This is a super readable and entertaining layman’s overview of the state of scientific knowledge about the universe and humans as of 2004. If you don’t feel like you know enough about science in general, or you’re looking to get more familiar with various fields you’e never paid attention to, I can’t imagine there are too many more accessible books than this one.
Because this is Bill Bryson, the book is very entertaining and highly readable. Though it’s nearly 500 pages, I read it in no time at all and didn’t really want to put it down. Though I’ve read a number of popular science books in my life, I’m not sure I’ve ever read one this readable that covered this much.
Bryson doesn’t just update us on where science is at at the dawn of the 21st century, he also tells some of the stories of the scientists who helped get us to this point, and some of the stories of how various sciences evolved. This is a good angle, in my opinion, both because it adds a human element to what is often a subject that is treated as if it is entirely objective, and because it’s a constant reminder throughout the book that what we know and don’t know is evolving constantly. (You know how those awful creationists always say “teach the controversy?” Well, Bryson teaches the real controversies, the ones that actually rely on disagreements about evidence.)
The one problem for me is that I read the book in 2018. This is not Bryson’s fault, obviously, but the problem with a book like this is that it has dated rapidly. If he’s put out a new edition, I’m unaware and read this original. That means that some of the claims he makes about the state of our knowledge of the universe are just completely out of date. For me, I noticed the section about Pluto. I suspect much of the stuff about early man is now out of date too. And there’s likely a lot more I missed which has been improved upon in the ensuing 14 years. That’s the problem with reading a book like this over a decade after it was published. It’s just not going to be up-to-date.
But so what? It’s worth the read anyway.