A Short History of Nearly Everything – Some Corrections

I have just finished the book “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson and I thought it was absolutely fantastic. There were a couple of mistakes that I noticed (and perhaps others that I did not! – and of course by ‘noticed’ I mean didn’t believe the numbers and so checked them out myself) that I just wanted to mention. This post just provides a few scientific corrections, and is meant in no way as disrespect to what I believe to be a truly brilliant book.

This is the kind of book that everyone should read – whether you are interested in science or not. It does a wonderful job of explaining such a variety of topics, from the creation of the Universe to the evolution of man.

On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over a thousand feet away and Pluto would be a mile and a half distant (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn’t be able to see it anyway).

Okay, let us assume that the radius of a pea is about \(4\) millimetres, or \(4 \times 10^{-3}\) metres. The mean radius of the Earth is \(6.371 \times 10^3\) metres, or the peas radius is \(\frac{1}{1592750000}\) of the Earth’s. We will use this fraction as the scale for the rest of the system. The distance between the Earth and Jupiter is \(5.808\) AU so on our scale that turns out to be \(1790\) feet. Pluto (which is \(32.15\) AU away) would be \(1.88\) miles away. So in this sense Bryson underestimated their distance. As for the size of Pluto, it has a mean radius of \(1.173 \times 10^6\) metres, so on our scale that would become \(7.4 \times 10^{-4}\) metres, i.e. a total diameter of  1.5 millimetres, very visible and about 75 times larger than a median bacterium!

Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this i can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them, rather more than the number of seconds contained in half a million years.

I think the approximate size of a ‘dot’ is about \(0.5\) millimetres, so that means the area, in metres, of such a dot is: \(\pi\cdot 0.00025^2=1.963\times 10^{-7}\). The size of a proton is \(8.77 \times 10^{-16}\) metres, and so the number of protons that would fit in such a dot is \(223,887,732\). Or \(2233\) times less than the Bryson stated number. As for the number of seconds in half a million years: \(1 \mbox{ year } = 31556926 \mbox{ seconds}\) and \(500,000 \mbox{ years } = 15,800,000,000,000 \mbox{ seconds}\). Quite a lot more than what was stated, in fact, \(500,000,000,000\) seconds is only 15844 years.

 Even so, it [the Voyager spacecraft] took them nine years to reach Uranus and a dozen to cross the orbit of Pluto.

Actually, Voyager 1 never got to Uranus nor cross the orbit of Pluto, only Voyager 2 did.

[Betelgeuse is] fifty thousand light years away.

Betelgeuse is around \(643 \pm 143\) light years away.

It is thought that our entire planet may contain, at any given moment, fewer than twenty francium atoms.

There is almost certainly a lot more than twenty francium atoms, according to Adloff and Kauffman, there is 550 grams in the Earth’s crust.

This entry was posted in Science and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to A Short History of Nearly Everything – Some Corrections

  1. hayley says:

    wow…you would think this stuff would be checked, especially the distance of Betelgeuse. it would amuse me to see a response from the author or publisher on these mistakes

    • Sean says:

      I was also surprised by the mistakes. But given these I assume there is probably others in topic areas that I don’t know anything about. Although that shouldn’t (and didn’t for me) detract from a wonderful book.

  2. pack says:

    it’s possible that given he may not really have understood how to figure such stuff out he took an incorrect factual source as reference,
    he appears to mostly be trying to relate scale to human perception and while it’s factually incorrect he’s got the right idea

  3. Sean says:

    I completely agree – that is why I was careful at the start of the post to point out that it isn’t a ‘dig’. The book is one of the best I have ever read, nonetheless, as the book is all about science I felt I should at least write down the corrections somewhere!

  4. Peter Norcliffe says:

    Bill Bryson is my favourite author, or at least grabs my interest and chuckle button more than any other, which I’m sure amounts to the same thing. I have read A Short History Of Nearly Everything several times, it is the sort of book with lots of detail and scientific information that I feel compelled to refer back to, not least, for a good laugh. As regards the mistakes -who cares! If it gets people reading, checking and inspired into a scientific career or into comedy then he has done a fantastic job.
    I was a very slow learner and attended a school that favoured ridicule as a teaching method. We were quickly segregated into rows of potential achievement, the Brylcreme boys with ties and a handkerchief sat by the window while the farthest row had the dribblers who had crinkly white hair and birthdays in March and were often named Bahahahabra or Baaarry. Me and a lad called Nobby were the only two in that row who stood upright, the whole row were basically ignored by the teaching staff other than the occasional ridicule. As a consequence, and because I was lazy, I achieved nothing at school, I can guarantee that I am the most uneducated person in any room, but over the last 30 years or so I have been inspired by the likes of Mr. Bryson and I can now string a sentence together, all be it with rubbishy grammar and punctuation. Three cheers for Mr. Bryson and a “spell checker”. Long may they continue.

  5. Lindsey Smith says:

    I also enjoy Bryson’s books but he did not check out the accuracy of some of his scientific information. I am a Ceramic Engineer and one of the first lessons I was taught in an introductory course was that the idea of ancient glass windows “flowing” is nothing but an urban legend. Glass is considered a “super cooled liquid” in that it has no discernible melting point. However, unless you are talking about millions (if not billions) of years, it does not flow at room temperature to any degree that can be measured. Any quick search of the internet by Bryson would have found numerous sources to support this. The reason that some centuries old panes of glass are sometimes thicker at the bottom is that glass making was quite challenging at the time and an installer would naturally put the heavier portion at the bottom.

  6. Terry Tedstone says:

    I enjoyed the book also,as well as other Bill Bryson books. I noticed the point about relative size of Pluto and Earth. I came across this site when checking another point I thought doubtful. In the chapter Dangerous Beauty, it states that – “It took thousands of workers to clear 1.8 billion tonnes of debris from the 6.5 hectares of the World Trade Center site”. This should probably read 1.8 million. The website History Ground Zero says that 1.8 MILLION tons were taken to Landfill. This would not include reclaimed steel. Which would possibly add another 500,ooo tons. So 1.8 billions would be hundreds of times larger than actual.

  7. Keith Moseley says:

    There are many more mistakes and I am annotating my copy furiously. As I am typing on a phone I’ll send a list later. As a general rule, it is the astronomy and physics that is least accurate. I am amazed that this book went to print without, it seems, even elementary checks.

    • Sean says:

      I would be very interested to see any other mistakes you have found, and if you allow, I will add them to this page (under your name of course). Thanks, Sean.

  8. carolina says:

    Another one from The Fire Below, refers to Johannesburg as the most productive diamond-mining city in the world. Jhb for gold, Kimberley for diamonds…and kimbelite pipes are mentioned.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.