Explain Bill Bryson to me

He uses the glass flowing to the bottom of old cathedral glass explanation, for one.

Here’s a critique of another of his books:

[QUOTE=Small ClangerHe is also guilty of the occasional gratuitous use of the word ‘fuck’******.[/QUOTE]
Perhaps he was trying to win a Rory.

A list of the errors he makes and basic corrections to them would be nearly as long as his book, if not longer. I’d have to go back and skim through the book again, but from my recollection he made errors on the age of the universe, timeline for the development of life, discussions on relativity, atomic theory, et cetera. One in particular I recall was in regard to the effects of an meteorite impact upon Earth; he claimed that the shockwave from the impact would propagate at nearly the speed of light and cover the planet in a black cloud within an hour. This isn’t just wrong; it’s stupidly, incontrovertably wrong in ways that are obvious to anyone who has even a basic technical background. And yet, no doubt readers of Brysons magnum opus scientia are probably repeating this factoid to their friends and relatives.

He repeats another urban legand about glass being thicker at the bottom of the pane than the top due to flow of the “supercooled liquid”, which is another total wrongism: glass is an amorphous solid (that is, it lacks an internal crystaline structure) and the flow rate of glass is negligable. Old glass is usually inconsistant in thickness (and often full of voids and inclusions to boot) because of the then-crude manufacturing processes. If glass panes are thicker at the bottom, it’s because the glazier oriented that way when he installed it into the frame.

He also offers up a number of fanstical stories about famous personas in science that are largely unsubstantiated lore, conjecture, and ad hominin. Oh that wacky Fred Hoyle and his panspermia and bad science fiction, and the virginal Isaac Newton sticking needles in his eye socket, har har. After skimming through that section I wanted to track down Bryson and slap him in the face with a wet trout. There are any number of writiers–John McPhee, David Quammen, and Steven J. Gould off the top of my head–who can cover the idiosyncrasies of eccentric scientists without making them sound like moronic buffoons.

This isn’t to say that he’s the only science writer ever to make errors; heck, in Cosmos, Carl Sagan makes a number of errors when ranging outside of his domain of knowledge (particularly his discussion of the evolution of the samuari crab), and several other claims that are suspect. But I’ve never seen a book about science (outside of “creation science” and other pseudoscientific fields) that is so consistantly erroneous about everything. Bryson, I understand, claims to have had the book vetted by experts in the various fields it covers, an assertion I find ludicrous giving the gross mistakes within. It’s certainly a big task–overwhelming big, in fact–to write a book about the “history of everything”, and such a tome can only be expected to cover topics in a superficial manner, but Bryson isn’t even correct in superficial ways; he’s just persistantly wrong.

Beyond that, I have to admit to not really being taken by his humor, either. That’s probably more me than Bryson; after a dozen or so pages of his prose, I feel like I can predict the punchline that is coming at the end of the paragraph, and I’m usually more or less correct, so reading him feels like listening to a first grader tell knock-knock jokes. In general, he seems more interested in setting up his reader for a joke than accurately conveying knowledge, and I just find that irritating.


I’m pretty much of the same mind, and I kind of agree with the OP as well. A Lost Continent is funny, but Bryson does seem to be driving somewhat frantically from place to place, on a fairly flimsy premise. I liked his book on language, because while he gets some things wrong, he has some wonderful anecdotes and factoids. The one that sticks in my head is how few Latin words got into Old English, though the Romans were in Britain for centuries.

Well, maybe not, since several here said that there are a myriad of mistakes in his books. That book was an odd one; the tone was uneven, as well as the information provided. It almost feels unfinished to me–or that Bryson got over-ambitious.
I like Bryson’s humor-only once did it seem out of place. In one of his works, he rips into the guy working at McDonald’s. That jarred.

I enjoy his travel books most. I like his snark re American towns. Most of them are quite ugly–we seem not to build to suit the landscape so much as to suit ourselves. And the tourist areas are for the most part Disneyfied and plastic. He admits in his book about America that he is looking for a fictious town based on many old movies-of course real life won’t compare.

I now want to go to Australia to see the things he described. I love the UK, but also love his take on it. AWITW was his best book, IMO. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

The exact words are “Radiating outward at almost the speed of light would be the initial shockwave.” This strikes me as being vbery poorly worded indeed; from the context, though, I believe he’s referring to the radiation and thermal effects of the blast, which of course would be quite correct.

He does NOT say that the initial shockwave would cover the planet in an hour, but states that a large asteroid could cause global devastation within an hour. That strikes me as being believable; a sufficiently large hit could start volcanoes erupting all around the planet.

That’s the one mistake that jumped out at me.

If this is it, though, he did a decent job. A Google search attaching the title of the book to “Errors” or “mistakes in” seems to turn up no good lists, and given the nitpickers that abound out there you’d think someone would have done it by now.

I’ve no doubt Bryson made a few errors, as undoubtedly would be expected, but everyone says there’s scores of them and then always point to the same one, the one about the glass. You at least found the shockwave bit, which I’m not convinced isn’t just a badly worded explanation. What else?

There would be little or no ionizing radiation from even a very large, high speed impact. Visible light, yes. Infrared radiation, certainly. Ultraviolet, perhaps. It’s possible, I suppose, depending on the composition, that you might get a short burst of radio-frequency waves. But a meteor isn’t a nuclear bomb; the energy being delivered is strictly kinetic. The thermal effects from the release of impact will be converted back into kinetic energy in the form of an atmospheric normal shock wave in very short order, and the shockwave itself will lose energy rapidly until it decreases to subsonic speed. This isn’t going to occur, even initially, at “almost the speed of light”; indeed, a few tens of thousands of feet per second is about as fast as it could conceivably move through the atmosphere.

My recollection–and I do not have the book at hand–is that he describes “a cloud of blackness” covering the planet within an hour, which is unmitigated poppycock. A major impact would cast hundreds of tons of debris into the upper atmosphere, but it would take weeks or months for it to disperse about the hemisphere, and (assuming it impacted at a higher latitude) longer to cross the equator. The notion of an impact causing volcanos erupting all around the planet is nonsense as well; an impact sufficient to cause massive volcanic activity in such a short time would destroy continents, not make mere ~200km dimples like the Sudbury Basin or the Chicxulub Crater.

In short, he took the opportunity to engage in exciting, inventive prose at the expense of scientific accuracy. This isn’t just a little bit of poetic license; these are major misconceptions that the purveys.

I don’t own the book, so I can’t cite directly from it, but my in my recollection he makes some pretty egregious errors regarding hominid development; specifically claiming a level of incompleteness in the fossil record that isn’t true. His discussion of the Big Bang and initial nucleuosynthesis was infuritatingly bad; he stated some claims as definite that are entirely speculative (in particular his excursions into theories of multiple universes) and allows others to be vague when we actually have a pretty good understanding of them. His discussion on atomic theory was, at best, badly incomplete, and more properly flawed. His parade through the Solar System was curiously warped toward Pluto, and is almost entirely absent of discussions about the effect of Solar processes. His knowledge of biology is sorely incomplete (his estimate of the number of cells in the human body is off by about two orders of magnitude), and his general discussion of evolution was inexcusably wrong-headed, although the latter is a common problem that extends far beyond Bryson’s work. And his discussions of historical figures in science, as previously mentioned, focused on their morbid pecculiarities, as if these oddities were the most sigficant or useful facts to relate about their lives.

Bryson comes off, to me, as a guy who just watched a documentary on the Discover Channel and is now relating it as best his memory permits, giving emphasis to the more flashy animated bits and glossing over the boring technical stuff. To someone who wants a little bit of entertaining sort-of-science literature to read, I suppose Bryson comes off as being very clever at making it all interesting and colorful with his prose and metaphors. For someone with even an introductory background in any of these areas, however, Bryson is terribly superficial and wrong-headed, presenting a cartoon superhero version of science. It’s vacuous and insubstantial; “cotton candy physics” that melts away as soon as you introduce the first rainshower of reality.

I don’t object to making science accessible, and even abridging bits here and there that are otherwise too complex to cover without delving into a mathematical treatment involving years of prior study to comprehend, but one should understand the underlying science first before skimming it down to a level suitable for public consumption. Bryson gave no indication that he actually understood anything that he’s wrote about; he was just repeating with emphasis on the sexy bits, and not worrying whether the examples he gave were correct or analogous in proportion or scale. If you want to write about science, you should first be correct and exact (as much as is possible with language rather than mathematics), and then figure out a way to make it accessible without giving up accuracy.


I’ll have to go against the flow and say that while I’ve enjoyed Bryson’s other books, I really disliked A Walk In The Woods. It seemed like he spent all of his time kvetching, not noticing that he was surrounded by some of the most beautiful country on the planet. Of course your pack is heavy! Of course you get blisters! Hiking the AT is no picnic, but after the first couple of chapters, I just wanted to shout “Kwitcher bitchin!”

But that is the odd thing about his hike. Katz would catch up with him and ask him how he scaled that fallen tree or massive boulder and Bryson would have no memory of doing so. Walking the AT was like a fugue state for him. How could he describe the scenery, if he couldn’t recall it.

(it is one the things that intrigues me about that book–you would think there would be a description of some vista or sunset or something–there’s nothing!).

But for Katz alone, the book is great.

Everyone who hikes the AT gets asked about the book. Since the book is completely different from their experience on the trail, they’ve grown to hate the book. There are even t-shirts that say “I read the damn book!” or something like that.

Go ahead. After all, he stole the title from a 1938 book of poetry by Ogden Nash.

Then it was a novel by Anthony Thorne; another collection of poems by Alden Nowlen; a memoir about life on a Welsh farm by John Seymour; a book on motherhood by Jean Scobey; and an album by Perfect Stranger.

And it’s also been used for a novel by Jean Stubbs. That was after Bryson.

Gazillions of books share a title. You can’t copyright them.

So use it and be welcome to it.

You’ve just described my own response to A Walk In the Woods. The topic appealed to me, I thought it was funny at first, but then his negativity wore on my nerves. I gave it up halfway through.

The one I heard about said “Bryson is a candy-ass”.

Bryson is no better with history than with linguistics or science.

Enjoy the humor. Don’t trust any factual assertions.

I’m currently reading David Christian’s Maps of Time and find it to be well researched, thoroughly footnoted and not afraid to say when something is still speculation. I haven’t done much reading in this vein, but possibly this book would be a good alternative to Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

It would be interesting to hear from somebody who has read both.

Here’s my experience with Bryson.

The first book I read by him was about an area I knew reasonably well and I didn’t enjoy it. Then a couple years later I read a couple others about areas I know not at all and I enjoyed them. Then I read another about an area I knew and didn’t enjoy it.

This has held true: the more I personally know about the topic at hand the less I enjoy his writing on it.

I’m about halfway through A Short History of Nearly Everything right now, and while I’m enjoying the anecdotes and basic explanations of things (I don’t mind minor, nitpicky mistakes about scientific concepts I don’t understand anyway…that’s the point of the book, folks), Bryson’s inability to make it through a page without cracking some lame “Dad Joke” is wearing on me. I had the same problem with Mary Roach - why do these “accessible nonfiction” or “pop science” writers feel obligated to crack wise? Are they afraid that the reader will get lost or bored if they don’t make some lame “office coworker” joke halfway through the paragraph? Bryson keeps dropping in embarrassing Dad-isms like “…and that’s why Arcturus is just so big…that’s a lot of hoagies! hyuck-hyuck-hyuck” Ugh.

It sounds like I’d really dig the books where he bitches about nature and then also bitches about the artifice of civilization. I love bitching about these things (I hate nature! But I hate fraudulent plastic bullshit even more!) and love hearing others bitch about them.