THE CELEBRATED TRAVEL writer B111 Bryson didn’t use to know anything about science. For this he blames the authors of school textbooks, who disguised just how interesting it really is, and A Short History of Nearly Everything, his new popular history of science, is intended as an antidote to those dull, dry volumes. But it can only be so generally appealing if Bryson carries out a subtle sleight of hand. His book, he explains in the introduction, will not deal with the question of why things are so, or try to explain very much that is of any great complexity; instead it will concentrate on how scientists throughout history came to learn that things are so. This is perhaps wise for, although the humble authority of Bryson’s tone implies a plausible familiarity with his subject, his scientific credentials are open to belittlement. At points he goes as far as criticising some other authors of popular books on science, but usually only to point out that they have given insufficient credit to a historical scientist to whom he has taken a liking, and there are a lot of those.