A Short History of Almost Everything

Illustrated Edition, Broadway Books, Random House 2005 By Bill Bryson

I have urged legions to read this book, as it gives likely the shortest and most informative summary of the wonders of our universe now in print. Read it and improve your universal data base by 1000%. Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Almost Everything” (“ASH”), a “modern classic of science writing” (N.Y. Times) offers a truncated, entertaining and often spell-binding history of the universe in rudimentary language. ASH explains mankind’s emergence (to recall the ever-humorous Gilbert & Sullivan’s characterization) from “protoplasmal primordial atomic globules to upright, sentient thinking homo sapiens”. Bryson humanizes complex data by breaking it into fathomable, subatomic packets and by introducing the often idiosyncratic personalities who have helped unearth these phenomena, from the ancient Greeks to Stephen Hawking – covering the entire spectrum of admirably “nerdy” scientists . Despite dealing with “quantum leaps”, the theory of relativity, quarks, atoms, molecules, chromosomes, “superstring theories”, “triangulation”, a tad of physics here and there, gravitational formulae (all readily digestible and optionally eschewable), Bryson overlays “faces” and graphics on the data and interweaves sufficient lucid prose to render arcane scientific data user friendly and even titillating to lay readers – an achievement almost as accomplished as the evolution of the universe itself. ASH deals scientifically with the history of the universe and of all life forms; its author may be a devout believer in a Creator, or not, as he studiously avoids mentioning the subject. So, all of us can relax and enjoy learning unemotional scientific data from this admirable author.

He begins by reminding us that our solar system is part of the Milky Way, which was long thought to constitute the entire universe, but it is now accepted that there are some 140 billion galaxies (most with multiple suns), containing millions or even billions of stars. In other words, our earth and our solar system comprise little more than one spec of sand on a vast desert. With our solar system (“SS”) thus in perspective, ASH explains that: (1) evolutionists (which include 99% of our scientists) now maintain that our universe is a story of the evolution of everything: the galaxies and all forms of life as we know it, which began in a “Big Bang” that occurred (in an estimated three seconds) some 10-20 billion years ago (“BYA”), 13.6BYA being the current consensus; (2) our earth was hatched some 4.6BYA via a “supernova” ; it remained molten until about 3.8BYA, when the first life forms appeared (one cell organisms); (3) roughly 3BYA, the cells divided into plant and animal forms (very, very tiny ones); (4) life or living organisms are currently classified into 23 primary divisions, and only three (plant, animal and fungi) can be seen by the human eye; the rest (microbes) are visible only with microscopes but comprise over 80% of all life forms; (5) some 500-600 million (“M”) years ago (“MYA”) -- the Cambrian period and a bit before -- larger life forms (defined as those that could be seen by the human eye) began to emerge in the sea (due to dramatic increases in oxygen on the planet); and, about 450MYA, plants and tiny animals began to move on land (to avoid predators like the omnipresent shark); (6) dinosaurs evolved about 200MYA but were extinguished about 65MYA (by the below-discussed KT Meteor); (7) chimp like creatures emerged about 7MYA, and mammals, including hominids, who resembled us vaguely, evolved around 4MYA; then, about 2MYA, they evolved into more human-like creatures (early homo erectus, who may even have been gifted with speech); (6) however, the first creatures that we might choose to claim as ancestors of sorts were known as later homo erectus (men walking on two feet), who evolved about 70-100,000 years ago “KYA”), and our immediate predecessors, homo sapiens (thinking men) only about 50KYA; (9) in perspective, if the earth’s 4.5B year-existence equaled 24 hours, mankind/homo erectus has been present for only the last minute of that 24-hour period; (10) regardless, while fossils reveal a great deal about evolution, it is DNA evidence that demonstrates that plants, animals (including us) and fungi all come from the same Tree of Life and are interdependent and related; (11) mankind is, thus, related not only to apes but to cabbages . The esteemed paleontologist-Cambridge Professor Morris takes it a step further: “In many ways, our basic chemistry is little different from that of bacteria.” In sum, “Evolution is not a tale of steadily increasing excellence, as we have assumed, but, rather, of the removal (extinction) of one species followed by differentiation among the surviving stocks; that is to say, evolution is a lottery,” a close paraphrase from paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s “Wonderful Life” (1989). The handmaiden of evolution has been random, repeated mass extinctions of most life forms.

Bryson explains that, while 99.9% of our genes are alike in all humans, it is the way that our genes work together determines our differences. He attributes the way that we think as a primary cause. E.g., a man who thinks more about sex will stimulate his mind to send hormones to his testes which will make more testosterone, and, then, in turn, will grow more hair. The differences may be slight, but, over time and generations, it can make a noticeable difference. Laughter, we have elsewhere learned, has cured cancer; being loving has spawned happiness. Should we be surprised? Mary Baker Eddy, a philosophic metaphysician of the late 1800’s , observed that, “The worst thing that I could wish on my enemy is that he hate someone; i.e., externalizing evil also internalizes it; or, as in physics, actions have like reactions.

Bryson concludes, “Each of us is a musty archive of adjustments, adaptations, modifications and providential tinkering stretching back 3.8 billion years. Remarkably, many of the genes and chemical reactions that take place in us also do so in fruit and vegetables…Everything on the planet is an elaboration on a single, original plan…Humans are mere increments…It cannot be said too often: all life is one.” (See ASH, p. 517.)

Bryson explains gravity in sometimes elegant prose but inescapably concludes that most experts now believe that gravity is likely to cause a contraction of the universe into a black hole, which will lead to another Big Bang, creating new universes, sequentially and endlessly. (This is called the “closed theory” of the universe). A lesser number of scientists believe the “open theory”, namely that the universe will keep expanding, as gravitational pull weakens, until all points are scattered beyond the sight of all. A third theory (the “flat theory”) is that gravity might remain “just right” and hold everything where it is. This was Einstein’s “cosmological constant theory”, which he later repudiated as “the greatest blunder of my life”. Some experts still believe it.

The open-closed-flat theories seem academic anyway, because, the gravitational pull of the sun will fry the earth to crisp bacon within 200 million years (eliminating all life forms long before that) and, in about 600M years, will suck our entire planet into the sun’s mass. So our universe, (open, closed or flat) cannot save us from elimination by our sun. The sun’s gravitational pull may also be moot, because, based on the millions of comets flying recklessly around our galaxy, it is statistically probable that that a comet (large enough to destroy most or all of life on our planet) will strike the earth within two million years. If not, other “episodes of extinction” (fn. 7) are likely to occur well before the sun fries us. As in the past, with 99.9% of the earth’s species, extinction is the likely denouement of everything.

Those, who wish to believe in a Creator, can take comfort in the fact that there is nothing in Evolutionism that negates Creationism or even the assertion that the universe was the result of “intelligent design”, and, again, scientific evolutionists studiously avoid the subject. More saliently, evolutionism remains ever-silent as to the first cause of life: i.e., what made the first cell spring to life? Regardless, the approximate evolutionary mechanics and proximate events that followed the first-life-causing event have become clear and form a solid consensus among scientific experts.

As Carl Sagan said, most of us wander through life without having any idea of where we came from or what is going on around us. If you have an inquiring mind that reaches beyond the daily newspaper and the data that we are spoon fed by those who wish to manipulate us, you will enjoy Bryson’s book and its lucid, gripping and even humorous unveilings of the fascinating origins of the universe, our galaxy, our solar system and the earth’s Tree of Life, including mankind’s tentative but Herculean emergence and confounding survival, so far, against all odds. If you seek the basic facts about these timeless mysteries, then, Bryson’s book is an absolute Must Read for you.

Bill Bryson’s other best selling books include A Walk in the Woods; I’m a Stranger Here; In Sunburned Country; and Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words. However, skip his “Shakespeare”, as it does neither Shakespeare nor Bryson justice. Bryson lives in England,

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1.  Compiled by archeologists, astronomers, astophysicists, biologists, botanists, chemists, geneticists, geochemists, geophysicists, mathematicians, paleontologists, physicists, et al.

2.  A supernova is a giant star, much bigger than our sun, which collapses or implodes, while exploding its outer layers into space, causing a huge light, and the fragments that it scatters could include planets like our earth.  Since our earth is too young to have been part of the Big Bang, most believe that a supernova created the earth.  The earth is believed to have four parts: the crust; the upper mantle; the lower mantle; the liquid outer core (likely molten); and the inner core (a hard-rock inferno).

3.  This is not to say that mankind developed from apes; while mankind and apes are clearly related (i.e., come from the same branch of the Tree of Life), mankind may well not have evolved from an apelike creature, but, rather, emanated from other organisms; scientists accept as fact that both man and the ape evolved from lizards.  All tetrapods (i.e., creatures with four limbs which have five fingers or toes at the end of each limb) grew from the same branch of life’s tree.  DNA shows that, for the first 99.9999% of our history as organisms, we were in the same ancestral line as chimpanzees.”  (ASH, p. 548.)  90% of our genes are identical to those in mice; 60% to those in a fruit fly.  While it is DNA evidence that makes evolutionism irrefutable, plain logic does much the same, and “missing link” fossil-evidence has now become almost as convincing.  The “missing link” between fish and land animals (the “Tiktaalik” or shallow-water land fish) was found in Arctic near Canada in 2006, which is a direct link between fish and the first land-lizards; and we’ve had fossils of early whales that lived on land (the Archaeopteryx) for some time. We also have fossils of fish with teeth.  The development of the limbs, toes and fingers is the most compelling, as it proves that these “links” were indeed tetrapods, too.  (See The New York Times, April 6, 2006, front page.)  According to National Geographic (March 2006, p. 64 et seq), geneticists have reached a consensus as to evolution of the human species and its path around the globe from roughly 200,000 years ago to the present.

4.  All plant and animal life are inescapably DNA-related and spring from the same branch of life’s evolutionary tree – none of which repudiates Creationism.

5.  Simon Conway Morris, The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals, Oxford University Press (1998).

6.  Ibid, at p. 2.  He also observed: “…[A]nimals first appeared 620 million years ago…”  (Id, p. 27); “Mammals evolved from reptiles [lizards] about 225M years ago…Hominids [from which we came] about 4.5M…” (Ib, p. 105)  “There is little doubt that all known life shares a common ancestor [the single cell organism]…because of the shared possession of…DNA…” (Id, p. 24).  Throughout this document, all emphases (in italics, bold or underlining) within quotes have been added, unless indicated to the contrary.

7.  Extinction is the paradoxical motor of progress; i.e., 99.99% of all species that ever lived no longer exist.  (See ASH, p. 437.)   “The lifespan of the average species is about 4M years…about where we [hominids] are now.”  (Id.)  Countless minor and four major extinction episodes have occurred: Ordovician (440M years ago); Devonian (365M); Permanian (265M); Triassic (210M); and Cretaceous (65M), each extinguishing 70-95% of all life forms on the planet.  Fossil imprints tell us this with substantial certainty.  The causes of these mega extinctions are unknown but are believed to include one or more of the following:  global warming or cooling; changes in sea level; oxygen depletion; meteor or comet hits; volcanoes; super-hurricanes; and/or super solar flares.  It is believed that the dinosaurs were extinguished by the “KT meteor” (“KTM”) which was the equivalent of one Hiroshima-sized bomb for every person on the planet.  “KT” meant between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods; the “K” comes from Gr. meaning cloud (as does Cretaceous); we know that KT wiped out over half of all life forms (65M years ago), because fossil remains of same stopped at the point of the KT rock formations.  KT created a crater 20 miles across and 3 miles deep, although it was long ago filled by glacial deposits; KTM was a rock roughly 1.5 miles wide, weighing 10B tons, traveling at 200 x the speed of sound; the initial blast likely destroyed everything within one thousand miles and then initiated earthquakes, Tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, untold tons of ash, and blocked the sun for months or years. The famous “Manson Meteor” in Iowa was smaller and hit earth about 10M years earlier.  Both traveled so fast that they could not be seen by the human eye more than a second before impact, if at all.

8.  Clearly a student of Eastern religions, she was the founder of Christian Science and was, perhaps, among the most eloquent writers of prose, poetry and hymns of her generation.

9.  An Intelligent Designer might have designed such a series of random episodic extinctions of all life forms (id. fn. 7), however enigmatic, and seemingly malevolent, such a design may seem.  Bryson and the other sources cited herein (e.g., Gould, Morris), seem genuinely stunned by the fact that any creature such as we ever emerged.  They note that the tiniest change of climate, earth’s tilt, sun’s size, amount of oxygen, or millions of other physical alterations of our environment, would have precluded our emergence.  We are clearly a scientific miracle, albeit one of extremely short-lived tenure, relative to our universe.

10. If the atoms that comprise us were pulled away from us and placed on a table top, there would be no life there.  Life springs inexplicably from the interaction of the molecules, constituting the eternal conundrum of life’s origin.

11. This statement recalls the classic observation, “There are three kinds of people in the world: Those who make things happen; those who watch things happen, and those who don’t know what happened.”  Let’s at least try to know what happened.