ocean depths in a small iron chamber known as a bathysphere. By 1934, they went down the ocean depths exceeding 900 meters.

Sadly, though, the Americans weren’t professional oceanographers at all and lacked enough lighting and tools. The only thing they were able to report was that the ocean depths were full of odd things. Consequently, academics and scientists mostly disregarded their discoveries.

In the present day, scientists have knowledge of more than 10,918 meters into the ocean’s depths, however, even with this knowledge, they don’t have anything else. To be more precise, humanity has been able to create better maps of Mars than they have of the seabeds. As pointed out in one estimate, humanity might have merely studied a millionth or even a billionth of the ocean abyss.

There may be as many as 30 million kinds of sea-dwelling life forms in the ocean depths – many of which continue to wait to be discovered. Even details of the lives of the ocean creatures that we can see, like the blue whale, are shrouded with mist.

Chapter 9 – Bacteria are the most populous life form of the Earth, and they’re the reason for our existence – without them, we wouldn’t be here today.

Germaphobes are profuse. However much you may be clean, there will constantly be a great number of bacteria around you.

Think about this: when you’re healthful, nearly one trillion bacteria dwell on your skin!

This is a fact that bacteria make up a huge portion of the Earth’s population and can adapt to Earth’s diverse life forms. Actually, the amount of bacteria is so large that were we to get the total of the mass of every living being on the Earth, these small bacteria would make up eight-tenth of that total.

This is so because bacteria can propagate very fast. Bacteria are extremely procreative; it’s possible for them to propagate a novel generation in less than 10 minutes. The significance of this is that, when there are no outside impacts, a single bacterium could in theory generate so many offspring in two days that the number of bacteria would surpass the number of protons in the cosmos!

What’s more, bacteria are able to survive and increase in number on nearly anything. The only thing they need is a little moisture and then they are capable of living in even the severest environments, like in the waste tanks of nuclear reactors.

Some bacteria have such strength that they seem impossible to eradicate. Even İF a bacterium’s DNA is exposed to extreme levels of radiation, it will just regenerate as though everything is the same as before the radiation exposure.

However, we should feel grateful that bacteria exist all around– they are highly vital to our survival.

Bacteria recycle our wastes, clean our water, maintain our soil’s fertility, turn our food into beneficial vitamins and sugars, and transfer the nitrogen in the air to us – which are among other vital things.

Actually, many of the bacteria are present as neutral or helpful for humans. But, roughly one in 1,000 bacteria cause diseases; and even this small demographic accounts for the third-most deadly killer of humans everywhere across the planet. Several of the most lethal diseases, from plague to tuberculosis, stem from bacteria.

Chapter 10 – Life began impromptu as a package of genetic material that managed to replicate itself.

Picture this: precisely the right contents from your kitchen cupboard mysteriously began blending and made themselves into a scrumptious cake and that this cake later started replicating itself to create more scrumptious cakes.

Have you found this odd? What’s odder is the reality that groups of molecules, like amino acids, carry out this exact process always.

After closer examination, though, we see this impromptu process isn’t that magical. Self-combining processes take place all the time: from the symmetry that snowflakes have to the rings of Saturn, it is possible to notice patterned complexity everywhere in the cosmos.

Therefore it looks natural that amino acids would order themselves into the proteins responsible for the creation of bodies. Well, a living organism is nothing but an assembling of molecules. The sole genuine discrepancy between inorganic and organic matter – it can be a carrot or goldfish – is the main components – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.

Therefore, impromptu life is likely. However, how did life arise? Life, we are familiar with is the outcome of one genetic trick, which has passed down to generations for roughly 4 billion years.

This time of formation also known as the Big Birth among biologists took place after a small package of chemicals found a way to split itself, hence transferring a replication of its genetic code into the primordial soup.

This process ultimately brought bacteria into existence, which continued to be the only life forms on the Earth for 2 billion years. These bacteria over time found a way to utilize water molecules, hence forming the process of photosynthesis and supplying the Earth with oxygen.

Later, some 3.5 billion years ago, the Earth’s earliest ecosystems started to emerge in shallow waters. After oxygen levels attained today’s levels, complicated life forms came into existence, split into those that emit oxygen (such as plants) and those that use it (such as humans).

Therefore, however different living organisms look, all single life forms utilize the same genetic dictionary and “reads” the same code. The similarities between chimpanzees and banana are much more than the discrepancies between them.

Chapter 11 – Although the world enables the living of a numerous number of species, we can consider all life as one.

The statement that reads as there are a lot of diverse species on the Earth is an underemphasis. The number of species is thought to vary between 3 million to 200 million. What a report in The Economist puts forward is that we have probably not yet discovered 97 percent of all species, including both plants and animals. Furthermore, there doesn’t even exist a principal registry of the species that are known to us, rendering us even more confused by the variety of life on the planet. However, in spite of the discrepancies between and among species, every living thing has a connection still.

In 1859, in his book The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin demonstrated that every living thing has a connection with one another and that species undergo differentiation and start to be “fitter” by means of a process of natural selection, hence putting forward a shared common ancestor in the remote history.

Contemporary inspections into our genes and DNA emphasized that humans share with each other many more things than they used to think. For instance, were you to put side by side your DNA and that of another person, it would be easy to see that 99.9 percent of your codes would be precisely the same.

However, the similarities are found outside the same species as well. You might find it surprising and not believe this but roughly half of your DNA would be exactly the same as the DNA of a banana. Furthermore, six-tenth of our genes are perfectly the same as those we see in the fruit fly, and at a minimum nine-tenth of our genes match up on some level with the genes in mice.

What’s even odder, scientists have found that it is possible to share parts of our DNA with species. To give an example, it is possible to put human DNA into specific cells of flies that can “accept” this DNA as though the DNA belonged to them, further implying that life came into existence from a single pattern.

Through this we are able to consider human beings as archives of a long history of change, going as far back as to the times in which life first originated. Examining the rich variety of life resembles seems very much like a miracle. Our last chapter will analyze if this miracle could suddenly come to a halt or not.

Chapter 12 – The Earth is constantly in danger of asteroid impacts, volcanic eruptions, or earthquake destruction.

Even if the Earth has experienced a relatively peaceful time for very long, it shouldn’t suggest that there doesn’t exist perils present within the solar system or even on the Earth itself.

Actually, our solar system is a highly hazardous area to exist.

Many times, the asteroids, objects that follow different orbits within our solar system and are similar to rocks, approach the world in a way that we can deem highly perilous. We can say that at least a billion asteroids fall through near space, and most of these asteroids frequently follow a trajectory close to the Earth.

Actually, More than one hundred million asteroids bigger than ten meters across frequently follow a trajectory close to the Earth’s orbit. Scientists predict that as numerous as 2,000 of these are so big that they can endanger civilization that is known to humanity.

What’s further distressing is the reality that close-misses with destructive asteroids could be occurring roughly twice or three times per week and go completely unnoticed. 

Furthermore, apart from external perils, there are also internal ones, such as earthquakes, which have the potential of occurring at any given time.

An earthquake happens in the scenario where two tectonic plates push each other and create pressure until ultimately, one of them cannot withstand. This is a critical issue for areas like Tokyo, which sits on the meeting point of three tectonic plates.

Moreover, a distinctive kind of earthquake, an intraplate quake, can occur remote distance from plate edges. Because they start out at a highly deep location in the Earth’s crust, we cannot foretell when they will happen. 

Volcanoes pose a threat, too. In 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington, the US state, causing the death of 57 people. Although many of the government’s volcanologists were actively watching and gauging the volcano’s behavior, volcanologists didn’t anticipate something like this. Despite all the scrutinization, Mount St. Helens erupted.

There is a reason to worry since a gigantic volcanic hot spot is positioned straight beneath the western United States. According to scientists’ estimation, it erupts every six millennia, causing a three-meter coat of ash on anything that is situated within 1,600 kilometers.

Very disturbing news for humanity, its last eruption goes back to six millennia ago!

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson Book Review

In the recent several centuries years, humanity has gradually gathered pieces to the puzzle of our existence. Today, humanity has more knowledge with respect to our cosmos, the Earth, and ourselves than anyone could have ever dreamed. However, many things continue to remain as a mystery but the process of scientific exploration never ends!

Download Pdf


Download Epub



Savaş Ateş

I'm a software engineer. I like reading books and writing summaries. I like to play soccer too :) Good Reads Profile: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/106467014-sava-ate

Recent Posts