I was very excited to start this book. Ever since I was a kid, the concept of the ‘universe’ has freaked me out. I can’t quite get my head around the whole ‘earth is a revolving planet in a solar system in a universe that is so big we don’t know where it ends’ thing.
Maybe I have control issues.
When I rant about how big and utterly incomprehensible the universe is, my parents tend to look at me with confusion and say: “but there’s science to explain why the earth spins, how the moon controls the tides, why the sky is blue…”.
Unfortunately these scientific explanations have never quite satisfied me. My mind feels like it is about to explode when I try and figure out where this – existence – all started. Religious theories do not give me any more solace.
You get my drift.
So when I picked up A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, I was looking for answers. I thought I would finish this book with an understanding of how the universe operates, and be able to kiss goodbye to my anxiety about rogue meteors, the sun blowing up and extra terrestrial visitors.
Unfortunately, the only answer that I got from this book is that life is amazing – but utterly incomprehensible.
A question of genre: History vs. Science
I know this book is meant to be a short history, but I have to be honest – I was expecting more science. The Guardian‘s John Waller called it “truly impressive” and said that “it’s hard to imagine a better rough guide to science”.
Meanwhile Tim Flannery of the Times Literary Supplement said that “it represents a wonderful education, and all schools would be better places if it were the core science reader on the curriculum”.
With reviews like these, I was excited to read about the mechanics of the universe. I anticipated being able to comprehend certain scientific theories by the end of it.
But this book is most definitely a history book. There are a lot of names, a lot of dates and a lot of historical milestones.
There is also A LOT of information about scientists. Want to know their pet peeves, their hobbies, the date they won Nobel prizes? A Short History of Nearly Everything will tell you.
While this is interesting, I wanted to skip all that and get to the juicy stuff.
So what’s the story of the universe, Bill?
We’ve established that this book tells us a lot about the history of scientists. But when it comes to explaining the universe, on the other hand, things get a little more complicated.
The problem is, we don’t actually know – for sure – all that much about the planet we live on. We can make educated, scientifically-based guesses, but since we are living in 2013, it is extremely difficult to be certain about anything that happened millions of years ago.
Bill Bryson wrote 574 pages about our history – or the history of science at least – and his main conclusions were:
- We could die at any time. By a meteor, some catastrophic explosion etc. Bill’s point is that we cannot control what may come hurling towards earth from outerspace. He suggests that we might as well appreciate what we’ve got and keep on learning more about the world around us – because we, in the words of Mr Bryson – are living on a knife edge and could be gone in any moment. Reassuring, huh?
- There were dinosaurs (for real). But we don’t know for sure why they were obliterated and most of the dinosaur displays in museums are fake (not real bones).
- Humans are young. Life has been going on a whole lot longer than we have been around – and apparently, our time is up, judging on the life spans of creatures in the past. Excellent.
- We don’t really know anything, for sure. Although via fossils, we can speculate on the life spans of things in the past and about the cycles of the earth, these can never be any more than educated guesses. (Gives me hope about point 3).
- Life is a bloody wonder. And maybe there is no point in trying to understand all of the complex things that go on in nature. Maybe the point is – we should just enjoy it.
“Behaviorally modern humans have been around for less than 0.01 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 a lucky break.”
So, it all comes down to good fortune and to factors almost entirely out of our control. Makes you think, doesn’t it?