Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

When my sons were young, they used to go every summer to an Arts and Science Camp where they studied some really cool stuff. When I say 'studied' I mean they had access to microscopes, scales, bunsen burners, beakers, fake skeletons, easels, paints, video cameras, props all under the supervision of some enthusiastic artists and professors who provided guidance, not for grades or report cards, but because learning can be just plain fun.

It's this same attitude of learning for the pure enjoyment of it that Bill Bryson brings to A Short History of Nearly Everything along with his signature wit and engaging manner. I keep wishing my teachers in school had been more like him! His enthusiasm is contagious.

Anywhoo. This book is a collection of highlights from most things under the sun and a few things beyond.

For example, did you know that . . . 

'Carl Sagan calculated the number of probable planets in the universe at large at 10 billion trillion - a number vastly beyond imagining. But what is equally beyond imagining it the amount of space through which they are lightly scattered. 'If we randomly inserted into the universe,' Sagan wrote, 'the chances that you would be on aro near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion trillion.' (That's 10 to the 33rd, or a one followed by thirty-three zeros.) 'Worlds are precious.' pg28

Radioactivity wasn't banned in consumer products until 1938. By this time it was much too late for Madame Curie, who died of leukemia in 1934. Radiation, in fact, is so pernicious and long lasting that even now her papers from the 1890s -even her cookbooks- are too dangerous to handle. Her lab books are kept in lead lined boxes, and those who wish to see them must don protective clothing. pg111

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 the tenth? Abundance has little to do with their familiarity or utility to us. pg250

It isn't easy to become a fossil. The fate of nearly all living organisms - over 99.9 percent of them - is to compost down to nothingness. When your spark is gone, every molecule you own will be nibbled off you or sluiced away to be put to use in some other system. That's just the way it is. Even if you make it into the small pool of organisms, the less than 0.1 percent, that don't get devoured, the chances of being fossilized is very small. pg321

You have no secrets from your cells. They know far more about you than you do. Each one carries a copy of the complete genetic code - the instruction manual for your body - so it know not only how to do its job but every other job in the body. Never in your life will you have to remind a cell to keep an eye on its adenosine triphosphate levels or to find a place for the extra squirt of folic acid that's just unexpectedly shown up. It will do that for you, and a million more things besides. pg371

If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to he here - and by 'we' I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp. pg478


Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I LOVE this book. As a teacher, I aspire to have Bryson's skill in making people want to learn things.

Trish said...

Yes! I'm so glad to hear you say that :)