Friday, September 17, 2004

A Short History of Nearly Everything

After finishing A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, I feel like "nearly everything" is much closer to "practically nothing" than I ever expected. Don't get me wrong -- this is a fantastic book. But more than anything else it rubbed in the fact that our vast collection of knowledge is really just a tiny tiny part of everything there is to know. That's very humbling, though it's also exciting to know that there's so much left to discover out there.

Another thing that was struck me a lot was the extreme tenuousness of human existence, and how much we are at the mercy of the Earth and the Universe. For instance, a meteor several miles wide could be hurtling through space towards us and we would have no clue about it until at most a few months ahead of time, and then only if someone was lucky enough to be looking exactly in the right spot at the right time. More likely, we'd notice it when it entered our atmosphere, about one second before it crashed into the Earth with devastating effects.

Then there's Yellowstone, which is considered an active supervolcano. One of its eruptions a couple million years ago was large enough to bury the country in about 20-60 feet of ash. Its major eruptions average about one every 600,000 years. The last one was 630,000 years ago. Not the sort of thing one really wants to dwell on, in either sense of the word.

Of course, not everything in this book was quite so scary. Some of it was simply fascinating. I am, of course, referring to slime molds. These things are amazing. Check it out:
When times are good, [slime molds] exist as one-celled individuals, much like amoebas. But when conditions grow tough, they crawl to a central gathering place and become, almost miraculously, a slug. The slug is not a thing of beauty and it doesn't go terribly far—usually just from the bottom of a pile of leaf litter to the top, where it is in a slightly more exposed position—but for millions of years this may well have been the niftiest trick in the universe.

And it doesn't stop there. Having hauled itself up to a more favorable locale, the slime mold transforms itself yet again, taking on the form of a plant. By some curious orderly process the cells reconfigure, like the members of a tiny marching band, to make a stalk atop of which forms a bulb known as a fruiting body. Inside the fruiting body are millions of spores that, at the appropriate moment, are released to the wind to blow away and become single-celled organisms that can start the process again.
So it's as if these things are going around transforming from single cells to animals to plants. How cool is that?

Overall, the book was an absolute delight, and I'm especially glad I got it as an audio book. Bill Bryson has a very enjoyable writing style that has very distinct similarities to Douglas Adams (an effect heightened by the narrator's British accent). I literally laughed out loud at numerous points throughout the book. The narrator is Richard Matthews, who is undoubtedly my favorite narrator yet encountered. (See my earlier comments on The Piano Tuner.) So anyway, read it or listen to it. It's awesome.

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