The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages (More or Less) by David Bercovici
The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages (More or Less) by David Bercovici, in his own words, “covers the Universe’s greatest hits, recounting when and most importantly how its various pieces emerged.” That’s a tall order for any book, let alone one that is so short, but Bercovici tempers the readers’ expectations early on, letting us know that:
“There are other excellent books, far more comprehensive than this one, on the history of the Universe and life …The goal of this book is not to be deep and comprehensive but instead to be boldly (or baldly) shallow and superficial in the best sense of these words … My aim is to give a quick and hopefully readable overview that provides a taste of our Universe’s story (and to some extent humanity’s place in this story) and more importantly to give you, the reader, and appetite to learn more.”
As far as that goal goes, I’d say Bercovici delivers, especially in the latter part of The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages. The book moves speedily but almost always fluidly from the Big Bang through basic cosmology (including but not limited to inflation, the Cosmic Microwave Background, the movement from a single force to the current ones and from a soup of quarks to the formation of atoms and molecules). Then it’s on to current theories on the formation of stellar clouds, stars, and planets, with stopovers to concisely explain black holes, neutron stars, dark matter and energy, novae and supernovas, and angular momentum. Once the general structures are done, he turns to our particular neighborhood, offering up some details concerning our solar system’s formation (such as why the inner planets are small and rocky and the outer ones are large and gaseous), and then the Earth and Moon’s.
His explanation of plate tectonics and volcanism is particularly well done, especially as he compares its impact here on Earth to those planets most like us early in the solar system’s existence, such as Mars and Venus, explaining how they ended up so dissimilar. Once we’ve got the Earth and Moon set up, the oceans filled, and oxygen in the air (all of which is explained), he zooms — and I mean zooms — through roughly three billion years of life on Earth, from the earliest bacteria and archaea through photosynthesizing life to the branching of the primate tree and our own early origins (skipping over big chunks of life, including everyone’s favorites — the dinosaurs).
One would think moving so quickly through such a massive amount of history would lead to an overly-dense and overwhelming onslaught of information thrown at the reader making little to no sense thanks to abrupt shifts and little time to spend explaining things. But that’s not the case in The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages at all. Bercovici does an incredible job in maintaining clarity throughout, with only a few very brief rough spots in terms of things coming a little quickly or jumping a bit abruptly.
In particular, his mini-lessons in angular momentum, photosynthesis, plate tectonics, and climate change are marvels of concise lucidity, true master classes in how to clearly explain difficult concepts in just the necessary number of words and no more. Even more impressive is that he’s able to do this without a lot of illustrations (not that those wouldn’t have helped a bit). The discussion of climate change over time was so good, so concrete and transparent that it should be added as a footnote to any article discussing our modern political/environmental concerns over global warming.
If I had one complaint it was the section of human origins, which was the only one that felt as if the topic was somewhat stunted in its exploration. But considering we’re covering from the beginning of the universe to now in under 150 pages (yes, he does go over 100), that seems a bit churlish a complaint.
Employing clear prose, wonderful concision, a nice eye for the particularly apt and informative analogy, and a fluid, controlled pace, Bercovici does just what he says he is aiming at, offering the reader an engaging and surprisingly thorough overview of how we, our planet, and our universe came about and whetting our desire to follow up The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages with a dive into the deep end. Highly recommended.