Most world history books don’t give you the whole story, instead focusing on specific events either before humans came along or after they multiplied across the Earth. Though these books have their place in historical literature, it’s hard to get context about a period in history when what came before or after it is completely left out.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know the entire story of history, from start to finish?
That’s the premise of Christopher Lloyd’s new book, What on Earth Happened? The Complete Story of the Planet, Life, and People from the Big Bang to the Present Day (Bloomsbury, $45). As a science journalist, Lloyd was annoyed that history has been chopped and splintered into too many smaller topics to suit many different agendas, so he wrote a primer to the planet by combining the history of earth science and the history of human civilization all in one colorfully illustrated book complete with spruced up graphs, charts, and maps.
The author covers a vast range of territory, including how the Earth was formed, the rise of man, migration, language, art, transportation, religion, government, global conflicts and medicine, among other things.
But don’t let the breadth of the book’s subject material intimidate you. Lloyd does a great job of parsing the planet’s history into four, easily digestible parts: life before man, the Stone Age, ancient history, and modern history. Each chunk is then broken down even further into a total of 42 chapters, so it’s easy to pick back up and start a new chapter even after letting it fall by the wayside for a few days.
The author avoids the common pitfall of dumbing down history for the sake of brevity by employing a journalistic writing style that emphasizes straightforward storytelling, which makes it easy for both children and adults alike to enjoy.
The author’s use of the metaphor of a 24-hour clock to explain the passage of time is a little misguided, however. Its point is to illustrate just how brief our time on Earth has been compared to its entire history, yet the counting in hours and even minutes from zero (the origins of the universe) to 24 (present day) to represent the passage of millions of years doesn’t quite make sense. After all, if the planet is still in existence, why does the book “stop” at the 24th hour?

Overall though, readers will certainly learn things they didn’t know, while being entertained along the way, which is ultimately the point of any good reference book. Here are just a few questions that readers will be able to answer after reading this book: 
  • Is calling someone a Neanderthal an insult or actually a compliment?
  • Why was Pandora’s box opened in the first place?
  • How did a famous Chinese ruler’s paranoia result in mercury poisoning?
  • Were the crises that engulfed the Roman Empire partly a result of lead poisoning?
  • What were the historical origins of the Hansel and Gretel fable?
  • Who was the first to use biological weapons in warfare?
  • When did the saying “an eye for an eye” first originate?
These and other fun facts are effortlessly weaved into a truly comprehensive story of our planet that’s both enjoyable and eye opening, a feat not easily achieved by typically long-winded historians.
'What on Earth happened?'
A new reference book attempts to tell the complete story of the planet from the Big Bang to the present day. We've got your MNN review.