On A Short History Of Nearly Everything

I recently finished reading A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. As best summarized by the author: “This is a book about how it happened – in particular how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also some of what happened in between and since. That’s a great deal to cover, of course, which is why the book is called A Short History of Nearly Everything, even though it isn’t really. It couldn’t be. But with luck by the time we finish it will feel as if it is.”

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

Just as there is no place where you can find the edge of the universe. so there is no place where you can stand at the center and say: This is where it all began. This is the centermost point of it all.” We are all at the center of it all. Actually, we don’t know that for sure; we can’t prove it mathematically. Scientists just assume that we can’t really be the center of the universe-think what that would imply but that the phenomenon must be the same for all observers in all places. Still, we don’t actually know.

So, by the late eighteenth century scientists knew very precisely the shape and dimensions of the Earth and its distance from the Sun and planets; and now Cavendish, without even leaving home, had given them its weight So you might think that determining the age of the Earth would be relatively straightforward. After all, the necessary materials were literally at their feet But no. Human beings would split the atom and invent television, nylon, and instant coffee before they could figure out the age of their own planet.

Smith’s revelation regarding strata heightened the moral awkwardness concerning extinctions. To begin with, it confirmed that God had wined out creatures not occasionally but repeatedly This made Him seem not so much careless as peculiarly hostile. It also made it inconveniently necessary to explain how some species were wiped out while others continued unimpeded into succeeding eons. Clearly there was more to extinctions than could be accounted for by a single Noachian deluge, as the Biblical flood was known. Cuvier resolved the matter to his own satisfaction by suggesting that Genesis applied only to the most recent inundation. God, it appeared, hadn’t wished to distract or alarm Moses with news of earlier, irrelevant extinctions.

Thanks to the devoted and unwittingly high-risk work of the first atomic scientists, by the early years of the twentieth century it was becoming clear that Earth was unquestionably venerable, though another half century of science would have to be done before anyone could confidently say quite how venerable. Science, meanwhile, was about to get a new age of its own-the atomic one.

Above all, there was the problem that quantum physics introduced a level of untidiness that hadn’t previously existed. Suddenly you needed two sets of laws to explain the behavior of the universe-quantum theory for the world of the very small and relativity for the larger universe beyond. The gravity of relativity theory was brilliant at explaining why planets orbited suns or why galaxies tended to cluster, but turned out to have no influence at all at the particle level. To explain what kept atoms together. other forces were needed, and in the 1930s two were discovered: the strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force. The strong force binds atoms together; it’s what allows protons to bed down together in the nucleus. The weak force engages in more miscellaneous tasks, mostly to do with controlling the rates of certain sorts of radioactive decay.

The theory is that empty space isn’t so empty at ail-that there are particles of matter and antimatter popping into existence and popping out again and that these are pushing the universe outward at an accelerating rate. Improbably enough, the one thing that resolves all this is Einstein’s cosmological constant-the little piece of math he dropped into the general theory of relativity to stop the universe’s presumed expansion, and called “the biggest blunder of my life.” It now appears that he may have gotten things right after all.

I have brought you a long way to make a small point: a big part of the reason that Earth seems so miraculously accommodating is that we evolved to suit its conditions. What we marvel at is not that it is suitable to life but that it is suitable to our life-and hardly surprising, really. It may be that many of the things that make it so splendid to us-well-proportioned Sun, doting Moon, sociable carbon, more magma than you can shake a stick at, and all the rest-seem splendid simply because they are what we were born count on. No one can altogether say.

Extinction is always bad news for the victims, of course, but it appears to be a good thing for a dynamic planet The alternative to extinction i; stagnation,” says Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History, “and stagnation is seldom a good thing in any realm.” (I should perhaps note that we are speaking here of extinction as a natural, long-term process. Extinction brought about by human carelessness is another matter altogether.)

So why do we know as little as we do? There are nearly as many reasons as there are animals left to count but here are a few of the principal causes: Most living things are small and easily overlooked. We don’t look in the right places. There aren’t enough specialists. The world is a really big place.

Together, without realizing it Darwin and Mendel laid the groundwork for all of life sciences in the twentieth century. Darwin saw that all living things are connected, that ultimately they “trace their ancestry to a single, common source,” while Mendel’s work provided the mechanism to explain how that could happen. The two men could easily have helped each other. Mendel owned a German edition of the Origin of Species, which he is known to have read, so he must have realized the applicability of his work to Darwin’s, yet he appears to have made no effort to get in touch. And Darwin for his part is known to have studied Focke’s influential paper with its repeated references to Mendel’s work, but didn’t connect them to his own studies.

Climate is the product of so many variables-rising and falling carbon dioxide levels, the shifts of continents, solar activity, the stately wobbles of the Milankovitch cycles-that it is as difficult to comprehend the events of the past as it is to predict those of the future. Much is simply beyond us.

But here’s an extremely salient point: 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. Because we are so remarkably careless about looking after things, both when alive and when not we have no idea-really none at ail-about how many things have died off permanently, or may soon, or may never, and what role we have played in any part of the process. In 1979, in the book The Sinking Art the author Norman Myers suggested that human activities were causing about two extinctions a week on the planet By the early 1990s he had raised the figure to some six hundred per week. (That’s extinctions have put the figure even higher-to well over a thousand a week. A United Nations report of 1995, on the other hand, put the total number of known extinctions in the last four hundred years at slightly under 500 for animals and slightly over 650 for plants-while allowing that this was “almost certainly an underestimate,” particularly with regard to tropical species. A few interpreters think most extinction figures are grossly inflated. 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. What we do know is that there is only one planet to do it on, and only one species of being capable of making a considered difference. Edward O. Wilson expressed it with unimprovable brevity in The Diversity of Life: “One planet one experiment.” 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. We have arrived at this position of eminence in a stunningly short time. Behaviorally modem human beings-that is, people who can speak and make art and organize complex activities-have existed for only about 0-0001 percent of Earth’s history. But surviving for even 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 good deal more than lucky breaks.

A highly recommended read!

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