I very recently read A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, and I heartily recommend it. This general-interest survey of the current state of scientific knowledge concerning, well, nearly everything, is lucid and highly entertaining.
Bryson’s interested-observer role is well played; as I read the book, I have to admit I wondered how long it would be until he hosts the inevitable TV series based upon it, on the model of The Shock of the New and Cosmos (which appears to have been a primary inspiration for the book).
(An aside: What is up with the weak sites for Sagan and Shock of the New? I mean, sure, they’re old media material, but geez.)
The most-commonly used technique that Bryson employs to add human interest to what amounts to very informed speculation on events that happened before there were humans is dishing. He dwells with amusing panache on the personal foibles and peculiarities of the individual scholars involved in the development and discovery of this leap of knowledge and that fossil bed.
A clear pattern emerges in these sections too: it seems, in general, that the individuals we recognize as a discoverer or primary source of an idea are generally not the actual source, but instead the individual who most successfully promoted themselves as the source. Monkeys steal food from one another, too, so this should not be terribly surprising.
I saw a headline zap by the other day noting that Bryson’s book had been nominated for some prize or other, but alas, the title of the book creates a very noisy result set chez Google, and thus I was unable to dig up a link.