Summer Reading: A Short History of Nearly Everything

If there’s one thing I took away from reading Bill Bryson’s hilariously informative A Short History of Nearly Everything, it’s that science knows very little about very little (the other one being that just about everything is credited to the wrong people). Most of what we know is all from circumstantial evidence. It’s a bit of a shock to the me who grew up on textbooks that stated everything in definitive terms.

I learned that dinosaurs are green and scaly. The Earth’s crust sits on a large mantle of magma. We’ve discovered all the elements (isn’t that periodic table nice?). We know exactly how humans spread out through the world and evolved. Protons, neutrons and electrons make up all matter.

Apparently we have no clue what dinosaurs looked like. Who would have thought that you couldn’t guess what the skin looked like from bone alone? There are also a lot fewer complete fossil sets than you’d think. There’s a tale of a set of mastodon fossils discovered in America in the late 1700s. Scientists eager to refute a famous French naturalist’s remarks about America’s inferiority convinced themselves that claws found nearby were part of the creature. In actual fact, they came from a giant ground sloth.

The Earth’s crust in all likelihood does sit on that magma mantle, but no one has ever seen it. Heck, we haven’t even been able to drill through a decent portion of crust. The Soviets got as far as 12.2 kilometres after nineteen years (“commendably persistent”, the book calls them), and that’s our best attempt so far. It turns out that most of what we do know is based on conjecture from reading waves as they travel through the interior, or from random cannonballs of magma that have broken through the surface.

We know of about 120 or so elements today, arranged into the periodic table by an “odd and crazed-looking” professor called Mendeleyev. Until he made his brilliant discovery, it seems he was known more for his wild hair and beard, trimmed only once a year. The principle of this method of arrangement had been discovered three years before by an amateur chemist called John Newlands, but for whatever reason he was never taken seriously and the credit went to Mendeleyev. That’s science for you.

Even now, some of the discovered elements are contentious because they only exist for millionths of a second, so scientists can’t be sure if they’ve actually detected them or not. No one knows how many more there are, either. Hmm.

As for the origins of humanity, biologists have formed any number of theories about which region we originated in and how we migrated. Some claim that we originated in Africa and spread from there; others that some kind of parallel evolution happened throughout the world. For every theory, there is always some kind of evidence that calls it into question. We can’t even come to an agreement on when modern humans first appeared in the fossil record–though admittedly, we’ve found such a scant number of fossils it’s amazing we’ve managed to determine anything at all.

It turns out that protons and neutrons are made of these things called quarks, and there’s a range of types. Electrons are something else altogether–leptons–and one of many types of leptons. Then we get to the bosons and my poor little non-particle-physicist brain loses the plot completely. If you ever read any news about the Large Hadron Collider, you may recall the Higgs boson everyone was talking about–and physicists are still unsure if what they discovered is in fact the theorised Higgs boson, or another boson that isn’t in the standard model. There’s so many of these particles the famous experimental physicist Enrico Fermi once told a student, “If I could remember the names of these particles, I would have been a botanist.”

(On a slightly related note, America was nearly home to the supercollider. Construction began on one near Waxahachie, Texas, in the 1980s until, as the book so amusingly puts it, the project “[experienced] a supercollision of its own with the United States Congress… Texas now boasts the most expensive hole in the universe.”)

This book systematically destroyed any confidence I might have had in my high school textbooks, even as it offered me a grand overview of what we do know in all the sciences. It covers astronomy, geology, chemistry, physics, quantum physics, meteorology, biology… all in an amusing, easily accessible way. I certainly wouldn’t claim to be any kind of scientist after reading it, but I certainly know a lot more about the world we live in that I did before.

I’ve probably learned more from this particular bit of winter reading than everything (that I remember!) from all my years of science in high school. And what more can you ask than a fun read where you unlearn just as much as you learn?

This post is part of Summer Reading Week 2.

Leanne Yong is an aspiring author who is working on her second young adult novel. Check out her blog at Clouded Memories for more information and a journal chronicling her latest foray into novel writing.


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