Bill Bryson:

"A Short History of Nearly Everything" (2003)

(Copyright © 2018 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
First of all, this is not a history of human civilization. The "everything" here has to be taken literally: it is a history of all the atoms in the universe, how they came to be, how they came to become part of living things, how they turned into us. The main merit of the book is not so much to have condensed so many strands of cosmology, geology, biology and so on into one book but to have littered the story with countless trivia on how we got to learn all those things. The first four parts are a summary of the story of the universe (from the Big Bang to the Solar System) that has been told in many books of astrophysics. Starting with the fifth part, things get more interesting: how cells self-assembled into bodies and started getting bigger and moved to land, and then all the mass extinctions and eventually the rise of Homo Sapiens. This story is told in a way that, to my knowledge, had never been told, amassing data from multiple disciplines.

The way he makes it easy for anyone to understand is also impressive. Take for example his one page history of life.

"If you imagine the 4,500-bilion-odd years of Earth's history compressed into a normal earthly day, then life begins very early, about 4 A.M., with the rise of the first simple, single-celled organisms, but then advances no further for the next sixteen hours. Not until almost 8:30 in the evening, with the day five-sixths over, has Earth anything to show the universe but a restless skin of microbes. Then, finally, the first sea plants appear, followed twenty minutes later by the first jellyfish and the enigmatic Ediacaran fauna first seen by Reginald Sprigg in Australia. At 9:04 P.M. trilobites swim onto the scene, followed more or less immediately by the shapely creatures of the Burgess Shale. Just before 10 P.M. plants begin to pop up on the land. Soon after, with less than two hours left in the day, the first land creatures follow. Thanks to ten minutes or so of balmy weather, by 10:24 the Earth is covered in the great carboniferous forests whose residues give us all our coal, and the first winged insects are evident. Dinosaurs plod onto the scene just before 11 P.M. and hold sway for about three-quarters of an hour. At twenty-one minutes to midnight they vanish and the age of mammals begins. Humans emerge one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight. The whole of our recorded history, on this scale, would be no more than a few seconds, a single human lifetime barely an instant. Plants colonized land about 450 million years ago and animals followed a few million years later (actually the oldest fossil of a land animal is 350 million years old, a giant millipede found in Scotland). This was one of the great moments in the history of life. Life was born in water. Moving to land, that is hot and dry, is not trivial. Plants and animals needed to breathe oxygen from the air. Because oxygen was abundant (more than today), animals grew larger and larger. Another key moment in the history of life is when some animals learned to fly. The first land vertebrates, that came right after the mass Devonian extinction (365 million years ago), were amphibians and reptiles. These evolved into dynosaurs. Everybody is familiar with the mass extinction of the dinosaurs (the Cretaceous–Tertiary, also known as the "KT event", of 65 million years ago, here blamed on a meteor), but the worst extinction ever was the Permian one, about 250 million years ago, which wiped out about 95% of all species. For each of the great extinctions the mystery is not only what caused it but also why some species survived. For example, the dinosaurs succumbed to the KT meteor, but crocodiles and snakes survived, and so did 90% of marine species.

Did you know that

  • Darwin never used the expression "survival of the fittest"
  • The first five editions of the "Origin" didn't use the word "evolution" (the sixth one did because everybody already was)
  • Darwin develop his theory of evolution in 1844 but was afraid to publish it
  • Wallace discovered the theory of evolution via variation and selection in 1858
  • Patrick Matthew, a humble gardener, had already discovered it in 1831, but published it in "On Naval Timber and Arboriculture" explains the evolution of species by variation and selection
  • Darwin's "Origin of Species" never discusses the origin of species, only how species become fitter
  • "The Origin of Species" never said that humans descend from apes (Darwin wrote it in the "Descent of Man" after many others had reached the same conclusion)
  • Fleeming Jenkin showed that Darwin's theory actually made no mathematical sense (beneficial traits should be diluted in successive generations, not reinforced)
  • Darwin never realized that Mendel's theory was the solution to this paradox, and Mendel never realized that Darwin's theory needed his to be complete
  • Darwin's bestseller was not "The Origin of Species" but a gardening book, "The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits"
  • Darwin's theory was considered only speculation until the 1930s when the fusion with Mendel's theory solved all the outstanding problems
That's just an example of the trivia that you learn while going through this story of the universe's 13 billion years.