The Earth, The Moon and the Stars

A Short History of Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson
Broadway Books

Roslyn Portnoy

Bill Bryson is not a scientist but he has a very inquisitive mind and wanted to know how we went from there being nothing at all, to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since. Phew!

He apprenticed himself to a host of the world's most profound scientific minds, living and dead. His challenge is to take subjects like geology, chemistry, paleontology, astronomy and particle physics and see if there isn't some way to render them comprehensible to people, like him (and me) who were made bored or scared stiff by science in school. He wanted to know what we know and how we know it.

How do we know what is in the center of the earth, thousands of miles down? How can we know the extent and composition of the universe, or what the black hole is? How can we know about where the continents were 600 million years ago? How did anyone figure these things out?

He writes of the smallest living entities and also far away galaxies. He writes of the age of the earth. After a lot of bickering, it stands at about 13.7 billion years ago. The edge of the universe is thought to be 90 billion trillion miles away which was determined by microwaves. As an aside he mentioned that the static on our TV sets is due to cosmic background radiation. About 1% of that is due to ancient remnants of the Big Bang. There are so many theories of the Big Bang. One theory states that a tiny particle of matter exploded and continued to expand and from that there were swarms of photons, protons, electrons, neutrons and much else, and in an instant a vast universe was perfectly arrayed for the creation of stars, galaxies, and other complex systems.

“In either case, get ready for a really big bang. Naturally, you will wish to retire to a safe place to observe the spectacle. Unfortunately, there is nowhere to retire to because outside the singularity there is no where. When the universe begins to expand, it won't be spreading out to fill a larger emptiness. The only space that exists is the space it creates as it goes.”

To quote Bryson, “What is extraordinary from our point of view is how well it turned out for us.” If the universe had formed just a tiny bit differently-if gravity were fractionally stronger or weaker, if the expansion had proceeded just a little more slowly or swiftly, then there might never have been stable elements to make you and me and the ground we stand on. Had gravity been a trifle stronger, the universe itself might have collapsed like a badly erected tent. Had it been weaker, however nothing would have coalesced. The universe would have remained a dull, scattered void. The theory goes that there are probably many universes from many big bangs and that we simply live one that combines things in the way that allows us to exist.

The book is peppered with names of famous scientists that we all recognize. For instance Halley. Halley was a sea captain, a professor of geometry at Oxford , an astronomer and inventor of the deep-sea bell. He wrote on magnetism, tides and the motions of the planets, and many other things. But one thing that he didn't do was discover the comet that bears his name. He simply recognized the comet in 1682 that was seen by others in 1456, 1531 and 1601. It was named after him 16 years after he died.

Isaac Newton was described as an eccentric and also brilliant beyond measure. He invented calculus. He became instantly famous for his masterwork Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy known as Principia from which we understand the principles of gravity. It explained the orbits of the heavenly bodies, and the force that got them moving. Imagine this in the 17 th century! Newton 's laws explained so many things; the slosh and roll of ocean tides, the motion of the planets and others miracles. Newton was truly the giant upon whose shoulders stand many generations of scientists.

Another strange scientist was Henry Cavendish. Cavendish had an aversion to contact of any kind with anyone. He worked on an elaborate method of calculating the Earth's weight. (6 billion trillion metric tons.) That was in 1797. Today, scientists, with all their precise means of measurement show only a 1% difference at 5.9725 billion trillion metric tons and what's more this confirmed Newton 's measurements 110 years before without any experimental evidence.

In 1896, in Paris , Henri Becquerel noticed that uranium salts burned an impression on a wrapped photographic plate. They were omitting rays of some sort. He turned over an investigation of the matter to a recent émigré from Poland named Marie Curie. She dubbed the effect radioactivity. She couldn't know at that time that the rocks were converting mass into energy. This was explained by Einstein in the following decade. Marie Curie received two Nobel prizes. In 1903, she shared The Nobel Prize in physics with Becquerel and later in 1911 she won another in chemistry. Unfortunately, she died of leukemia in 1934.

In 1938, radioactivity was banned in consumer products. Until that time it was used in toothpaste and laxatives and a hotel with radioactive mineral springs featured the health benefits.

Obviously, I can't go into details about all the famous scientists, but I will mention Albert Michelson and Edward Morley. Their outcome of their work became known as the most famous negative result in the history of Physics. It stated that the speed of light turned out to be the same in all directions and at all seasons. It was the first hint that Newton 's laws might not apply all the time everywhere. Michelson had a nervous breakdown during these exhaustive studies. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1907.

In 1900, Max Planck unveiled a new quantum theory which held that energy is not a continuous thing like flowing water but comes in individualized packets, which he called quanta. It laid the foundation for the whole of modern physics.

In 1905, there was a young man who was employed as a technical examiner in a patent office in Bern . He had no university affiliation, no access to a laboratory and no regular use of a library greater than the one in the patent office in Bern . This nobody submitted and had published a series of 5 papers, 3 of which were among the greatest in the history of physics. One examined the photoelectric effect by means of Planck's new quantum theory, one on the behavior of small particles in suspension and one outlining a special theory of relativity. Who is this? Einstein did not have a brilliant beginning. He didn't speak until he was 3. He failed his college entrance exams on the first try. He gained momentum after that. He wrote a paper (On the Electro dynamics of Moving Bodies) that was described as one of the most extraordinary scientific papers ever published. He reached his conclusions by pure thought, without listening to the opinions of others.

Going from the large scale structure of the cosmos, Richard Feynman once observed that if you had to reduce scientific history to one important statement it would be “All things are made of atoms.” They are virtually all over, solids, air, us. They are fantastically durable. We are made up of at least a billion atoms and they are the original recyclables. When we die they move off to become part of a leaf or another human being. They are very tiny. One ten-millionth of a millimeter.

Bryson also covers geology. I won't go into this in depth but just to say that theories often didn't pan out. A discovery of what they thought was rock from volcanic activity turned out to be the remains of a huge meteor making a hole 3 miles deep and 20 miles across in Manson , Iowa . His description of this and the devastation is fascinating.

He is often dramatic. He builds his story by describing a huge volcanic explosion in Idaho . There is a huge cauldron of magma, a colossal volcanic hot spot, which erupted cataclysmically every 600,000 years or so. The last eruption was 600,000 years ago. The hot spot is still there. We call it Yellowstone National Park .

The inner core of the earth is pretty darn hot. 7000-13000 degrees F. - about as hot as the sun. The outer core is fluid and it is the seat of magnetism. Bodies that don't have a liquid core- the Moon and Mars, for instance, don't have magnetism. The earth's magnetic field has diminished by about 6% in the last century alone and this may be bad news because magnetism keeps us alive. Space is full of dangerous cosmic rays that without magnetic protection would tear through our bodies, leaving much of our DNA in taters.

He writes of water. It is everywhere. A tomato 95%, a potato 80%, a bacterium 75%, Humans, 65%.

He dramatically states that all but the smallest fraction of water on Earth is deadly poisonous to us. Why? Because of the salts within it. There are 320 million cubic miles of water on Earth and that is all we are ever going to get. The 3,8 billion years ago, the oceans had achieved their present volumes. Of the 3% of the Earth water that is fresh, most exists as ice sheets. Most in Antarctica .

He speaks of fossils. Few have actually been found. Nearly 99.9% of all living organisms compost to nothingness. To become a fossil you must die in the right place. Only 15% of rocks can preserve fossils. It must be in sediment.

99.99% of all species that have ever lived are extinct. For complex organisms, the average lifespan of a species is only about 4 million years-about what we are now. I don't know how that bodes for us.

I thought his chapter on cells was fascinating, as I have been around scientists who talk a lot about cells; Bernie, my husband, and my son, Dan. We all start out with a single cell. The first splits to become 2 and so on. After just 47 doublings, you have ten thousand trillion cells are ready to be born. Each one carries a complete genetic code- so it knows how to do its job and every other job in the body. Cells vary in liveliness. Your skin cells are all dead. We have about 5 lbs. of dead skin, of which several billion are sloughed off each day.

To quote Bryson again,” When cells are no longer needed, they die with what can only be called great dignity: it is programmed cell death or apoptosis. They also die violently and if not given some kind of active instruction from another cell—cells automatically kill themselves.

Cells need a lot of reassurance.

When a cell fails to expire in the prescribed manner, but rather begins to divide and proliferate wildly, we call the result cancer. Cancer cells are confused cells. Humans suffer one fatal malignancy for each 100 million billion cell divisions. Most often they manage every function very smoothly.

We all know of Darwin . He was born Feb. 12, 1809 in England , the same day as Abraham Lincoln. His theory, as you probably also know, was that all organisms competed for resources, and those that had some innate advantage, would prosper and pass on their advantage to their offspring. The species would continue to improve. He didn't use the term “survival of the fittest”. Darwin 's theory was not a recipe for change, but for constancy. Lucky flukes might arise but they would soon vanish under the general impulse to bring everything back to stable mediocrity.

They needed some alternative, unconsidered alternative. Here is where Gregor Mendel came in. He was born in 1822 in what is now the Czech Republic . He was a monk but also a well trained scientist.

His work was exact and he avoided accidental cross-fertilization. Together Darwin and Mendel laid the groundwork for all the life sciences in the twentieth century. Darwin saw that all living things are connected, that they trace their ancestry to a single common source while Mendel's work provided the mechanism to explain how that could happen.

Just a word about DNA. It has been called the most extraordinary molecule on earth. It exists for only one reason- to create more of itself. About 6 feet is squeezed into one cell. Each length of DNA has about 3.2 billion letters of coding. It is guaranteed to be unique against all conceivable odds. You have about 20 million kilometers of DNA bundled up inside of you. Without it you could not live but it is not alive. DNA can't get messages to the proteins, but RNA can, and it acts as an interpreter between the two.

In the early 1950's Linus Pauling cracked the structure of DNA. He was a pioneer in the X-ray crystallography, a technique crucial to peering into the heart of DNA. But he thought that the structure was a triple helix, not a double one, and he never quite got on the right track. Instead, victory fell to a scientist in England .

There is so much more in this book but you should have the pleasure of reading it yourself and I strongly recommend it.

Bryson met so many wonderful scientists with brilliant minds, eager to share their knowledge with him. In his book, he also mentions the eccentricities of many of these scientists and sometimes pettiness and downright backstabbing and sometimes deception. But most of all, he admired their knowledge and brilliance.

He also discovered that many scientists had the misfortune of not having their work discovered, and others having been credited for the same work done later. Some were ridiculed and later proved correct. It's is not necessarily a pretty world out there but he does focus on the positives.

He has an extensive bibliography, index and notes. A huge amount of wonderful material in almost 500 pages. I read it through once for pleasure, again to mark interesting passages and then went over it again to glean this information.

Bryson has an easy style with a bit of humor thrown in. As in his other books, he peppers his writing with notable names and shows us a side of certain men and women in a bit of delicious gossipy asides.

I loved it.

©Roslyn Portnoy

Roslyn Portnoy is a former bilingual teacher who, among other things, reviews books. She lives in Southern California with her husband, Dr. Bernard Portnoy. She points out that she culled this material from many other critiques on the internet and doesn't claim all the ideas are original.