A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, 2003.

Mind-blowing–the epitome of “sense of wonder.” I’ve liked Bill Bryson’s work since Made in America: an Informal History of the English Language in the United States (1995), before he hit the big time with A Walk in the Woods, still his funniest book. I can see why some people don’t like him; his jocularity could become irritating, and his bemused persona can start to feel a little forced. But to me it’s just the right amount–a laugh every page or so–and he judiciously plays it down in this book, a whirlwind tour of the universe and the people who’ve discovered the little we know about this amazing place. The other strengths he shows here are an ability to find the most interesting anecdotes (many I haven’t heard before, I’m sure some exaggerated a little for effect), excellent descriptive skills to help the reader begin to picture what’s inconceivably large, small, numerous, etc., and of course clear writing.

Things I learned: How very little we know about the inside of our planet. That Yellowstone is a HUGE volcano, so large that there is no cone:

Beneath the surface is a magma chamber that is about forty-five miles across–roughly the same dimensions as the park–and about eight miles thick at its thickest point. Imagine a pile of TNT about the size of Rhode Island and reaching eight miles into the sky, about the height of the highest cirrus clouds, and you have some idea of what visitors to Yellowstone are shuffling around on top of.

That Linneaus was a sex-obsessed egomaniac. (The less-stellar qualities of scientists are on disply throughout, but not in a way that discredits their achievements.) A sense of how incredibly complex and speedy the activities of a single cell are.

Every cell in nature is a thing of wonder. Even the simplest are far beyond the limits of human ingenuity. To build the most basic yeast cell, for example, you would have to miniaturize about the same number of components as are found in a Boeing 777 jetliner and fit them into a sphere just five microns across; then somehow you would have to persuade that sphere to reproduce.

It saddens me that so many people think the material world is so much simpler than it is, that it’s “mere” matter. There is nothing mere about it. The simplification and pattern-grouping that makes the human consciouness see a fairly unified, comprehensible “interface” to the world has the downside of blinding us to so much. A book like this can temporarily open a window on the jaw-droppingly amazing all around us.

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