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A Short History of Nearly Everything

A short history of nearly everything

What a journey I’ve been on! In less than 600 pages, I’ve fast-forwarded through the history of the world and of the human species, from the Big Bang to our recent days through most areas of science.

This ambitious masterpiece was very informative and written in a conversational style. In fact, I felt like I was sitting in an armchair, by the crackling fire, with a glass of red wine in hand, in the company of a very knowledgeable friend who was explaining to me some difficult stuff in an easy to understand manner.

I had lots of moments where my jaw dropped in astonishment like when at the end of the book, the author leaves the reader with a thought-provoking fact: “behaviourally modern humans have been around for no more than about 0.0001 per cent of Earth’s history – almost nothing“! The length of our life is so short, irrelevant really, compared to the length of the human history.

This, and the rest of the book, made me reflect on the fact that our problems are tremendously small compared to the history of humankind and that we know very little about us and about what’s around us, even about things that we think we know. We know almost nothing.

Not only do our problems appear small, but even the humans themselves are also so small if you think of the universe – actually, we can’t even think of it, it is out of our mental skills to truly understand and even imagine something so big. So, I think (to clarify, this is my own personal thought, it wasn’t written in the book) this confirms how misleading is to identify with the concept of “I” too deeply. Instead, if we are able to see our “I” from the bigger perspective (i.e. the history of the universe and of humankind), it becomes clearer what the so-much-searched goal of our life is. In fact, life has no final goal – life itself, felt at this present moment, not a second ago, not in a second, just right now, is its purpose.

Sometimes, when reading, I was aghast about the personalities of crazy scientists who carried out brutal experiments on themselves. Like Newton when he inserted a long needle into his eye socket! However, if I consider that these scientists are distinguishably intelligent, it makes sense that if they’re able to think so differently from ordinary people, they must behave differently too.

Another thought that was recurrent while I was reading this book was that scientists were all men. So, when I read about Marie Curie, the Polish physicist and chemist, who discovered the radium and the polonium (named after her homeland!), I felt like breathing a bit of fresh air.

Can you spot her? 🙂

Of course it is not that women were not as clever as men – until not long ago, it was (wrongly) assumed that women had no place in science, this is one of the reasons I’m looking forward to reading one day “Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World” by Rachel Ignotofsky.

In Conclusion

I recommend reading this book if you want to learn a ton of new things in a relatively simple and quick way. I really enjoyed the wit and educational style of Bill Bryson, so I think I’m going to read more books by this author.

Some of my favourite quotes from the book:

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.

Brain cells last as long as you do. You are issued with a hundred billion or so at birth and that is all you are ever going to get. It has been estimated that you lose five hundred of them an hour, so if you have any serious thinking to do there really isn’t a moment to waste.

99.99 percent of all species that have ever lived are no longer with us.

It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.

In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one’s face.

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.

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 10^18 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.

Atoms, in short, are very abundant. They are also fantastically durable. Because they are so long lived, atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you.

We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms – up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested – probably once belonged to Shakespeare.

A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name.

So we are all reincarnations – though short-lived ones. When we die, our atoms will disassemble and move off to find new uses elsewhere – as part of a leaf or other human being or drop of dew.

Title: A Short History of Nearly Everything
Author: Bill Bryson
Year first published: 2003

From Goodreads:

In Bryson’s biggest book, he confronts his greatest challenge: to understand—and, if possible, answer—the oldest, biggest questions we have posed about the universe and ourselves. Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining.