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A Short History of Nearly Everything

A journey into the most intriguing and intractable questions that science seeks to answer

By Bill Bryson
22-minute read
Audio available
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003) offers an enlightening summary of contemporary scientific thinking relating to all aspects of life, from the creation of the universe to our relationship with the tiniest of bacteria.

  • Adults who want to brush up on their foundational science knowledge
  • People interested in the origin of the universe and life on Earth 
  • Anyone fascinated by the world’s greatest scientific mind

Bill Bryson is an American best-selling author who writes on topics as diverse as the English language, science, and travel. He is also well-known for his humorous portrait of Great Britain in Notes From a Small Island, voted by BBC4 Radio listeners as the book most representative of their country.

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A Short History of Nearly Everything

A journey into the most intriguing and intractable questions that science seeks to answer

By Bill Bryson
  • Read in 22 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 14 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Synopsis

A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003) offers an enlightening summary of contemporary scientific thinking relating to all aspects of life, from the creation of the universe to our relationship with the tiniest of bacteria.

Key idea 1 of 14

The big bang theory states that the universe developed from an incredibly dense point, and at terrific speed.

It’s 1965. Two radio astronomers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, are working with a large communication antenna in New Jersey. They’re trying to find a bit of radio silence so that they can perform experiments. But it’s proving tricky. Wherever they point the antenna, there’s persistent interference – a weird, unfocused hiss that just won’t go away. 

Penzias and Wilson try everything to get rid of the hiss. They rebuild their instruments. They rejig and retest their systems. They climb onto the antenna and clean off the bird poo. The hiss just won’t go away.

In exasperation, they call Robert Dicke, an astrophysicist at Princeton. When Dicke hears their story, he instantly knows what they’re on to – it’s cosmic background radiation left over from the birth of the universe. By complete accident, Penzias and Wilson have found the first concrete evidence of the big bang – the moment when our universe was born.

Here’s the key message: The big bang theory states that the universe developed from an incredibly dense point, and at terrific speed.

So what exactly happened when the universe was formed?

The big bang theory states that the universe began as a single point of nothingness called a singularity. This point was so compact that it had no dimensions. Confined in this single, infinitely dense point were all the building blocks of the universe.

Suddenly – and no one quite knows why – this singularity exploded. In a single moment, all the future contents of the universe were flung across the void. 

The sheer scale and speed of this explosion are hard to fathom. Scientists believe that immediately after the big bang, the universe doubled in size every 10-34 seconds. It may be hard to grasp just how fast that is, so let’s put it another way. In just three minutes, the universe grew from the tiniest of specks to over 100 billion light-years in diameter. 98% percent of all matter, along with the fundamental forces that govern the universe, were created in the time it takes you to make a sandwich.

So going back to Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson and their hiss, what exactly was it that they had discovered?

The intense energy unleashed during the big bang eventually cooled and transformed into microwaves. It was these microwaves that Penzias and Wilson picked up as a hiss. And you don’t even need a huge communications antenna to see this evidence; anyone with a television can manage. Just detune your TV, and listen for that weird static you get between stations. Around 1 percent of this static is a remnant from the big bang – a relic of our universe’s earliest moments.

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