Wonder in the Awe: A Review of ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’

Having no official scientific training and probably identifying with most who sat through the required science courses of high school and the general education credits of a liberal arts college, I opened Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ with a genuine curiosity.  I had never read Bryson specifically before.  The book had been a gift from my parent’s for Christmas 2014.  The work was billed as being an explanation of the current, major scientific theories across major disciplines.  What were the updated scientific ideas (at least as of 2003 when the book was published) in the fields of astronomy, astrophysics, geology, biology, chemistry, physics in general and more was the aim of discussion.

Bryson begins like any devout naturalist describing how we are all fortunate to be here and that there is a bit of a complex mystery as to why atoms assemble together into these unique and spiffy creations which are us.  He finally notes ”The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting- fleeting indeed.  Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes past, or at some point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will shut you down, silently disassemble, and go off to be other things.  And that’s it for you.’ (Page 2, paperback edition).  Some of us may gulp at the undeniable fleeting breadth of life and perhaps feel a twinge of conviction related to how many hours we have spent watching Star Wars (well, maybe not, after all, it’s Star Wars!).  Most of us may feel a sort of pressure packed time-crunch.  Less than 650,000 hours to grow, learn, explore this amazing yet frightful world, to love those in our lives and to pursue the Divine.  On the latter point, I’m not sure about Bryson’s personal beliefs related to God but he has certainly written ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ from a strictly secular scientific position.

Even with Bryson writing from this point of view, I can confidently say this book had a profound impact and implications on my Christian theology in revering who God is, seeing aspects of His character through general revelation, and even sobering reminders of creation’s fallenness.

Near the beginning of the work, he discusses science’s current grasp on the Big Bang prior to the universe existing: ‘Time doesn’t exist. There is no past for it to emerge from. And so, from nothing, our universe begins. In a single blinding pulse, a moment of glory much too swift and expansive for any form of words, the singularity assumes heavenly dimensions, space beyond conception. In the first lively second…is produced gravity and the other forces that govern physics. In less than a minute the universe is a million billion miles across and growing fast. There is a lot of heat now, ten billion degrees of it, enough to begin the nuclear reactions that create the lighter elements-principally hydrogen and helium, with a dash (about one atom in a hundred million) of lithium. In three minutes, 98% of all matter there is or will ever be has been produced. We have a universe. It is a place of the most wondrous and gratifying possibility, and beautiful, too. And it was all done in about the time it takes to make a sandwich.’ (Page 10)

Being a committed theist and believing that Jesus was transcendent to the birth of our universe, reading this section- beautifully described by Bryson’s prose- filled me with a worshipful awe. Trying to wrap my head around my life here on earth, my memories and experiences and general knowledge- indeed everything I know- and contemplating billions and billions of years before when none of what we describe as our reality existed is beyond mind-boggling.  And, as I believe, there was Jesus (within the Holy Trinity).
Bryson also articulates what many theists would call a form of the teleological ( design) argument for the existence of God later in this chapter but without calling it that: ‘What is extraordinary from our point of view is how well it turned out for us. If the universe had formed just a tiny bit differently- if gravity were fractionally stronger or weaker, if the expansion had proceeded just a little more slowly or swiftly- then there might never have been stable elements to make you and me and the ground we stand on. Had gravity been a trifle stronger, the universe itself might have collapsed like a badly erected tent, without precisely the right values to give it the right dimensions and density and component parts. Had it been weaker, however, nothing would have coalesced. The universe would have remained forever a dull, scattered void.’ (Page 15)

He discusses that scientists postulate whether one of these options is in fact the case and the universe will eventually come to an end at some unknown point. Considering, however, the sheer mathematics involved to comprehend not just that there is something here (a universe, a solar system, planets) but that human beings exist on this blue and green planet called Earth and other life exists as well is staggering. There is a razor edge fine line hovering over utter catastrophe that keeps this whole enterprise of existence moving along.

From the beginnings of our vast universe, Bryson propels forward discussing evolutionary history on earth.  The dinosaurs are discussed within the fossil record and we are still grappling with how much we don’t know.  The book moves effortlessly from chemistry matters to Einstein’s theory of relativity and not only how that theory influenced science but transcended into virtually all worldviews as a monumental idea to be wrestled with.

There are terrifying parts of the book.  When discussing continental drift, we learn how fragile the earth is that constantly moves underneath our feet.  Earthquakes from the past and their destructive force are brought to our attention and we are reminded that there is no guarantee that a huge earth movement won’t happen today or tomorrow (particularly in the Seattle area where geological experts have warned us to expect the “big one“).

From the unlikely rise of life (specifically according to a purely naturalistic worldview), Bryson discusses how we came to understand life and it’s evolution.  “Darwin’s Singular Notion” is a compelling chapter not only about the idea of survival of the fittest but is also an excellent mini-biography of the revolutionary scientist himself.  The chapter made me curious to read more about Charles Darwin and I’m particularly interested in his personal struggles with his own theories.

“A Short History of Nearly Everything” is incredibly well-written with appropriate wit and a truly engaging trip through the understanding of scientific disciplines and ideas.  In a very big way (and much like Terrence Malick’s film “The Tree of Life” which I greatly admire), we begin to see what a miracle it is that we are here.  Bryson continually helps us with this point: “If you two parents hadn’t bonded just when they did- possibly to the second, possibly to the nanosecond- you wouldn’t be here.  And if their parents hadn’t bonded in a precisely timely manner, you wouldn’t be here either.  And if their parents hadn’t done likewise, and their parents before them, and so on, obviously and indefinitely, you wouldn’t be here.  Push backwards through time and these ancestral debts begin to add up. Go back just eight generations to about the time of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born, and already there are over 250 people on whose timely couplings your existence depends.  Continue further, tot he time of Shakespeare and the Mayflower Pilgrims, and you have no fewer than 16,384 ancestors earnestly exchanging genetic material in a way that would, eventually and miraculously, result in you.” (pg 397)

About dangeroushope

Striving to follow Christ, love people and learn more about the world.
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