Littler Books cover of A Short History of Nearly Everything Summary

A Short History of Nearly Everything Summary and Quotes

Bill Bryson

4.8 minutes to read • Updated May 22, 2024

Get full book

Download summary as PDF, eBook/ePub, DOCX

What it's about in one sentence:

A popular and accessible science adventure that explains the universe -- from the Big Bang to the rise of civilisation.

Bullet Point Summary

  1. It takes extreme luck and timing for us to be here.
    1. “Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result -- eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly -- in you.”
    2. 99.99% of species have become extinct.
  2. Science is a vast and fascinating field, but its writings can be dry. The author aims to make science more accessible.
  3. In the 20th century, scientists formulated the Big Bang and inflation theories, positing that all matter rapidly expanded from a tiny, dimensionless point about 13.8 billion years ago, creating the universe.
    1. In 1965, radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson detected persistent interference while trying to use a large antenna in New Jersey, which turned out to be cosmic background radiation left over from the birth of the universe, providing the first concrete evidence for the Big Bang theory.
    2. Around 1% of TV static is a remnant from the Big Bang.
  4. If any condition in our universe had been even slightly different, our extraordinary cosmos supporting life would never have formed.
  5. Space is incomprehensibly vast. Pluto is in our solar system but still billions of miles away and unreachable to this day. The Milky Way alone contains hundreds of billions of stars.
  6. The universe is so vast that it is highly probable that there is intelligent extraterrestrial life out there somewhere.
    1. A 1961 calculation by Frank Drake estimating the number of advanced alien civilizations points to possibly millions just within our Milky Way galaxy, but with average distances between civilizations being over 200 light years, detecting signals from aliens across these unfathomable distances seems unlikely.
  7. The light from distant stars we see left those stars long ago, taking years to span the cosmos to reach us because of the great distance.
  8. Robert Owen Evans was an Australian minister who holds the record for visual discoveries of supernovae (dying stars).
  9. Our solar system improbably coalesced from an enormous gas cloud and specks of dust over four billion years ago.
  10. 500 million years later, Earth's carbon dioxide in the atmosphere created greenhouse conditions to warm the planet enough for organic life to emerge.
  11. One of the first expeditions to measure the dimensions of the Earth (French Geodesic Mission to the Equator) was started by a bet between scientists to see whether the circumference of the Earth was greater around the Equator or around the poles.
  12. Isaac Newton's findings (gravity and laws of motion from Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica) spurred further expeditions to measure Earth's properties and its relationship with the sun.
  13. The Earth weighs almost 6 billion trillion metric tons, and it has an oblate spheroid shape rather than perfect spherical form due to the effects of its spin.
  14. James Hutton wrote opaquely but presciently about mountains being formed by collision of lands.
  15. Charles Lyell popularized uniformitarianism, the theory that changes in the earth's crust during geological history have resulted from the action of continuous and uniform processes.
  16. Though geology and paleontology gained appeal as a genteel hobby, it took time to grasp dinosaur bones' implications that whole species can perish.
  17. Dmitri Mendeleev's mother traveled across Russia so that her son could get an education. Mendeleyev went on to develop the influential periodic table.
  18. “In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one's face.”
  19. Marie and Pierre Curie discovered in 1896 that certain rocks release energy without changing, a phenomenon they named radioactivity.
  20. Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person to win a Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two scientific fields.
    1. She won the Nobel Prize for Physics for her pioneering research on radioactivity.
    2. She won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of the elements polonium and radium using techniques she invented.
  21. The discovery of radioactivity allowed scientists like Clair Cameron Patterson to accurately date Earth's age (4.54 ± 0.05 billion years).
  22. In the early 1900s:
    1. Albert Einstein, despite failing exams and struggling to find academic jobs early on, published the theory of relativity, which states that space and time are relative to the observer, and that spacetime, which combines 3D space with time as a 4th dimension, is curved by gravity from objects with enormous masses.
    2. Albert Einstein formulated the famous equation E=mc^2, which shows that mass and energy are interchangeable, demonstrating that matter contains immense potential energy. For instance, the mass in the human body carries enough energy to equal 30 large hydrogen bombs if fully released.
    3. Max Planck's quantum theory suggests that light acts both like a particle and wave.
    4. We learned more about the structure of atoms through scientists like Niels Bohr and Ernest Rutherford.
  23. Despite social inequality, women made critical contributions to astronomy. Henrietta Swan Leavitt's inventions allowed us to measure astronomical distances in space and understand the true vastness of the universe.
  24. Edwin Hubble built upon Leavitt's work and discovered that the universe is expanding.
  25. Scientists learned about subatomic particles.
    1. Superstring theory suggests the universe is made of tiny quarks that exist in up to 11 dimensions, most of which are imperceptible to humans.
    2. Quantum Theory, which describes the behavior of subatomic particles, is a modern developing scientific field with more questions than answers.
  26. Electromagnetic forces and gravity are two forces that explain the universe, but they're very different from each other and currently there's no unified “theory of everything”.
  27. Exact distance from the sun, a molten core generating a protective atmosphere, a perfectly sized stabilizing moon formed by an ancient collision, and an intricately timed sequence of events -- these all had to occur for Earth to foster any life at all.
  28. We shouldn't presume perpetual stability.
  29. We learned how dinosaurs met their doom from the cataclysmic K-T asteroid impact 66 million years ago, and we still face extinction threats from large asteroids that cross Earth's path periodically.
  30. Some scientists estimate near-misses by civilization-ending asteroids happen two to three times per week.
  31. Scientists have limited understanding of inner seismic forces causing earthquakes, including Yellowstone's active supervolcano that could erupt catastrophically anytime.
  32. Until the 1950s, most of what we knew about the ocean and the high altitudes were from daring explorers. Today we have a better understanding of Earth's abundant marine biodiversity and its delicate balance, which is being dangerously disrupted by toxic waste dumping.
  33. We need to be mindful of humans' narrow niche near sea level, since we quickly perish in deep water or at high altitudes.
  34. Life started with simple microbes around 4 million years ago, then they became plants, then sea creatures, then land life.
  35. Our world still has numerous undiscovered biodiversity, especially in rainforests and oceans.
    1. “As much as 97% of the world's plant and animal species may still await discovery.”
  36. Microbes account for at least 80% of all biomass on the planet. Most of them are neutral or beneficial to humans, but the 0.1% that are pathogenic can be deadly because microbes are extremely resilient.
  37. In the 1800s, Charles Darwin stated that humans came from simpler organisms and evolved via natural selection, where organisms best adapted to environments survive and reproduce.
    1. Darwin hid his groundbreaking theory for almost 15 years, fearing religious persecution.
  38. In the 1930s scientists like Gregor Mendel integrated Darwinian evolution with heredity genetics to formulate the modern synthesis explaining how traits are passed by genes.
  39. Modern genetics reveals that “every living thing is an elaboration on a single original plan.”
    1. “About half the chemical functions that take place in a banana are fundamentally the same as the chemical functions that take place in you.”
  40. “There are three stages in scientific discovery. First, people deny that it is true, then they deny that it is important; finally they credit the wrong person.”
  41. Scientists believe that the ice age was caused by variations in Earth's orbit and atmospheric changes.
  42. Increased carbon monoxide could lead to another ice age or global warming.
  43. Pollution is damaging our atmosphere. Our ozone layer has a hole that's leaking space radiation into Earth.
  44. There is sparse fossil evidence to clearly explain human evolution. There remains a lot of discoveries to be made in this area.
  45. Human activity has caused numerous extinctions. Life of any kind is so improbably lucky and precious that we need to fight to protect it or we might lose it.

A Short History of Nearly Everything: Resources