dangling with possibility

3 of the Most Amazing Things Bill Bryson Knows: A Short History of Nearly Everything

Keep railways tidy says Bryson

Bill Bryson was “just trying to fill an empty mind with as much interesting information as it could hold.”

Sometimes asking the right questions leads us to the most amazing answers. Sometimes the answers only lead to other questions. Sometimes the answers leave us with something less than the certainty we sought, and the realization is that we have to be okay with that. Bryson’s quest in the writing of the bold and entertaining A Short History of Nearly Everything shares this very kind of knowing. He sought not only what we know, but how we know what we know.

In A Walk in the Woods, Bryson trekked the Appalachian Trailwell, most of it. In In a Sunburned Country, he confronted some of the most lethal wildlife Australia has to offer. Now he’s taking on his biggest challenge yet: to understandand, if possible, answerthe 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. The book in its entirety is as entertaining as it gets when it comes to discussing scientific theories and what could be called epistemology or ontology. Here are three takeaways:

1. You exist. You are alive.

There are a few atoms that have come together in such an extraordinary way as to form a you.

These atoms could be anywhere, doing all kinds of things but for some reason for a few 10s of years they have decided to come together to be you.”

Now why atom’s do this is anyone’s idea.

Atoms are mindless particles, after all, they don’t know a thing, yet for somehow for the length of your existence these tiny devoted particles will engage in all the cooperate delicate efforts necessary to keep you humming, to make you you, to give you form and shape, and that you enjoy the rare and supremely agreeably position known as life.”

Not that these atoms are anything special either. The same basic components that make up dirt, make us up as well, “principally, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.”

2. There is no other life freely combining in such a fruitful way anywhere else. At least not with the evidence that’s in just yet.

That second sentence is a healthy qualification because the latest news that keeps coming in from physicists and cosmologists such as Alan Lightman’s 2013 book, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, is really throwing what we “know” and think we know on its head.

3. We live on a planet we don’t really know.

We don’t even remotely know. We don’t even know what we don’t know. By one amazing estimate, it’s quite possible that 97% of all that lives on the earth and lives in the seas is still to be discovered.”

Other universes in other time zones? Who has the time? We don’t even know an incredible amount of the pale blue dot we’ve inhabited all these years. We’ve got work to do. Checking out Bryson’s book is an entertaining stimulus package to begin your own journey.

Below is Bill Bryson at Gresham College on the 350th anniversary of the birth of The Royal Society. The lecture is ‘An Even Shorter History of Nearly Everything’.

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