Bill Bryson’s latest tome, A Short History of Nearly Everything, delivers exactly what the title suggests, beginning with the origins of the Universe and the anatomy of an atom all the way to through the often curious and catty natural sciences to the origins of mankind.
It’s nothing short of a miracle that we’re even here, Bryson tells us. “At various periods over the last 3.8 billion years you have abhorred oxygen and doted on it, grown fins and jaunty sails, laid eggs, flicked the air with a forked tongue, been sleek, been furry, lived underground, lived in trees, been as big as a deer, and as small as a mouse….The tiniest deviation from these evolutionary shifts and you might now be licking algae from cave walls…”
To track the Universe, how it is we know what we know about our world, Bryson devoted three years of his life to find the true answers to the questions he’s wondered about since grade school; to name a few, just how exactly do we know how much the earth weighs or that its center is a smoldering orb? What makes the oceans salty and what is a proton. How did we come to be who we are today? Weighty matters indeed.
Though many of the topics are truly hard science, we are saved from textbook boredom by Bryson’s conversational tone and often humorous anecdotal tales of famous scientists, notably Newton who, Bryson notes, was “brilliant beyond measure” “but solitary, joyless, prickly to the point of paranoia, famously distracted (upon swinging his feet out of bed in the morning he would reportedly sometimes sit for hours, immobilized by the sudden rush of thoughts to his head.)” He was a man of “riveting strangeness” notes Bryson. Nonetheless and despite the incredibly high levels of mercury found in a stand of Newton’s hair (40 times the natural level), it is thanks to Newton that we understand the laws of gravity and orbits of planets. Or Carl Scheele, a Swedish chemist in the 1750s, who devised a way to manufacture phosphorous (Sweden is still a leading manufacturer of matches), but who had a “curious insistence on tasting a little of everything he worked with,” including mercury and hydrocyanic acid. Scheele was found dead at age 43 at his workbench, surrounded by an array of chemicals, “any one of which could have accounted for the stunned and terminal look on his face.”
Readers familiar with Bryson’s wry sense of humor and casual writing style will find plenty here, he triumphantly makes science both interesting and funny. What a gas to discover from Bryson that “Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through … millions of organisms on its way to becoming you.” That atoms are “vigorously recycled” and that “a significant number of our atoms…probably once belonged to Shakespeare” and yet more bits and pieces from Buddha, Genghis Khan, and Beethoven. His point, “Atoms go on…practically forever.” (though he notes, this recycling takes decades, so you’re not part Elvis yet.)
Like Bryson, we may occasionally wonder about the Universe, volcanoes, how we evolved, what the Dodo looked like (no one really knows any more, for sadly the last surviving museum model was burned for being smelly). We may peer at the stars and wonder, but when it comes down to actual science, as Bryson discovered, “It is all …just a little unwieldy.”
As we journey with our inquisitive companion, of the many people we encounter are the numerous scientists who failed to get credit for their ideas. One sad example, Alfred Wegener, a German meteorologist, held the theory of that continents drift (Continental drift theory), and whose ideas were largely ignored and dismissed. He died, after setting out to Greenland in 1930 where he froze to death. Ironically, Bryson adds, “He was buried on the spot and lies there yet, but about a yard closer to North America than on the day he died.” Point proven.
Bryson tells of numerous asteroids, “impossible to track” like “BA 1991, an asteroid which “sailed past us at a distance of 106,000 miles,” the cosmic equivalent, he notes, of “a bullet passing through one’s sleeve.” So much for humankind, we learn, if an asteroid is on a collision course with earth, there would be little warning, and nothing we could do about it anyway. “Such near misses,” writes Bryson, “Probably happen two or three times a week.” The point is, that for all we know, we actually know very little and our existence is precarious at best.
Take the famous flesh-eating disease (necrotizing fascitis), which literally consumes the victim and is bacteria from “the mundane family of …Group A. Streptococcus,” he tells us the very same bacteria responsible for strep throat. Antibiotic resistance grows, and Bryson explains why, but the upshot, he tells us, is that “all over, the microbes are beginning to win the war again.” And worse, the pharmaceutical industry, he tell us, hasn’t produced a new antibiotic since the 1970s. Perhaps it is of some small comfort to learn from Bryson that “bacteria can themselves get sick.”
At its very essence, Bryson has given us a book about life from its simplest to the most complex. At the heart of existence, he tells us, is the will to live, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the lichen, “the hardiest visible organisms on earth, but the least ambitious.” (Ch. 20, p. 1) “They simply exist,” notes one expert.
“It would be hard to imagine a less fulfilling existence,” adds Bryson. As humans, “we are inclined to feel that life must have a point,” he tell us “Yet the lichens impulse to exist is arguable even stronger” than ours. “Life,” he says, “just wants to be.” Who would have thought that lichen had a stronger will to live than humankind, yet so it seems.
Bryson’s book is full of such interesting facts, and while they may not be helpful in your every day life, or help you secure a better job, they just might help you understand the world around you just that little bit better. Reading Bryson is truly a pleasure, and though the book may seem a little intimidating at first, remember it was inspired by, Bryson tell us, by his own experience with impenetrable and incomprehensive school text books that failed to answer questions to his satisfaction.
You can bet that pretty much any question you have about the universe and the world, down to the very origins of life, will be answered in this book, and probably by some eccentric but brilliant scientists, many of whom live and die in curious ways indeed, demonstrating that for as smart as we may be, we still don’t know most of the answers. What we do know for sure, Bryson adds philosophically, echoing transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, is that “Every living thing is an elaboration on a single original plan….. All life is one.”
But then, he probably has his share of their recycled atoms as he wrote the book. The world works in mysterious ways, indeed.
Sadi Ranson-PolizzottiPowered by Sidelines