Monday, November 12, 2007

A Short History of Nearly Everything

I've started reading Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. I bought it, I think when we were stuck in Odessa waiting for motorhome repairs and we went to the mall and walked through a bookstore, but hadn't read it yet. We had other smaller books to read at mealtimes.

I first heard about the book earlier this year, probably February or March, when Hugh Hewitt was reading it and became alarmed about the fact reported in the book that Yellowstone seems overdue for a massive explosion (average: every 600,000 years, time since the last one: 640,000 years). Hugh started asking the callers to his radio show (before they had a chance to say what they called about) if they had plans to visit Yellowstone this summer, and weren't they worried about it? I had plans to visit there and wasn't worried, but didn't call his show about it.

Hugh even had an expert on his show, the head geologist for the Yellowstone basin, and the expert said that the average is actually closer to 700,000 years. However, he said there have only been three massive explosions, with only two gaps between to use for averaging, and that doesn't give enough of a trend to be meaningful. So we really don't know.

I haven't got that far into the book yet, but I was hooked by the Introduction. Here are a couple paragraphs from there:

To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifiting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It's an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence....

Still, you may rejoice that [life] happens at all. Generally speaking in the universe it doesn't, so far as we can tell. This is decidedly odd because the atoms that so liberally and congenially flock together to form living things on Earth are exactly the same atoms that decline to do it elsewhere. Whatever else it may be, at the level of chemistry life is curiously mundane: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, a little calcium, a dash of sulfur, a light dusting of other very ordinary elements--nothing you wouldn't find in any ordinary drugstore--and that's all you need. The only thing special about the atoms that make you is that they make you. That is of course the miracle of life.

It's a book about science, about space, the solar system, the Earth, and life on Earth. But it's by a non-scientist. Bryson puts the arcane, incomprehensible stuff that likes to hang out in science tomes into a delightfully readable format for the rest of us non-scientists. He tells about scientific discoveries, but he also tells us about the kookiness of the people who made those discoveries (as well as some of the unfortunate losers who discovered nothing in their valiant attempts). I'm reading Chapter 4 now, and I've stopped numerous times to read a particularly interesting passage aloud to my mom.

I didn't want to wait until I finished the whole book before recommending it to everyone else.

Gotta go now. It's in the 1700's and they're trying to measure the Earth to see if Isaac Newton was right that it's not a perfect sphere after all...

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