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.

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18 thoughts on “A Short History of Nearly Everything – Some Corrections

  1. 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

    1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

    1. 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. 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.

  9. p. 211, 2nd para: “It rises exponentially, so that a 7.3 quake is fifty ties more powerful than a 6.3 earthquake and 2,500 time more powerful than a 5.3 earthquake.”

    Incorrect. log base 10 of 7.3-log base 10 of 6.3=log base 10 of 1.0 =10. Similarly, 7.3-5.3=2.0 and log base 10 of 2.0=100. So, it should read, a 7.3 quake is ten times more powerful than a 6.3 earthquake and 100 times more powerful than a 5.3 earthquake.

  10. p.214 top paragraph: “New Madrid [earthquakes]…random as lightening. The next one could be under Chicago or Paris…”

    Incorrect, and this notion represents a serious misstatement relative to the dangers associated with earthquake probabilities in general and New Madrid in particular.

    Even wikipedia correctly states, “The New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ) is made up of reactivated faults that formed when what is now North America began to split or rift apart during the breakup of the supercontinent Rodinia…about 750 million years ago. Faults were created along the rift and igneous rocks formed from magma that was being pushed towards the surface. The resulting rift system failed but has remained…a scar or zone of weakness… deep underground.”

    This quake is not considered random by professional geologists! Quite the contrary, the likelihood of another large quake in the same area is high. 4,000 earthquakes have occurred in the area since 1974. “Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that a serious earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone could result in ‘the highest economic losses due to a natural disaster in the United States…[with] widespread and catastrophic damage across Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and particularly Tennessee, where a 7.7 magnitude quake or greater would cause damage to tens of thousands of structures affecting water distribution, transportation systems, and other vital infrastructure. ‘ “[wikipedia]

  11. sean–oops, the new madrid reference is on p.214. And, he most dangerous statement really is, “New Madrid has been silent ever since–but not surprisingly, since such episodes have never been known to happen in the same place twice.” That is a horribly inaccurate and misleading statement!

  12. Also glass isn’t still molten and flowing forever. His example of ancient glass being thicker at the bottom is due to manufacturing techniques, not flowing liquids. And one more that is a myth is the divers and the Big squeeze, this has never happened and never will. Good book on the whole.

  13. I love the book. But, I did question his remark that if a tunnel could be drilled from the earth’s surface to its very centre and a brick dropped down the hole it would take just 45 minutes to reach the centre. This is surely not possible. The radius of the earth is 6371km. A free falling house brick would travel at terminal velocity of around 240km/hour. That means it would take about 26 hours – not 45 minutes!

  14. P 281 has New Zealand as a dumper of nuclear waste into the ocean. NZ has no nuclear facilities and was world leading in its nuclear free stance in the 1980’s. Protested nuclear testing by the French in the Pacific and banned nuclear powered and potentially nuclear armed naval vessels.

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