A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson, 2003 (reread)

Nature and Environment Book Group selection. Wow, so this I think is the first time I’m writing a second post about the same book. First one was in 2004—when it was new!—and I’m not going to look back at it until I’m done with this one. I love Bryson, and this book is the finest thing he ever did IMO, so this is probably just going to be a great big bag o’ quotes. [I wrote this in 2018 but am finishing and back-dating it in 2023, when I have long given up on doing anything but a big bag o’ quotes; I’ve left in my 2018 attempts to contextualize the quotes, so this is a bit of a mish-mash.]

Yay, first dinosaur tracks discovered very near here—little did I know when first I read, etc. Although it’s interesting that Bryson calls him “Plinus Moody” (Plinius, Pliny for short appears to be the correct spelling)—I think of Bryson’s fact-checking as being good, but what do I know? Hmm, and he calls U. anceps “Unitatheres anceps” whereas it’s Unitathereium anceps, with “Unitatheres” being the plural for the genus (context is about the rivalry between Edward Drinker Cope and Othaniel Charles Marsh: “Between them they managed to ‘discover’ a species called Uintatheres anceps no fewer than twenty-two times.”

In this book I learned

  • The Moon’s gravitational influence keeps the Earth spinning smoothly; otherwise, according to Bryson, it “would wobble like a dying top.”
  • Like in Winter World, we’re reminded how important it is for life on earth that ice is less dense than water. Bryson quotes John Gribbin saying that’s “an utterly bizarre property.”
  • I keep forgetting that there are living stromatolites in Australia—I want to see them! “It is a curiously giddying moment to find yourself staring at living remnants of Earth as it was 3.5 billion years ago.” But apparently in the Bahamas as well?
  • “It has been estimated that less than one species in ten thousand has made it into the fossil record.”
  • But hurray, Bryson (and everyone) was wrong to think that the brain cells we are born with are “all you are ever going to get.”

Short quotes

  • Peter Medawar: a virus is “a piece of nucleic acid surrounded by bad news”
  • David Raup: “To a first approximation, all species are extinct.”
  • “Life on Earth, you see, is not only brief but dismayingly tenuous. It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.”
  • “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.”
  • Charles Lyell: “His other slight peculiarity was the habit, when distracted by thought, of taking up improbable positions on furniture—lying across two chairs at once or ‘resting his head on the seat of a chair, while standing up’ (to quote his friend Darwin). Often when lost in thought he would slink so low in a chair that his buttocks would all but touch the floor.”
  • “Right up to the closing years of the eighteenth century (and in Priestley’s case a little beyond) scientists everywhere searched for, and sometimes believed they had actually found, things that just weren’t there: vitiated airs, dephlogisticated marine acids, phloxes, calxes, terraqueous exhalations, and, above all, phlogiston, the substance that was thought to be the active agent in combustion.”
  • “’Young man,’ Enrico Fermi replied when a student asked him the name of a particular particle, ‘if I could remember the names of these particles, I would have been a botanist.’”
  • “There was so much unrecognized novelty in the [Burgess Shale] collection that at one point upon opening a new drawer Conway Morris famously was heard to mutter, ‘Oh fuck, not another phylum.’”
  • “For random events to produce even a single protein would seem a stunning improbability—like a whirlwind spinning through a junkyard and leaving behind a fully assembled jumbo jet, in the colorful simile of the astronomer Fred Hoyle.”
  • “Indeed, some organisms that we think of as primitive enjoy a level of cellular organization that makes our own look carelessly pedestrian. Disassemble the cells of a sponge (by passing them through a sieve, for instance), then dump them into a solution, and they will find their way back together and build themselves into a sponge again.”
  • “Remarkably, we are even quite closely related to fruit and vegetables. About half the chemical functions that take place in a banana are fundamentally the same as the chemical functions that take place in you.
    It cannot be said too often: all life is one. That is, and I suspect will forever prove to be, the most profound true statement there is.”

Longer quotes

Reverend Robert Evans, supernova finder:

To understand what a feat this is, imagine a standard dining room table covered in a black tablecloth and someone throwing a handful of salt across it. The scattered grains can be thought of as a galaxy. Now imagine fifteen hundred more tables like the first one—enough to fill a Wal-Mart parking lot, say, or to make a single line two miles long—each with a random array of salt across it. Now add one grain of salt to any table and let Bob Evans walk among them. At a glance he will spot it. That grain of salt is the supernova.

What Michelson and Morley did, without actually intending to, was undermine a longstanding belief in something called the luminiferous ether, a stable, invisible, weightless, frictionless, and unfortunately wholly imaginary medium that was thought to permeate the universe. Conceived by Descartes, embraced by Newton, and venerated by nearly everyone ever since, the ether held a position of absolute centrality in nineteenth-century physics as a way of explaining how light traveled across the emptiness of space. It was especially needed in the 1800s because light and electromagnetism were now seen as waves, which is to say types of vibrations. Vibrations must occur in something; hence the need for, and lasting devotion to, an ether. As late as 1909, the great British physicist J. J. Thomson was insisting: “The ether is not a fantastic creation of the speculative philosopher; it is as essential to us as the air we breathe”—this more than four years after it was pretty incontestably established that it didn’t exist. People, in short, were really attached to the ether.

The part I remembered most vividly from my first reading, which I’ve come across in other articles since, is the Yellowstone supervolcano.

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, to 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 second sentence is peak Bryson—a concrete, memorable image, contrasted with the mundane and comical “shuffling around on top of.”

Now I’m reading McKibben’s The End of Nature, which also emphasizes what I keep forgetting and re-learning: how horizontal our notion of distance and how shallow our livable space on the globe is. McKibben talked about the up, the atmosphere; Bryson is memorable on the down:

Without assistance, the deepest anyone has gone and lived to talk about it afterward was an Italian named Umberto Pelizzari, who in 1992 dove to a depth of 236 feet, lingered for a nanosecond, and then shot back to the surface. In terrestrial terms, 236 feet is just slightly over the length of one New York City block. So even in our most exuberant stunts we can hardly claim to be masters of the abyss.

And also (granted this is going on two decades ago, but I bet we aren’t much further along):

There are still no submersibles that can go anywhere near the depth of the Mariana Trench and only five, including Alvin, that can reach the depths of the “abyssal plain”—the deep ocean floor—that covers more than half the planet’s surface. A typical submersible costs about $25,000 a day to operate, so they are hardly dropped into the water on a whim, still less put to sea in the hope that they will randomly stumble on something of interest. It’s rather as if our firsthand experience of the surface world were based on the work of five guys exploring on garden tractors after dark. According to Robert Kunzig, humans may have scrutinized “perhaps a millionth or a billionth of the sea’s darkness. Maybe less. Maybe much less.”

“Five guys on garden tractors”—perfect. And a few pages later, “We are astoundingly, sumptuously, radiantly ignorant of life beneath the seas.”

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.

We couldn’t live for two minutes without them, yet even after a billion years mitochondria behave as if they think things might not work out between us. They maintain their own DNA. They reproduce at a different time from their host cell. They look like bacteria, divide like bacteria, and sometimes respond to antibiotics in the way bacteria do. In short, they keep their bags packed. They don’t even speak the same genetic language as the cell in which they live. It is like having a stranger in your house, but one who has been there for a billion years.

Bacteria can be exasperatingly difficult to isolate and study. Only about 1 percent will grow in culture. Considering how wildly adaptable they are in nature, it is an odd fact that the one place they seem not to wish to live is a petri dish. Plop them on a bed of agar and pamper them as you will, and most will just lie there, declining every inducement to bloom. Any bacterium that thrives in a lab is by definition exceptional, and yet these were, almost exclusively, the organisms studied by microbiologists. It was, said Woese, “like learning about animals from visiting zoos.”

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.

If you could visit a cell, you wouldn’t like it. Blown up to a scale at which atoms were about the size of peas, a cell itself would be a sphere roughly half a mile across, and supported by a complex framework of girders called the cytoskeleton. Within it, millions upon millions of objects—some the size of basketballs, others the size of cars—would whiz about like bullets. There wouldn’t be a place you could stand without being pummeled and ripped thousands of times every second from every direction. Even for its full-time occupants the inside of a cell is a hazardous place. Each strand of DNA is on average attacked or damaged once every 8.4 seconds—ten thousand times in a day—by chemicals and other agents that whack into or carelessly slice through it, and each of these wounds must be swiftly stitched up if the cell is not to perish.

The proteins are especially lively, spinning, pulsating, and flying into each other up to a billion times a second. Enzymes, themselves a type of protein, dash everywhere, performing up to a thousand tasks a second. Like greatly speeded up worker ants, they busily build and rebuild molecules, hauling a piece off this one, adding a piece to that one. Some monitor passing proteins and mark with a chemical those that are irreparably damaged or flawed. Once so selected, the doomed proteins proceed to a structure called a proteasome, where they are stripped down and their components used to build new proteins. Some types of protein exist for less than half an hour; others survive for weeks. But all lead existences that are inconceivably frenzied. As de Duve notes, “The molecular world must necessarily remain entirely beyond the powers of our imagination owing to the incredible speed with which things happen in it.”

But it is worth remembering, before we move on, that all of these evolutionary jostlings over five million years, from distant, puzzled australopithecine to fully modern human, produced a creature that is still 98.4 percent genetically indistinguishable from the modern chimpanzee. There is more difference between a zebra and a horse, or between a dolphin and a porpoise, than there is between you and the furry creatures your distant ancestors left behind when they set out to take over the world.

I mostly trust Bryson’s research, but here’s a case where I think he twisted something to fit a narrative. In talking about collectors who killed and pushed to extinction the species they supposedly loved, he says, “In 1907 when a well-known collector named Alanson Bryan realized that he had shot the last three specimens of black mamos, a species of forest bird that had only been discovered the previous decade, he noted that the news filled him with ‘joy.'” I remember this striking me as odd in previous readings, so I looked it up. This is not a primary source, but it appears he wrote: ” To my joy I found the mangled remains” [of the bird he had shot and couldn’t find], so the joy, awful as it is, isn’t about the extinction per se. It’s possible someone like Bryan may not even have believed in extinction, right? But Bryson is leading up to this powerful ending, worth quoting almost in full:

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 achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously.
Because we are so remarkably careless about looking after things, both when alive and when not, we have no idea—really none at all—about how many things have died off permanently, or may soon, or may never, and what role we have played in any part of the process. …

The fact is, we don’t know. Don’t have any idea. We don’t know when we started doing many of the things we’ve done. We don’t know what we are doing right now or how our present actions will affect the future. What we do know is that there is only one planet to do it on, and only one species of being capable of making a considered difference. Edward O. Wilson expressed it with unimprovable brevity in The Diversity of Life: “One planet, one experiment.”

If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be 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.

We have arrived at this position of eminence in a stunningly short time. Behaviorally modern human beings—that is, people who can speak and make art and organize complex activities—have existed for only about 0.0001 percent of Earth’s history. But surviving for even that little while has required a nearly endless string of good fortune.

We really are at the beginning of it all. The trick, of course, is to make sure we never find the end. And that, almost certainly, will require a good deal more than lucky breaks.

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