Wednesday, 7 August 2019

A Short History of Nearly Everything



Recently finished A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. It's my second adventure with him, and I'm a huge fan of his book Shakespeare: The World as a Stage. This one was first published in 2003, and although the audio book is considerably more recent, narrator William Roberts still manages to infuse suitable levels of horror that CFC won't be banned in developing countries until 2010. Like Bertrand Russel's History of Western Philosophy, though, it seems to have largely stood the test of time and still reads as highly relevant to today.

In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson trekked the Appalachian Trail—well, most of it. In A Sunburned Country, he confronted some of the most lethal wildlife Australia has to offer. Now, in his biggest book, he confronts his greatest challenge: to understand—and, if possible, answer—the oldest, biggest questions we have posed about the universe and ourselves. Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining.

There was so much to unpack in this book, which stretched from the beginning of existence, through the first signs of life to the possibility of life on other planets and the future of mankind. Here's some of my favourite nuggets of knowledge:

Incidentally, disturbance from cosmic background radiation is something we have all experienced. Tune your television to any channel it doesn't receive, and about 1 percent of the dancing static you see is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang. The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe. 

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Even the Reverend Buckland, as pious a soul as the nineteenth century produced, noted that nowhere did the Bible suggest that God made Heaven and Earth on the first day, but merely “in the beginning.” That beginning, he reasoned, may have lasted “millions upon millions of years.” 

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The confusion over the aluminum/aluminium spelling arose because of some uncharacteristic indecisiveness on [Humphry] Davy's part. When he first isolated the element in 1808, he called it alumium. For some reason he thought better of that and changed it to aluminum four years later. Americans dutifully adopted the new term, but many British users disliked aluminum, pointing out that it disrupted the -ium pattern established by sodium, calcium, and strontium, so they added a vowel and syllable.

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You may not feel outstandingly robust, but if you are an average-sized adult you will contain within your modest frame no less than 7 X 10^18 joules of potential energy—enough to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point. Everything has this kind of energy trapped within it. We're just not very good at getting it out. Even a uranium bomb—the most energetic thing we have produced yet—releases less than 1 percent of the energy it could release if only we were more cunning.

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The upshot of all 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. 

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As you might expect, oxygen is our most abundant element, accounting for just under 50 percent of the Earth's crust, but after that the relative abundances are often surprising. Who would guess, for instance, that silicon is the second most common element on Earth or that titanium is tenth? Abundance has little to do with their familiarity or utility to us. Many of the more obscure elements are actually more common than the better-known ones. There is more cerium on Earth than copper, more neodymium and lanthanum than cobalt or nitrogen. Tin barely makes it into the top fifty, eclipsed by such relative obscurities as praseodymium, samarium, gadolinium, and dysprosium.

Abundance also has little to do with ease of detection. Aluminum is the fourth most common element on Earth, accounting for nearly a tenth of everything that's underneath your feet, but its existence wasn't even suspected until it was discovered in the nineteenth century by Humphry Davy, and for a long time after that it was treated as rare and precious. Congress nearly put a shiny lining of aluminum foil atop the Washington Monument to show what a classy and prosperous nation we had become, and the French imperial family in the same period discarded the state silver dinner service and replaced it with an aluminum one. The fashion was cutting edge even if the knives weren't.

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By and large, if an element doesn’t naturally find its way into our systems—if it isn’t soluble in water, say—we tend to be intolerant of it. Lead poisons us because we were never exposed to it until we began to fashion it into food vessels and pipes for plumbing. (Not incidentally, lead’s symbol is Pb for the Latin plumbum, the source word for our modern plumbing.) The Romans also flavoured their wine with lead, which may be part of the reason they are not the force they used to be. 

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The dandelion was long popularly known as the “pissabed” because of its supposed diuretic properties, and other names in everyday use included mare’s fart, naked ladies, twitch-ballock, hound’s piss, open arse and bum-towel. One or two of these earthy appellations may unwittingly survive in English yet. The “maidenhair” in maidenhair moss, for instance, does not refer to the hair on the maiden’s head.

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At least 99 percent of flowering plants have never been tested for their medicinal properties. Because they can’t flee from predators, plants have had to contrive chemical defenses, and so are particularly enriched in intriguing compounds. Even now nearly a quarter of all prescribed medicines are derived from just forty plants, with another 16 percent coming from animals or microbes, so there is a serious risk with every hectare of forest felled of losing medically vital possibilities. Using a method called combinatorial chemistry, chemists can generate forty thousand compounds at a time in labs, but these products are random and not uncommonly useless, whereas any natural molecule will have already passed what the Economist calls “the ultimate screening programme: over three and a half billion years of evolution."

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Even thinking, it turns out, affects the way genes work. How fast a man’s beard grows, for instance, is partly a function of how much he thinks about sex (because thinking about sex produces a testosterone surge).

I also learned that Mary Anning was the inspiration behind the tongue-twister 'she sells seas shells on the sea shore,' that panspermia is the word for the theory that life on earth originated from outer space, and that English Sweating Sickness wiped out thousands of people in the 1500s before disappearing without a trace. 

It also took me on a nice trip down memory lane with an entry about the dinosaur display at Crystal Palace, where my dad lived for a time when I was a kid. And also when he was talking about dodos, it brought back memories of the New Walk Museum in Leicester, which I loved when I was young. It had ancient Egyptian mummies, a life-size diplodocus skeleton and a stuffed dodo. Most of which, thanks to this book, I now know are reconstructions, but it still fascinated me.

Enthusiastic thumbs up. History with a twist of humour.

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