A Short History of Nearly Everything

Who knew that Bill Bryson would be the ideal guide to the history of the universe? Bryson has a reputation (at least in my family) of being hilariously funny as a best-selling travel writer. But here he has written a refreshingly brilliant introduction to the basics of physics, chemistry, geology, evolution and the rest of the cosmos. I’m not sure how he does it. He takes well-worn topics (atoms, black holes, molecules, DNA), inverts them, and presents entirely new ways of seeing them. And he still manages to be funny. He is not a scientist, but a storyteller. He’s at his best when he recounts the feuds between ideas, and the unpredictable, often round-about route they take before they are accepted as “obvious.” He delivers perspective, rather than facts. This is the best Science 101 course you’ll ever take.

– KK

A Short History of Nearly Everything
Bill Bryson
560 pages, 2004
$12
Available from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

It isn’t easy to become a fossil… Only about one bone in a billion, it is thought, 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 50 bones, one-quarter of a complete skeleton. That’s not to say, of course, that any of these bones will ever actually be found. Bearing in mind that they can be buried anywhere within an area of slightly over 9.3 million square kilometers, little of which will ever be turned over, much less examined, it would be something of a miracle if they ever were.

*

We now know that there are a lot of microbes living deep within the Earth… Some scientists now think that there could be as much as 100 trillion tons of bacteria living beneath our feet in what are known as subsurface lithoautotrophic microbial ecosystems… Thomas Gold of Cornell has estimated that if you took all the bacteria out of the Earth’s interior and dumped it on the surface, it would cover the planet to a depth of five feet. If the estimates are correct, there could be more life under the Earth than on top of it.

*

The most striking thing about our atmosphere is that there isn’t very much of it. It extends upward for about 120 miles, which might seem reasonably bounteous when viewed from ground level, but if you shrank the Earth to the size of a standard desktop globe it would only be about the thickness of a couple of coats of varnish.

*

“Oh, probably none,” said Anderson breezily. “It wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye until it warmed up, and that wouldn’t happen until it hit the atmosphere, which would be about one second before it hit the Earth. You’re talking about something moving many tens of times faster than the fastest bullet. Unless it had been seen by someone with a telescope, and that’s by no means a certainty, it would take us completely by surprise.”

*

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 1018 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. We’re just not very good at taking 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.

*

Neutrons and protons occupy the atom’s nucleus. The nucleus of an atom is tiny — only one-millionth of a billionth of the full volume of the atom — but fantastically dense, since it contains virtually all the atom’s mass. As Cropper has put it, if an atom were expanded to the size of a cathedral, the nucleus would be only about the size of a fly — but a fly many times heavier than the cathedral.

*

The distance from the surface of Earth to the center is 3,959 miles, which isn’t so very far. It has been calculated that if you sunk a well to the center and dropped a brick into it, it would take only forty-five minutes for it to hit the bottom… Our own attempts to penetrate toward the middle have been modest indeed. One or two South African gold mines reach to a depth of two miles, but most mines on Earth go no more than about a quarter of a mile beneath the surface. If the planet were an apple, we wouldn’t yet have broken through the skin.