Bill Bryson's A Short History of Everything

10 April 2005 at :00 am

Sermon at Matins, 10 April 2005
Westminster Abbey
by the Reverend Dr. Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian

Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything 1

Westminster Abbey is known throughout the world as the burial place of the greatest British scientists - and if they are not buried here they may still have a memorial in the Abbey. Recently, the memorial to Isaac Newton, which stands above the place where he is buried, has come in for a great deal of attention. Not five paces away is the simple stone that marks the burial place of a man whose thought changed our entire understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe to a similar or even greater degree: Charles Darwin.

Both Newton and Darwin play a major role in a remarkable book which has for months now been at or near the top of the best-seller lists: Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. To capture the thought of two such giants within the pages of a single book is a remarkable achievement, but Bryson’s book does even more than that. It aims to tell the story of our universe, our species and of each individual; in other words, ‘nearly everything’. Bryson knows perfectly well it can’t really be a history of ‘nearly everything’ but he says he hopes that by the time we finish it ‘we may feel as if it is’. Certainly, the sweep is remarkable, and everything is handled with the characteristic Bryson light touch. Not only has he covered the ground, but he’s also made his book easy to read.

Bryson of course is not a research scientist; he’s not even a scientist at all, but he is a man with a remarkably lively and questioning mind and a genius for explaining complicated ideas simply. I have no idea how much of his science he gets wrong. From the commendations by serious journals with scientifically well-informed readers, I suspect not too much. The importance of the book for me as a Christian and a theologian is that it runs through the common narrative about our universe and about life on earth which informs the way almost all educated people think nowadays. Bryson gives the narrative of Big Bang, an expanding universe, the evolution of life on earth that is assumed in the teaching of physics, chemistry and biology in pretty well all our schools and in all our universities. If we exclude those who for religious reasons reject this narrative outright, we can say that he reflects back to us, in a brilliantly accessible way, the assumptions that educated people of our time make about their place in the universe and their existence upon earth.

What, in terms of human thought, is radically new is that this is a narrative which unfolds quite without reference to God. Bryson does not reject belief in God, nor does he attack belief in God. It is simply that in telling his story he sees, like the philosopher Laplace two hundred years ago, ‘no need of that hypothesis’. Actually, God does make two, brief appearances, both in epigraphs. The first is ironic. Bryson quotes Pope’s famous lines on Newton:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.

And in the epigraph to the whole book, Bryson tells how the philosopher Leo Szilard once announced to his friend Hans Bethe that he was thinking of keeping a diary: ‘I don’t intend to publish. I am merely going to record the facts for the information of God.’ Don’t you think God knows the facts?’ Bethe asked. ‘Yes,’ said Szilard. ‘He knows the facts but He does not know this version of the facts.’ In quoting this, Bryson is not, of course, making a serious point about God, but he is making a serious point about his own freedom as a writer to tell in his own way the version of the factsthat he wants to tell. Freedom for him is somehow built into the system.

I really do wonder – and this is not a criticism - how interested Bryson is in ‘the facts’. He isinterested in telling us ‘the facts’ as the best scientists see them today, but he can never resist the revealing human details about the way scientists work. Bryson is incorrigibly interested in the way humans come to think about ‘the facts’. But his approach also implies a warning against thinking that the facts are the facts and they must be accepted without question. Even the massive and widely assumed narrative that he gives about the origin and development of ‘nearly everything’ is very much a work in progress. The ‘facts’ are always the facts as they are known by human beingsand if they are the facts known by human beings they can always be corrected, improved upon, reinterpreted, seen in a new light. The history of the universe that Bryson sketches is not the last word, and he wouldn’t want us to think that it is. Openness, like freedom, is built into the system.

In his final chapter Bryson draws a moral from his tale. This is a chapter about extinction and the extraordinary wanton destructiveness of human beings. ‘If you were designing an organism to look after life in our lonely cosmos, to monitor where it is going and keep a record of where it has been, you wouldn’t choose human beings for the job,’ he laments. And then he goes on, ‘But here’s an extremely salient point: we have been chosen, by fate or providence or whatever you wish to call it. As far as we can tell, we are the best there is. We may be all there is. It’s an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe’s supreme achievement and it’s worst nightmare simultaneously’ (p. 572). It’s also a thought that opens the door just a chink to the bit of ‘nearly everything’ that Bryson doesn’t discuss.

For this is the point where Bryson crosses the line and moves into ethics: to put words into his mouth, ‘If all these things in the narrative I have given you are true, how then’, he asks, ‘ought we to live?’ And the answer is: ‘Far, far less destructively.’ But how are we to do that?’, we might in our turn ask – and that takes us into the whole question of how we organise our lives, both individually and corporately. We know, for example that the global poor cannot afford to live in a way that does not destroy the environment, and the global rich, like most of us in Britain, will not. If we are ‘the living universe’s supreme achievement and its worst nightmare’, Bryson is offering us something remarkably like the Christian doctrines of creation and of sin, always without naming God.

It would be easy to read Bryson’s book as indeed a book about ‘nearly everything’ because it covers the origin and development of the universe and of the human race – but we also need to notice what is excluded: it doesn’t cover ethics, history, politics, or art. Bryson’s is a book about cosmology- a word taken directly from the Greek work cosmos, meaning ‘whole’ or ‘everything’. He reminds us, though, that his subject is ‘nearly everything’ - which leaves open the possibility, I would say the probability, that talking about and interpreting the cosmos might indeed require the language of poetry, art, and imagination, all those bits of ‘everything’ traditionally associated with religion. Bryson’s book has been written with a wonderfully imaginative, playful use of language and an irrepressible love of life. But if the story is as he tells it, from where, one might ask, does the freedom come to tell it as he does; why is the universe not a closed system? How is it we so obstinately believe we are free to choose what we say and how we tell our own version of ‘the facts’? For me, as a Christian, it is not enough to say that ‘fate or providence or whatever you want to call it’ gave him that free imagination and that passionate concern for our human stewardship of this planet. Read his book, by all means, as a brilliant short history of ‘nearly everything’; read it as a history of how scientists have come to think about ‘nearly everything’ today; and if it leaves you humbled and astonished at the wonder of the universe and the destructiveness of human beings then remember that these are the raw materials for what Jews and Christians and Muslims call belief in God.

Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian

1 London: Black Swan edition, 2004.

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