Bill Bryson writes a delicious book that lives up to its title. The cosmos, the earth, atoms, geology, life, homo sapiens -- it's all here.


A Short History of Nearly Everything

Bill Bryson

If you’re interested in the history of science at all, this is one of the most enjoyable books on the subject that I have ever read. Bryson’s history and science is solid, at least as far as this layman can tell, covering both the history of scientific endeavor and discoveries, and the often very bizarre people who were involved.

Bryson’s writing is delightful. Some examples:

Looking for the unknown isn't simply a matter of traveling to remove or distant places, however. In his book Life: An Unauthorized Biography, Richart Fortey notes how one ancient bacterium was found on the wall of a country pub "where men had urinated for generations" -- a discovery that would seem to involve rare amounts of luck and devotion and possibly some other quality not specified.

Or this …

In the most literal way, cells also vary in liveliness. Your skin cells are all dead. It's a somewhat galling notion to reflect that every inch of your surface is deceased. If you are an average-sized adult you are lugging around about five pounds of dead skin, of which several billion tiny fragments are sloughed off each day. Run a finger along a dusty shelf and you are drawing a pattern very largely in old skin.
Most living cells seldom last more than a month or so, but there are some notable exceptions. Liver cells can survive for years, though the components within them may be renewed every few days. Brain cells last as long as you do. You are issued a hundred billion or so at birth, and that is all you are ever going to get. It has been estimated that you lose five hundred of them an hour, so if you have any serious thinking to do there really isn't a moment to waste.

Or this …

Bouyed by the success of leaded gasoline [which he had invented], Midgley now turned to another technological problem of the age. Refrigerators in the 1920s were often appallingly risky because they used dangerous gases that sometimes leaked. One leak from a refrigerator in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929 killed more than a hundred people. Midgley set out to create a gas that was stable, nonflammable, noncorrosive, and safe to breathe. With an instinct for the regrettable that was almost uncanny, he invennted chloroflourocarbons, or CFCs. Seldom has an industrial product been more swiftly or unfortunately embraced. CFCs went into production in the early 1930s and found a thousand applications in everything from car air conditioners to deodorant sprays before it was noticed, half a century later, that they were devouring the ozone in the atmosphere. As you will be aware, this was not a good thing.... Midgley never knew this because he died long before anyone realized how destructive CFCs were. His death was itself memorably unusual. After becoming crippled with polio, Midley invented a contraption involving a series of motorized pulleys that automatically raised or turned him in bed. In 1933, he became entangled in the cords as the machine went into action and was strangled.

Or this …

Perhaps nothing speaks more vividly for the strangeness of the times than the fate of the lovely little Bachman's warbler. A native of the southern United States, the warbler was famous for its unusually thrilling song, but its population numbers, never robust, gradually dwindled until by the 1930s the warbler vanished altogether and went unseen for many years. Then in 1939, by happy coincidence two separate birding enthusiasts, in widely separated locations, came across lone survivors just two days apart. They both shot the birds, and that was the last that was ever seen of Bachman's warblers. ...
I mention all this to make the point that if you were designing an organism to look after life in our lonely cosmos, to monitor where it is going and keep a record of where it has been, you wouldn't choose human beings for the job. But here's an extremely salient point: we have been chosen, by fate or Providence or whatever you wish to call it. As far as we can tell, we are the best there is. We may be all there is. It's an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe's supreme achievment and its worst nightmare simultaneously.

I truly enjoyed this book. Were it not for the author’s penchant for reminding use that we are overdue for a massive volcano eruption that will freeze the earth to a ball of ice, a meteor strike that will vaporize us at 60,000 degrees, or a disease that will carry us all off, it would be full of nothing but charm. As it stands, now I have to decide whether to save my money or get another BMW. Do you see a meteor coming from where you are?