Bill Bryson (II)

More quotes from his wonderful book:

1. “Before [Richard] Owen, museums were designed primarily for the use and edification of the elite, and even they found it difficult to gain access. In the early days of the British Museum, prospective visitors had to make a written application and undergo a brief interview to determine if they were fit to be admitted at all. They then had to return a second time to pick up a ticket – that is, assuming they had passed the interview – and finally come back a third time to view the museum’s treasures. Even then they were whisked through in groups and not allowed to linger. Owen’s plan was to welcome everyone, even to the point of encouraging working men to visit in the evening, and to devote most of the museum’s space to public displays. He even proposed, very radically, to put informative labels on each display so that people could appreciate what they were viewing.”

2. “At the turn of the twentieth century, palaeontologists had literally tons of old bones to pick over. The problem was that they still didn’t have any idea how old any of these bones were. Worse, the agreed ages for the Earth couldn’t comfortably support the numbers of aeons and ages and epochs that the past obviously contained. If Earth were really only twenty million years old or so, as the great Lord Kelvin insisted, then whole orders of ancient creatures must have come into being and gone out again practically in the same geological instant. It just made no sense. […] Such was the confusion that by the close of the nineteenth century, depending on which text you consulted, you could learn that the number of years that stood between us and the dawn of complex life in the Cambrian period was 3 million, 18 million, 600 million, 794 million, or 2,4 billion – or som other number within that range. As late as 1910 [five years after Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis papers], one of the most respected estimates, by the American George Becker, put the Earth’s age at perhaps as little as 55 million years.”

3. “Soon after taking up his position [in the beginning of the nineteenth century], [Humphry] Davy began to bang out new elements one after the other – potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, strontium, and aluminum or aluminium […] He discovered so many elements not so much because he was serially astute as because he developed an ingenious technique of applying electricity to a molten substance – electrolysis, as it is known. Altogether he discovered a dozen elements, a fifth of the known totals of his day.”

4. “They [Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy] also discovered that radioactive elements decayed into other elements – that one day you had an atom of uranium, say, and the next you had an atom of lead. This was truly extraordinary. It was alchemy pure and simple; no-one had ever imagined that such a thing could happen naturally and spontaneously. […] For a long time it was assumed that anything so miraculously energetic as radioactivity must be beneficial. For years, manufacturers of toothpaste and laxatives put radioactive thorium in their products, and at least until the late 1920s the Glen Springs Hotel in the Finger Lakes region of New York (and doubtless others as well) featured with pride the therapeutic effects of its ‘Radio-active mineral springs’. It wasn’t banned in consumer products until 1938. By this time it was much too late for Mme Curie, who died of leukaemia in 1934.”

5. “In 1875, when a young German in Kiel named Max Planck was deciding whether to devote his life to mathematics or to physics, he was urged most heartily not to choose physics because the breakthroughs had all been made there. The coming century, he was assured, would be one of consolidation and refinement, not revolution.”

6. “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. Everything has this kind of energy trapped within it. We’re just not very good at getting it out. Even a uranium bomb – the most energetic thing we have produced yet – releases less than 1 per cent of the energy it could release if only we were more cunning.”

7. “It is worth pausing for a moment to consider just how little was known of the cosmos at the this time. Astronomers today believe there are perhaps 140 billion galaxies in the visible universe. […] In 1919, when Hubble first put his head to the eyepiece, the number of these galaxies known to us was exactly one: the Milky Way. Everything else was thought to be either part of the Milky Way itself or one of many distant, peripheral puffs of gas. […] at the time Leavitt and Cannon were inferring fundamental properties of the cosmos from dim smudges of distant stars on photographic plates, the Harvard astronomer William H. Pickering, who could of course peer into a first-class telescope as often as he wanted, was developing his seminal theory that dark patches on the Moon were caused by swarms of seasonally migrating insects.”

8. “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.”

From the wiki correction page: “Jupiter Scientific has done an analysis of this problem and the figure in Bryon’s book is probably low: It is likely that each of us has about 200 billion atoms that were once in Shakespeare’s body.”

9. “Even though lead was widely known to be dangerous, by the early years of the twentieth century it could be found in all manner of consumer products. Food came in cans sealed with lead solder. Water was often stored in lead-lined tanks. Lead arsenate was sprayed onto fruits as a pesticide. Lead even came as part of the composition of toothpaste tubes. […] Americans alive today each have about 625 times more lead in their blood than people did a century ago.”

In this chapter we also learn that we did not arrive at the current best estimate of the age of the earth until little over 50 years ago – I won’t quote from the book, but wikipedia has the short version: “An age of 4.55 ± 1.5% billion years, very close to today’s accepted age, was determined by C.C. Patterson using uranium-lead isotope dating (specifically lead-lead dating) on several meteorites including the Canyon Diablo meteorite and published in 1956.” At this point, the age of the universe was still very uncertain, from the book: “In 1956, astronomers discovered that Cepheid variables were more variable than they had thought; they came in two varieties, not one. This allowed them to rework their calculations and come up with a new age for the universe of between seven billion and twenty billion years” – as Bryson puts it, that estimate was “not terribly precise”. Our knowledge about the age of the universe is quite new.

10. “Well into the 1970s, one of the most popular and influential geological textbooks, The Earth by the venerable Harold Jefferys, strenuously insisted that plate tectonics was a physical impossibility, just as it had in the first edition way back in 1924. It was equally dismissive of convection and sea-floor spreading. And in Basin and Range, published in 1980, John McPhee noted that even then one American geologist in eight still didn’t believe in plate tectonics.”

11. “By the time Shoemaker came along, a common view was that Meteor Crater had been formed by an underground steam explosion. Shoemaker knew nothing about underground steam explosions – he couldn’t; they don’t exist…”

July 30, 2011 - Posted by | astronomy, books, Chemistry, cosmology, Geology, Paleontology, Physics

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