Econstudentlog

Bill Bryson

Here’s the link, order it if you like what you read here. I read the book 3 years ago, but this is the kind of book that you’ll probably want to reread at some point if you’re like me. When I read it the first time I borrowed my big brother’s book, as he had it standing on his bookshelf while I was visiting him over the Summer. I recently bought the book myself (it was on sale) and I’ve pretty much since I bought it been somewhat bugged by the fact that (yet) a(/nother) book I’ve read stands on my bookshelf looking as if it’s never even been touched by a human hand (most of the books I’ve read contains pages painted in at least two colours and often contain various notes in the margin – ‘you can tell they’ve been read’). So I decided to take another shot at it, also because I needed a break from Genetics – some of that is hard and this is supposed to be my vacation after all… Ok, let’s move on to some quotes from the book:

1. I’d actually like to quote the introduction chapter in full, it’s that good; but that would be overkill so less will do. However I can’t stop myself from telling you in a bit more detail just how Bryson starts out (…I was just about to add ‘…his adventure’):

“Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.
To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and curiously 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, co-operative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally under appreciated state known as existence.
Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention, your atoms don’t actually care about you – indeed, they don’t even know that you are there. They don’t even know that they are there.”

[…]

“Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes into view, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will close you down, then silently reassemble and go off to be other things. And that’s it for you. […] The only thing special about the atoms that make you is that they make you. That is, of course, the miracle of life.

[…]

But the fact that you have atoms and that they assemble in such a willing manner is only part of what got you here. To be here now, alive in the twenty-first century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune. Survival on Earth is a surprisingly tricky business. […] The average species on Earth lasts for only about four million years […] Consider the fact that for 3,8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stuck fast, untimely wounded or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment to perpetuate the only possible sequence of heriditary combinations that could result – eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly – in you.[*]

This is a book about how it happened…”

*Technically, this passage is not entirely true/correct, as the concept of sexual reproduction is quite a bit younger than that – but the finer details don’t subtract much from the narrative: “The first fossilized evidence of sexually reproducing organisms is from eukaryotes of the Stenian period, about 1 to 1.2 billion years ago.” (wikipedia) It’s still a pretty long time ago. Interestingly, this inaccuracy is not mentioned on this wiki page dealing with inaccuracies and errors in the book. I’ve found at least a few passages besides those that I considered a bit problematic while reading them, but I generally let those pass when I’m reading both because of the background of the author and the likely background of the target group (it’s pop sci after all).

So anyway, that’s how he starts out.

2. Also from the introduction:

“about four of five years ago, I suppose – I was on a long flight across the Pacific, staring idly out the window at moonlit ocean, when it occured to me with a certain uncomfortable forcefulness that I didn’t know the first thing about the only planet I was ever going to live on. I had no idea, for example, why the oceans were salty but the Great Lakes weren’t. Didn’t have the faintest idea. I didn’t know if the oceans were growing more salty with time or less, and whether ocean salinity levels was something I should be concerned about or not. […] I didn’t know what a proton was, or a protein, didn’t know a quark from a quasar, didn’t understand how geologists could look at a layer of rock on a canyon wall and tell you how old it was – didn’t know anything, really.”

So he spent 3 years of his life to write the book and try to find out some of this stuff presumably asking a lot of really awkward questions along the way. Quotes below are from the book proper, not from the introduction:

3. “until 1978 no-one had ever noticed that Pluto has a moon.” […] “Our solar system may be the liveliest thing for trillions of miles, but all the visible stuff in it […] fills less than a trillionth of the available space.” […] “When I was a boy, the solar system was thought to contain thirty moons. The total now is at least ninety, about a third of which have been found in just the last ten years. The point to remember, of course, when considering the universe at large is that we don’t actually know what is in our own solar system.” […] Surprisingly little of the universe is visible to us when we incline our heads to the sky. Only about six thousand stars are visible to the naked eye from Earth, and only about two thousand can be seen from any one spot.”

4. “It was history’s first co-operative international scientific venture, and almost everywhere it ran into problems. Many observers were waylaid by war, sickness or shipwreck. Others made their destinations but opened their crates to find equipment broken or warped by tropical heat. Once again the French seemed fated to provide the most memorably unlucky participants. Jean Chappe spent months travelling to Siberia by coach, boat and sleigh, nursing his delicate instruments over every perilous bump, only to find the last vital stretch blocked by swollen rivers, the result of unusually heavy spring rains, which the locals were swift to blame on him after they saw him pointing strange instruments at the sky. Chappe managed to escape with his life, but with no useful measurements.”

5. “The second half of the eighteenth century was a time when people of a scientific bent grew intensely interested in the physical properties of fundamental things – gases and electricity in particular – and began seeing what they could do with them, often with more enthusiasm than sense. In America, Benjamin Franklin famously risked his life by flying a kite in an electrical storm. 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.”

6. “It is hard to imagine now, but geology excited the nineteenth century – positively gripped it – in a way that no science ever had before or would again. In 1839, when Roderick Murchison published The Silurian System, a plump and ponderous study of a type of rock called greywacke, it was an instant bestseller, racing through four editions, even though it cost 8 guineas a copy and was, in true Huttonian style, unreadable. (As even a Murchison supporter conceded, it had ‘a total want of literary attractiveness’.) And when, in 1841, the great Charles Lyell travelled to America to give a series of lectures in Boston, sellout audiences of three thousand at a time packed into the Lowell Institute to hear his tranquillizing descriptions of marine zeolites and seismic perturbations in Campania.”

7. “The first attempt at measurement [of the age of the Earth] that could be called remotely scientific was made by the Frenchman Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, in the 1770s. It had long been known that the Earth radiated appreciable amounts of heat – that was apparent to anyone who went down a coal mine – but there wasn’t any way of estimating the rate of dissipation. Buffon’s experiment consisted of heating spheres until they glowed white-hot and then estimating the rate of heat loss by touching them (presumably very lightly at first) as they cooled. From this he guessed the Earth’s age to be somewhere between 75,000 and 168,000 thousand years old. This was of course a wild underestimate; but it was a radical notion nonetheless…”

Bryson often include examples like these, on just how people figured stuff out – as you can also tell from quote #4 and #5. These parts of the book are really fascinating to me, because they make it clear just how many problems related to measurements and knowledge sharing that were around, making life complicated for people trying to figure stuff out in the past; problems we don’t even spare a thought today. And because descriptions such as these make it much more clear how many of the tools people today take for granted didn’t exactly come along by themselves. The stuff above deals with only the first 100 pages or so; needless to say, there’s a lot of good stuff in this book. I’ll bring more quotes and stuff from the book tomorrow – I should have blogged the book in detail the first time I read it, but I never got around to do it and this time I’ll try to rectify that mistake.

July 29, 2011 - Posted by | astronomy, books, Chemistry, Geology, history, science

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