TeacherMrLoria's Reviews > A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
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Jul 23, 12

Read in July, 2012

Update: Summer 2012

This book fits into that category of books that any educated person should read. I’m going to attempt something difficult, explaining why I love this book so much. I love fiction, yet this book is in my top 3, and it’s about science. What makes this book very special is that it belongs to a class of books that make you understand and appreciate life “- the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence” - itself on a more profound level. Allow me to explain.
True to its title, the book covers just about everything. Following a loosely chronological sequence, Bryson writes about the topics that have interested humans over the millenniums (our place in the universe, what the earth is made of, how big it is, where we evolved from, what magnetism and electricity are, etc) with an emphasis on the historical development of each discovery. He pays particular attention to the debates, uncertainty, and human drama presented in each topic. This is a unique trait to most nonfiction writers who prefer to present their findings are undisputed fact. Rather, Bryson delights in the uncertainty of many aspects of life, repeating a chorus of we’re no exactly sure and we haven’t known for too long, on many a topic. I’ll get back to this very critical point.
The second thing that makes this book outstanding is that it is informative yet passionately explained writing. Most science or education books are written in a monotone and very boring fashion. Fact. Most books which try to popularize interesting yet intellectually challenging topics set the bar too low and water down the explanations. Fact. Only a very gifted author can explain a difficult topic in a way that is accessible to the average reader while simultaneously informative. Fact. Carl Sagan is the ultimate example of this, Bryson follows in his tradition. You can tell he’s excited to explain these things to you, you can tell he finds this intellectually appealing and the passion comes through in his writing. He must have been an excellent student but also probably the one who you would have to ask to wait 2 minutes before he asked another question. Bryson pulls off in my mind one of the most challenging things in writing – accessible yet informative writing on nonfiction topics, and he pulls it off because he is excited. Oddly enough, the very passion and emotion that makes this book such an enjoyable read is the very type so called thesis “advisors” advise against. For some reason, most people think in order to discuss a topic you have to write in a very boring, dry, detached fashion. I disagree, and perhaps a good piece of evidence would be to point out this book spent 6 months on the bestseller list. Has that ever happened to an educational book?
I mentioned earlier that I admire Bryson admits the limitations of his information. Freud said humans are “prosthetic gods,” and certainly we are able to do some very impressive things. No other animal can kill at a distance, fly faster than the speed of sound, transmit information around the world almost instantly via satellites we created and launched to orbit around our planet. Cool. We are certainly “prosthetic gods” in the sense that we are capable of doing a lot…despite the fact that we don’t totally understand the why behind a lot of these things. We understand it to a point where we can make use of it, but we don’t really understand the why or hows behind, well, pretty much everything. Consider we don’t know where our very own homo sapien line came from or how long ago they evolved. Consider we don’t know how certain particles communicate “instantly” faster than the speed of light. Consider we have two different and essentially opposing models of physics in the Standard Model (which we use for the very large) and the Quantum Model (which we use for the very small). We don’t know really why ice ages happen or the effects of our resource consumption on the possibility that it will happen again. While we do know a whole lot, a list of our limited knowledge could go on for a long, long time. While we are capable of doing so much, we also don’t really understand a whole lot in totality.
And yet, the more one understands about history and science, the more one can be secure in a few very simple and basic points. Here we go: One, the universe is immensely huge. Two, time (really just another dimension in space mind you) is also incredibly huge. Three, I can apparently think of no better word than huge. Four, you and me and all the other clothed apes we call humans are very new to the scene and will occupy this stage for not even a blink of an eye. If the course of Earth’s history were compacted into a day, humans have been around for a whooping one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight and “civilized” recorded history has lasted all of about 3 seconds. Oh, and did we mention that one day is just the Earth’s existence? Don’t forget that the Earth has been around only for about 4 billion out of the universe’s 14 or so billion years.
You even noticed how children are naturally afraid of the dark? I’ve noticed too, most adults are naturally afraid of this kind of thinking. A great human fear is death and thinking that this life must just be all there is. Most people don’t like confronting these facts. We don’t like admitting that one human life in the space and time scale of the universe is smaller than a may fly living for one day on Earth. Whoa. Intellectually speaking, it’s a Plato Cave scenario, and most people do not want to wander out of their cave. You still with me?
But maybe I’m not most people because I find this knowledge to be liberating. Liberating knowledge is confronting the fact that you are going to die and honestly, in the grand scheme of things, you don’t really matter. Instead of being terrified by this, instead of retreating to a belief system that promises you eternal life, one can be liberated by this. We only matter, once we accept that we don’t. We are only free to enjoy life, once we accept that it will end in the not so distant future. Fuck, we’re lucky to even be alive. Isn’t it amazing that we’re here? Isn’t it amazing that Yellowstone hasn’t blown, a solar storm has not struck, a meteorite has not hit, etc? We’re here! We’re alive! It’s OK that we’re very small. Why worry about debt or exs when you’re going to die soon? Everything future is uncertain, live now!
(Quick aside, I believe that the aesthetic eye can be enhanced through learning. In terms of the whole is there objective beauty or is beauty in the eye of the beholder, I take a middle ground and say it’s more a conversation between the object and the beholder. A beholder can enhance their understanding, thereby increasing their capacity to be awed, through learning. I’m not sure if that stance belongs firmly in any philosophical stance, but that’s how I see it these days. Anyway, back to the book.)
Is it OK to admit that we are just barely beginning to know things? Is it OK to confront the immense space around you, and the incredible time measures and realize that you are very small and very brief? I think so. I think this level of understanding adds rather than subtracts to the poetry of life. I believe that the more one understands life, the more one is able to appreciate life. It’s an odd juxtaposition - one on the hand fortify your knowledge with facts from a number of different perspectives, yet at the same time admit that we don’t really understand anything – yet I believe it is a beautiful mindset for life. You are only free to live once you admit that you will die. And in the meantime, you may as well understand a bit about your own backyard. A beautiful, brilliant book.

It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you. 2
You can never get to the edge of the universe…the reason for this is that the universe bends, in a way we can’t adequately imagine, in conformance with Einstein’s theory of relativity…we are not adrift in some large, ever-expanding bubble. Rather, space curves, in a way that allows it to be boundless but finite. Space cannot even properly said to be expanding because as the physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Steven Weinberg notes, ‘solar systems and galaxies are rushing apart. It is all something of a challenge to intutition. Or as the biologist JBS Haldane once famously observed: ‘the universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose. 17
On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over a thousand feet away and Pluto would be a mile and a half distant (and about the size of a bacterius, so you wouldn’t be able to see it anyway). On the same scale, Proxima Centari, our nearest star, would be almost ten thousand miles away. 24
* Under Drake’s equation you divide the number of stars in a selected portion of the universe by the number of stars that are likely to have planetary systems; divide that by the number of planetary systems that could theoretically support life; divide that by the number on which life, having arisen, advances to a state of intelligence; and so on. At each such division, the number shrinks colossally – yet even with the most conservative inputs the number of advanced civilizations just in the Milky Way always works out to be somewhere in the millions. 27
The world was about to enter into a century of science where many people wouldn’t understand anything and none would understand everything…Science was moving from a world of macrophysics, where objects could be seen and held and measured, to one of microphysics, where events transpire with unimaginable swiftness on scales far below the limits of imagining. We were about to enter the quantum age, and the first person to push on the door was the so-far unfortunate Max Plank. 119
* But the landmark event – the dawn of a new age – came in 1905, when there appeared in the German physics journal Annalen der Physik a series of papers by a young Swiss bureaucrat who had no university affiliation, no access to a laboratory, and the regular use of no library greater than that of the national patent office in Bern, where he was employed as a technical examiner third class. (An application to be promoted to technical examiner second class had recently been rejected.) / His name was Albert Einstein, and in that one eventful year he submitted to Annalen der Physik five papers, of which three, according to CP Snow “were among the greatest in the history of physics” – one examining the photoelectric effect by means of Plank’s new quantum theory, one on the behavior of small particles in suspension (what is known as Brownian motion), and one outlining a special theory of relativity. / The first won its author a Nobel Prize and explained the nature of light (and also helped make television possible, among other things). The second provided proof that atoms do indeed exist – a fact that had, surprisingly, been in some dispute. The third merely changed the world. 120
* The special theory of relativity in 1905. Called “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” it is one of the most extraordinary scientific papers ever published, as much for how it was presented as for what it said. It had no footnotes or citations, contained almost no mathematics, made no mention of any work that had influenced or preceded it, and acknowledged the help of just one individual, a colleague at the patent office named Michele Besso. It was as if Einstein had reached the conclusions by pure thought, unaided, without listening to the opinions of others. To a surprisingly large extent, that is what he had done. 121
* Having just solved several of the deepest mysteries of the universe, Einstein applied for a job as a university lecturer and was rejected, and then as a high school teacher and was rejected there as well. So he went back to his job as examiner third class, but of course he kept thinking. He hadn’t even come lost to finishing yet. 123
* When a journalist asked the British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington if it was true that he was one of only three people in the world who could understand Einstein’s relativity theories, Eddington considered deeply for a moment and replied: “I’m trying to think of who the third person is.” 124
* In essence what relativity says is that space and time are not absolute but relative to both the observer and to the thing being observed, and the faster one moves the more pronounced these effects become. We can never accelerate ourselves to the speed of light, and the harder we try (and faster we go) the more distorted we will become, relative to an outside observer….time is a part of space. 124
* Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms – up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested – probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you can care to name. 134
“All science is physics or stamp collecting.” –Ernest Rutherford (winner of Nobel Prize in chemistry, ahhh irony)
* Quantum mechanics. At the heart of it was Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principal, which states that the electron is a particle but a particle that can be described in terms of waves. The uncertainty around which the theory is built is that we can know the path an electron takes as it moves through space or we can know where it is at a given instant, but we cannot know both. Any attempt to measure one will unavoidably disturb the other….If it seems confusing, you may take some comfort in knowing that it was confusing to physicists, too. Bohr once commented that “a person who wasn’t outraged on first hearing about quantum theory didn’t understand what had been said.” Heinsenberg, when asked how one could envision an atom, replied “Don’t try.” 145
The upshot of this is that we live in a universe whose age we can’t quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances we don’t altogether know, filled with matter we can’t identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don’t truly understand. 172
The results were so unexpected, in fact, that the three scientists at first thought they had to be wrong. The amount of iridium in the Alvarez sample was more than three hundred times normal levels – far beyond anything they might have predicted…Tests on other samples – from Denmark, Spain, France, New Zeland, Antartica – showed that the iridium deposit was worldwide and greatly elevated everywhere, sometimes by as much as five hundred times normal levels. Clearly something big and abrupt, and probably cataclysmic, had produced this arresting spike. / After much though, the Alvarezes concluded that the most plausible explanation – plausible to them, at any rate – was that the Earth had been struck by an asteroid or comet. 197
* We know amazingly little about what happens beneath our feet. It is fairly remarkable to think that Ford has been building cars and baseball has been playing World Series for longer than we have known the Earth has a core. 209* There are 320 million cubic miles of water on Earth and that is all we’re ever going to get. The system is closed: practically speaking, nothing can be added or subtracted. The water you drink has been around doing its job since the Earth was young. By 3.8 billion years ago, the oceans had achieved their present volumes. 272
* The indigestible parts of giant squid, in particular their beaks, accumulate in a sperm whale’s stomachs into the substance known as ambergris, which is used as a fixative in perfumes. The next time you spray on Chanel No. 5 you may wish to reflect that you are dousing yourself in distillate of an unseen sea monster. 282
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. Bacteria, never forget, got along for billions of years without us. We couldn’t survive a day without them. 303
* It is a natural human impulse to think of evolution as a long chain of improvements, of a never-ending advance towards largeness and complexity – in a word, towards us. We flatter ourselves. Most of the real diversity in evolution has been small-scale. We large things are just flukes – an interesting side branch. Of the twenty-three main divisions of life, only three – plants, animals, and fungi – are large enough to be seen by the human eye, and even they contain species that are microscopic. 311
* Only about one bone in a billion, it is thought, ever becomes fossilized. If that is so, it means that the complete fossil legacy of all the Americans alive today – that’s 270 million people with 206 bones each – will only be about fifty bones, one quarter of a complete skeleton. That’s not to say of course that any of these bones will actually be found. Bearing in mind that they could be buried anywhere within an area of slightly over 3.6 million square miles, little of which will ever be turned over, much less examined, it would be something of a miracle if they were. Fossils are in every sense vanishingly rare. 322
* If you imagine the 4.5 billion odd years of Earth’s history compressed into a normal earthly day, then life begins very early, about 4 AM with the rise of the first, single-celled organisms, but then advances no further for the next sixteen hours. Not until almost 8:30 in the evening, with the day five-sixths over, has Earth anything to show the universe but a restless skin of microbes. Then, finally, the first sea plants appear, followed twenty minutes later by the first jellyfish and the enigmatic Ediacaran fauna first seen by Reginald Sprigg in Australia. At 9:04 PM trilobites swim onto the scene, followed more or less immediately be the shapely creatures of the Burgess Shale. Just before 10 PM plants begin to pop up on the land. Soon after, with less than two hours left in the day, the first land creatures follow. Thanks to ten minutes or so of balmy weather, by 10:24 the Earth is covered in the grand carboniferous forests whose residues give us all our coal, and the first winged insects are evident. Dinosaurs plod onto the scene just before 100 PM and hold sway for about three-quarters of an hour. At twenty-one minutes to midnight they vanish and the age of mammals begins. Humans emerge one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight. The whole of our recorded history, on this scale, would be no more than a few seconds, a single human lifetime barely an instant. 337
Together, without realizing it, Darwin and Mendel laid the groundwork for all of life sciences in the twentieth century. Darwin saw that all living things are connected, that ultimately they “trace their ancestry to a single, common source,” while Mendel’s work provided the mechanism to explain how that could happen. 393
The divine but felonious nature of the human being – 470

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message 1: by David (new)

David Great review, Shaun. You are far more Catholic than you care to admit, I might add. Keep writing these great reviews!

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