Book Club: *A Short History of Nearly Everything

It has been about two months and I am still recovering from the high I experienced from reading this book. As obnoxiously cheesy as this sounds, I have never developed such a fondness for every aspect of life due to this book. And not even just life, every aspect that isn’t life as well. Rocks, water, quarks, volcanic activity. It is so ridiculous how little I knew about my surroundings and how my surroundings came to be, which is quite alarming considering I am currently slaving the next five years of my life to develop a deep understanding of the natural world.

21

There is no need to relive every moment of the book, because if I find out that you read this post and do not immediately begin reading this, there is no sense in us remaining in contact because I highly recommend you find out for yourself. It took me a very long time to finish this book and I have deduced that that the reason for this be due to the fact that I held on to every single word that Bryson poured onto the page. Every sentence was jam-packed with the most mind-blowing information you have ever heard. I felt like if I skimmed a paragraph  I was missing out on something. Although it always quite exhilarating to finish a book, I found myself somewhat disheartened that my love affair with *A Short History of Nearly Everything had finally come to an end.

I think what I liked most about this book aside from actually learning random, astounding facts that I feel the need to blab on about after a night of whiskey sours, is seeing how figuring it all out came together. Our society, state of scientific understanding, and appreciation of the world around us would be exponentially more progressive if it were not for the countless human brick jobs made over the years that slow everything down. There are so many moments in history where things were just thrown away and priceless items put in drawers never to see the light again until the next century. There are so many people who discovered something incredible and it was never noted until long after that person was dead and gone. Who would have ever thought that the poor, unfortunate soul was actually on to something? I’ll elaborate below.

If you don’t read this book [which you should], at least read a point or two. It’ll be good for you. I’m not really trying to synthesize anything out of this post, as I will literally just be quoting Bryson. I am just sad the book is over and I’m having some issues letting go. Just let me relive the glory days, please.

Excerpts from this book that I want to remember forever and ever:

  • [In the context of the Big Bang] “Incidentally, disturbance from cosmic background radiation is something we have all experienced. Tune your television to any channel it doesn’t receive, and about 1 percent of the dancing static you see is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang. The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe.” (p. 12) 
  • [In the context of  the publication of Newton’s masterwork] “Principia’s production was not without drama. To Halley’s horror, just as work was nearing completion Newton and Hooke fell into dispute over the priority for the inverse square law and Newton refused to release the crucial third volume, without which the first wo made little sense. Only with some frantic shuttle diplomacy and the most liberal applications of flattery did Halley manage finally to extract the concluding volume from the erratic professor. Halley’s traumas were not yet quite over. The Royal Society had promised to publish the work, but now pulled out citing financial embarrassment. The year before the society had backed a costly flop of The History of Fishes…Halley, whose means were not great, paid for the book’s publication out of his own pocket. Newton, as was his custom, contributed nothing. To make matters worse…[Halley] was informed that the society could no longer afford to provide him with a promised salary…and was to be paid instead in copies of The History of Fishes.” (p. 49) –> As a side note, Halley actually didn’t even discover his own comet. He noticed that that the same comet appeared every 75 years from other people noticing it in the past. And the comet wasn’t even named after him until 16 years after he died. This poor guy!
  • [On describing the first dinosaur fossil] “In 1787, someone in New Jersey–exactly who now seems to be forgotten–found an enormous thighbone sticking out of a stream bank at a place called Woodbury Creek…At the time, dinosaurs were unknown. The bone was sent to Dr. Caspar Wistar, the nation’s leading anatomist…Unfortunately, Wistar failed completely to recognize the bone’s significance and merely made a few cautious and uninspired remarks to the effect that it was indeed a whopper. He thus missed the chance, half a century ahead of anyone else, to be the discoverer of dinosaurs. Indeed, the bone excited so little interest that it was put in a storeroom and eventually disappeared altogether. So the first dinoaur bone ever found was also the first to be lost.” (p. 79)
  • [On describing the layout of the Periodic Table of Elements] “Mendeleyev was said to have been inspired by the card game known as solitaire in North America and patience elsewhere.” (p. 107)
  • [On describing astronomer, Edwin Hubble] “Hubble died of a heart attack in 1953…For reasons cloaked in mystery, his wife declined to have a funeral and never revealed what she did with his body. Half a century later the whereabouts of the century’s greatest astronomer remain unknown. For a memorial you must look to the sky and the Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990 and named in his honor.” (p. 132)
  • [On summarizing the life of the man who correctly dated the age of the Earth] “Clair Patterson died in 1995. He didn’t win a Nobel Prize for his work. Geologists never do. Nor, more puzzling, did he gain any fame or even much attention from half a century of consistent and increasingly selfless achievement. A good case could be made that he was the most influential geologist of the twentieth century. Yet who has ever heard of Clair Patterson? Most geology textbooks don’t mention him. Two recent popular books on the history of the dating of Earth actually managed to misspell his name. In early 2001, a reviewer of one of these books in the journal Nature made the additional, rather astounding error of thinking Patterson was a woman.”(p. 159-160)
  • [On “branes”] “I am afraid this is the stop on the knowledge highway most where most of us must get off. Here is a sentence from the New York Times, explaining [branes] as simply as possible to a general audience: ‘The ekpyrotic process begins far in the indefinite past with a pair of flat empty branes sitting parallel to each other in a warped five-dimensional space…The two branes, which form the walls of the fifth dimension, could have popped out of nothingness as a quantum fluctuation in the even more distant past than drifted apart.'” (p. 167) I actually LOL-ed at this part.
  • [In the context of the delay of discovering plate tectonics] “Interestingly, oil company geologists had known for years that if you wanted to find oil you had to allow for precisely the sort of surface movements that were implied by plate tectonics. But oil geologists didn’t write academic papers; they just found oil.” (p. 177)
  • [On the giant hole in Manson, Iowa that nobody knows about] “Sometime in the very ancient past, when Manson stood on the edge of a shallow sea, a rock about a mile and a half across, weighing ten billion tons and travelling perhaps two hundred times the speed of sound ripped through the atmosphere and punched into the Earth with a violence and suddenness that we can scarcely imagine. Where Manson now stands became in an instant a hole three miles deep and more than twenty miles across…The Manson impact was the biggest thing that has ever occurred on the mainland United States. Of any type. Ever…It would make the Grand Canyon look quaint and trifling. Unfortunately for lovers of spectacle, 2.5 million years of passing, ice sheets filled the Manson crater right to the top with rich glacial till, then graded it smooth so that today the landscape at Manson, and for miles around, is as flat as a tabletop. Which is of course why no one has ever heard of the Manson crater.” (p. 190)
  • [On the fact that the world’s largest bed of diamonds may be in Indiana but nobody has found it yet] “We also know a little bit about the mantle from what ar known as kimberlite pipes, where diamonds are formed. What happens is that deep in the Earth there is an explosion that fires, in effect, a cannonball of magma to the surface at supersonic speeds. It is a totally random event. A kimberlite pipe could explode in your backyard as you read this…Only occasionally does a hunk of it shoot up at just the right speed and cool down with the necessary swiftness to become a diamond. It was such a pipe that made South Africa the most productive diamond mining country in the world, but there may be others even bigger…Geologists know that somewhere in the vicinity of northeastern Indiana there is evidence of a pipe or group of pipes that may be truly colossal. Diamonds up to 20 carats or more have been found at scattered sites throughout the region. But no one has ever found the source…it may be under glacially deposited soil or under the Great Lakes.” (p. 215-216)
  • [In the context of the last living Carolina parakeet]: “By the second decade of the twentieth century, the birds had been so relentlessly hunted that only a few remained alive in captivity. The last one, named Inca, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918 (not quite four years after the last passenger pigeon died in the same zoo) and was reverently stuffed. And where would you go to see poor Inca now? Nobody knows. The zoo lost it.” (p. 474)

Alas! I must refrain from going on and on into the night. How I would love to carry onwards to discuss our impending doom due to a sudden shift in Earth’s magnetic fields or Linnaeus’ erotic method of naming biodiversity.

Cheers to Clair Patterson–an astounding example of diligence and perseverance.  I vow to never forget your name. Here, here!

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