Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A short history of nearly everything

Every once in a while, I read a book that is as entertaining as it is informative, high brow pop culture if you will. A Short History of Nearly Everything is just such a book. Bill Bryson is just such an author.

The basics first. A Short History is, in the broadest sense, a history of the world. It starts 13.7 billion years ago, at the beginning of time, and the big bang. It ends about 100,000 years ago, right at the point when modern man, Homo Sapiens emerged on earth. And it fasts forward through these 13.6999 years (did I get that right?) in a little under 500 pages, for an average of 27 million years per page. Can't say you will get more history for the buck anywhere else can you?

The first thing that made an impression on me was how quirkily funny Bryson is. He seems to take a joy in his subject, and has the ability to make the strangest things sound funny.
He is also someone with great visual abilities. He has an instinct for picking out particularly visual ways of bringing his concepts to life. For instance, when talking about the amazingly powerful telescopes astronomers regularly use nowadays he says this -
'With their radio telescopes they can capture wisps of radiation so preposterously faint that the total amount of energy collected from outside the solar system from all of them together since collecting began (in 1951) is less than the energy of a single snowflake striking the ground'.
Now, I am sure you knew astronomers had powerful telescopes, but doesn't this just make it real on a whole different level? Another powerful picture for me was when Bryson is talking about the human genome. Mapping the human genome doesn't lead directly to solving the mystery of all diseases because genes might not map one-to-one into known diseases. To make the point, Bryson says -
'The genome is like a parts list for the human body: it tells us what we are made of, but says nothing about how we work. What's needed now is the operating manual.'
Great stuff! Admittedly, some of these are quotes of other noted authors, but Bryson has an eye for these and fills his book with them.

That said, if you think Bryson is just a witty head out of his depth, think again. He spent three years reading scientific books and journals to write this book. The result - A Short History taught me more than I ever knew about more sciences than I could imagine. The list of -ologies covered by the book is impressive. In here, you will find a short summary of the key facts about our past as illuminated by geology, oceanography, quantum physics, astrophysics, evolutionary biology, isotope geochemistry, genetics, paleo-anthology, even taxonomy - though I must admit even the enthusiastic witticisms of Bryson can't overcome the mind-numbing boredom of this last branch of science!

What you don't see here is anything post modern man. So no anthropology, no sociology, mathematics, art ...

On this exhilarating, head-spinning journey, I encountered some spooky little facts -

Like the alvinellid worm that lives right at the margin of deep-sea vents off the Galapagos islands. Think you have a tough life? The alvinellid lives hanging at the margin of a thermal layer of the deep sea vents, with its head at a temperature 140 degrees hotter than its tail!
Or like that genetics example - What do you think will happen if we introduce a mouse's eye gene into a fruit-fly? Turns out, it makes a viable eye! And not just any viable eye, a fly's viable eye!

And I couldn't help laughing at some (soberlingly) funny passages - 'Because we humans are big and clever enough to produce and utilize antibiotics and disinfectants, it is easy to convince ourselves that we have banished bacteria to the fringes of existence. Don't you believe it. Bacteria may not build cities or have interesting social lives, but they will be here when the Sun explodes. This is their planet, and we are on it only because they allow us to be.'

And some facts so eerie, I found myself doing a double take - 'No one knows how many species of organisms have existed since life began. ... Whatever the actual total, 99.99 percent of all species that have ever lived are no longer with us. "To a first approximation", as David Raup of the University of Chicago likes to say, "all species are extinct".'

In the end, if this book does anything, it makes you appreciate 'that we are awfully lucky to be here', in this universe of ours, that seems so inimical to the creation and sustenance of life. And it makes you appreciate, that we are awfully lucky to have Bill Bryson writing in our midst.

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