Book 7 of 24 of A Year of Books. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. Read: March 2018.
The thing that drives me into reading these types of books is obsession. Obsession of the writer, the scientists, and the discoverers all throughout our time who studied every nook and cranny of the universe they can possibly find. In the context of the size of everything, it isn’t much. But in relation to our tiny human minds… It’s a lot more than we can ever know or remember or even understand.
While there are a million interesting/amazing/funny things in the book, here are a few points I believe we need some reminding of once in a while:
- It takes a huge amount of luck – more luck than we can ever imagine – for any living thing to be alive. So the fact that we woke up today, the fact that we even exist means we are so (damned) lucky.
Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you can make it. Getting here wasn’t easy I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.
We are awfully lucky to be here… To attain any kind of life at all 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.
- We have been trying to study the world/universe/galaxy throughout our existence, and yet we haven’t even scratched its surface. We know nothing. My belief is that we will forever know ‘nothing’.
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.
- Some of our geniuses are really, really, (really!) crazy.
Once [Newton] inserted a bodkin – a long needle of the sort used for sewing leather – into his eye socket and rubbed it around “betwixt my eye and the bone as near to the backside of my eye as I could” just to see what would happen. On another occasion, he stared at the Sun for as long as he could bear, to determine what effect it would have upon his vision.
- Even some hypotheses may seem crazy now, but perhaps had a valid point at that time… (after all urine and gold are of a similar shade).
Brand became convinced that gold could somehow be distilled from human urine.
- Science often credits the wrong person for scientific breakthroughs and discoveries. (But then again, isn’t this everywhere?)
Between them they managed to “discover” a species called Uintatheres anceps no fewer than twenty-two times.
- Everything is just a theory.
Darwin and his geological friends needed the Earth to be old, but no one could come up with a way to make it so.
- The emergence of human beings seems to have done more harm than well to the planet. All this pride about being the brightest creatures in the world… But it seems that we are all selfish, earth-plundering fools.
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… 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.
- In the context of all space and time, we are but a speck of dust within a speck of dust within a speck of dust.
Modern humans have been around for more than about 0.0001 per cent of Earth’s history – almost nothing, really – but even existing for 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 lot more than lucky breaks.
Many other people have said these things in many different ways. But we seem to always need reminding. And this 600-page Science book can surely dig it in.