Monday, 18 January 2010

book review - "A Short History of Nearly Everything"

I finished the second book from my "book per fortnight for 2010" series today. The contrast in genre from #1 can be attributed to two things: the pressing intrigue of a non-travel orientated Bill Bryson book, and an inspirational quote of Terry Pratchett's, stating that "to write, you must read extensively, both inside and outside your chosen genre and to the point of 'overflow'". I averaged 114.8 pages per day whilst reading this book too, which may contribute to the overflow element of the quote.

Before starting I was warned of the book's intensity, and so started early to allow myself extra time in case I required it later. A combination of more free time than usual and outstanding writing from Mr Bryson, however, resulted me zooming through the book at record pace, despite the accuracy of the warning. Incidentally, I've made a flowchart to sum up the book, a measure designed to save you the expense of reading an enormous synopsis (and me the expense of writing one):

Now a note about flowcharts - the shapes of the cells represent their meaning: a hexagon signifies preparation; a half-squiggly rectangle signifies a document, three half-squiggly rectangles signify many documents; a square in a rectangle signifies a predetermined process; a parallelogram signifies data; a part-rounded hexagon signifies a display; a trapezoid signifies a manual operation; adiamond signifies a decision; a rectangle signifies a process, and an oval signifies a terminator (start or finish).

The flowchart above represents the book, and outlines the book beginning, the prologue, the body (composed of 6 sections and 30 chapters) and the subject matter therein (and the inclusion of data and 'display' (images) within the chapters to evoke interest and inspire further research (manual input)), the predetermined process of enjoyment (because of Bill Bryson's writing ability), the decision to read more Bill Bryson, and the end (or, if you didn't decide to read more, the re-reading of this book until you appreciate it fully and decide to do so).

I'm thinking now that maybe it would have been quicker and easier for everyone concerned if I'd just written a synopsis, but ah well. It's nice to try something new once in a while. Just omit the paragraph above if it didn't make sense.

In the interest of keeping this review as short as possible (to reduce strain on the reader and keep the average interest level as high as possible), I selected only a few of the topics covered within to follow up in this review. The pictures at the top highlight these areas: space, and man's experiences therein; the delicate balance of life, and man's interference therein, and diving suits. I also intend to enlighten you as to a philosophical realisation I had while reading (HA!), and introduce you to Bill Bryson's writing style.

Let us begin with space. Space is a big place: a point that is stressed relentlessly in the text. The biggest thing in existence, the universe, is described as "10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times bigger" than "something you could hold in your hand", and as being "a million million million million (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) miles across". However both are descriptions which hold little relevance because the human mind is unable to comprehend such enormity. Even our solar system, which is considered relatively 'small' is "really quite enormous". No diagram of it that we possess is to scale, the main cause for peoples' misconception as to its sheer vastness. My favourite illustration of the scale is this (paraphrased from the book): "On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with the Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over 300 metres away and Pluto would be two and a half kilometres distant (and about the size of a bacterium...)". I think the latter goes some way to putting things into comprehensible perspective, but even so, as Bryson repeatedly emphasises, it is all "enormous - just enormous".

When you consider the above, and more specifically the amount of other galaxy clusters, galaxies, solar systems and planets out there, it really does seem quite remarkable that we're here at all. The almost infinitely long chain of events that bought us into being is examined, analysed, and for the most part explained by Bryson in this book; a fact for which I am deeply grateful. Knowing that we wouldn't be here if billions of things hadn't happened exactly as they did, from our atmosphere composing itself correctly, to the Earth being a safe distance from the Sun (an 'unsafe' distance is estimated at no more than 5% nearer to or further from it), to the Earth's orbit being largely uninterrupted, to our ancestors pairing at the EXACT moment they chose to do so, puts a lot of our 'problems' into perspective.

Life itself is then addressed, both in terms of the chemical interactions and evolutions that bought it about, and the hostile, unforgiving and ultimately dangerous planet that supports it. This is another example of how damn lucky we are to be here; that "bags of chemicals" decided all those years ago to spring to life is not only EXTREMELY unlikely (and unexplainable), but also initiated such a delicate and easily nullified process that it seems remarkable that any intelligent lifeforms arose from it to be here today. The planet we live on hardly nurtures life either, with the countless natural disasters, treacherous terrains, hostile climates, and whatever else. Yet life seems adamant that it can survive in almost any condition, and for the most part it is right (take creatures who live in sulphur vents at the bottom of the ocean, for example, or worms who live in such varying underwater environments that the temperature at one end of their body can be as far as 50 degrees away from the other - it's amazing).

One of the most distressing parts of the book for me however, aside from the potentially imminent disasters (to be addressed later) and our seemingly inconsequential existence (merely from a statistical standpoint), was the adverse impact we (humans) have on the planet that nurtured life, and against all odds, gave rise to humanity. It seems that everything we do hurts the Earth in some way: whether it is depletion of resources, introduction of harmful substances into the atmosphere and oceans, or even the hunting to extinction of innocent animals (for reasons ranging from sustenance and clothing, to fun and idiocy), we seem to be a pretty ungrateful race. Bryson uses statistics to illustrate this, as well: it is estimated that between six hundred and one thousand extinctions occur PER WEEK because of human activity, across all types of life. I am sure I'm not alone in thinking this is unacceptable.

The potentially imminent disasters I mentioned before acted to put things further into perspective for me: when considering that the Yellowstone super volcano is way overdue for an eruption that could engulf the planet in thick dust clouds, block sunlight, alter weather patterns detrimentally, and take out a large portion of North America, or that our planet is way overdue for an ice age that could cover the northern hemisphere in thick ice and plunge the temperature to almost unbearable ranges, it hardly seems worth worrying about the trivial things. Other potentialities include hugely destructive earthquakes that could occur and wreak havoc anywhere (yes, anywhere) and at any time (yes, any time), a meteorite/comet collision that we most likely that wouldn't know about it until it was inside the atmosphere (seconds after which it would hit, and kill most of the Earth's population), or even infection by a bacteria commonly found in the human throat that can inexplicably decide to cause necrotizing fasciitis, a horrific infection that eats the body from the inside out (and causes around 1,000 cases per year in America).

With those bombshells, I think now would be a good time to introduce another point: the jovial tone Bryson regularly uses in his writing. It is quite inspiring how he can make even the most distressing subject matters seem funny with careful word choice and sentence structure. From the 574 pages available, I have chosen the following two examples to demonstrate this point, as both made me laugh out loud whilst reading: firstly, when referring to the subjectively unfortunate chemist Benjamin Thompson, Bryson states that "facing arrest [...] he abandoned his wife and child and fled just ahead of a mob [...] armed with buckets of hot tar, bags of feathers, and an earnest desire to adorn him with both." He later refers to physicist Alber Michelson's "delicate and exhausting" work, which was "suspended for a time to permit [him] a brief but comprehensive nervous breakdown". I'm not sure whether it's the formal nature of the words, the subtlety with which they are employed, or some other factor that is beyond my current literary understanding that makes them funny, but they get me every time.

The worst case of this I experienced, both in terms of subject matter and explosiveness of resultant laughter outburst, was a (rather grim) description of a diving phenomenon known as 'the squeeze'. I'd like to point out now that I DON'T find the phenomenon itself funny, just the way Bryson introduces it, and concludes the paragraph. He begins by pointing out that "the experience of having your internal organs rudely deformed is thought exhilerating" - completely unfunny of course, but for some reason the combination "rudely deformed" tickled me and caused me to burst out laughing on the bus. I collected myself, then read on and came across this on the next page: "[the squeeze] occured when the surface pumps failed, leading to catastrophic loss of pressure in the suit. The air would leave the suit with such violence that the hapless diver would be, all to literally, sucked up into the helmet and hosepipe" - again this is COMPLETELY unfunny, and I realise that, but the words used, and the order in which they are presented, tickled me again. It wasn't helped by the previous page's outburst, and once again I was helpless.

He then adds "for the benefit of doubters", and as if to enforce my guilt, that "this has happened". I'd like to learn how to use words to the degree that I can make people laugh as helplessly as I did whilst reading this, but at the same time also learn the line between what is and what isn't acceptable to find funny!

But anyway, I'll end now. In short, this book was amazing. It presented a depth of information about a plethora of topics, in a logical and consistently interesting sequence punctuated by gripping side stories that never deviated too far from the story. It was able to provoke a genuine desire to learn, fits of uncontrollable laughter, and profound philosophical realisations, often within pages of each other. And without sounding like a tw*t, I genuinely feel like I've come away from this book as a (slightly) better person.

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