In this science primer for poets, Bryson (A Walk in the Woods) covers both the size of the universe and subatomic particles. To keep readers awake for more than 10-7 seconds, he includes the foibles of eccentrics like J.B.S. Haldane, who discovered that poisoning himself with oxygen led to collapsed lungs and a punctured eardrum. (Ever the researcher, he later noted, ''One can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question.'') Bryson reveals factoids about everything from geology (Yellowstone is a giant volcano) to chemistry (laughing gas was a party drug for years before it was an anesthetic). While the last few chapters move as slowly as the entry on glaciation, History elicits awe at the wonder, and stupidity, of science.