A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Published: 2022-05-14 in

Impressions

I’ve been wanting to read this book for quite some time now. The title got me hooked because one of the main questions I seek to answer in life is, “How did we get here?” And “Where are we going?” This book did a pretty good job of shedding some light on that topic, but not as much as I’d hoped it would. It talked a lot about the people who made discoveries and the drama between them more so than it did about actual information about “nearly everything.” The stories about the people who made certain discoveries were important and interesting, just not what I was expecting. It was also about 100 pages too long. Nonetheless, I learned some interesting things.

Insights

  • Before the universe began, there was nothing. There was no space outside the singularity, the really small dot of matter composed of material that was about to bang, and there was no time. So there was no "where" and there was no "before".
  • The first remittance of the Big Bang was discovered, unknowingly, in 1965 by two scientists. At the time, they didn't know what they were hearing, but it was in fact light that had travelled across the universe and stretched so much it was now microwaves.
  • Inflation Theory - Proposed by Alan Guth, this theory says moments after the Bang, the universe inflated from something you can hold in your hand to something that was the size of Earth today. This explains the ripples and eddies in our world.
  • Most star systems are double-starred, which makes our single starred system (the sun) a slight oddity.
  • If a supernova were to form within 10 light years of the earth, we'd be goners. But we don't have to worry about that happening. For a true supernova to form from a collapsed star, the star has to be ten to twenty times the size of the sun to begin with and the closest thing we have to that is 50 light years away, called Betelgeuse.
  • Isaac Newton was wild. Very neurotic and kinda crazy, but he was brilliant. His masterwork, Principia, described the mathematical principles of natural philosophy and at the heart of it was his three laws of nature. This made Newton instantly famous. He was the first person to really create a universal law of sorts, that being gravity.
  • By the late 18th Century, scientists knew the shape, size, and weight of the earth thanks to some precise measurements by a variety of scientists using a variety of techniques. They did not know, however, how old the earth was.
  • How fast galaxies are moving away from us is called their recessional velocity.
  • The word molecule comes from the Latin word for "little mass." Atoms make up everything, but most scientists talk about atoms in terms of molecules instead of atoms themselves. Molecules are two or more atoms working together in a stable way. If you have two Hydrogen atoms and then through on an Oxygen atom, you get a water molecule.
  • Ernst Mach was the name behind the speed of sound - Mach 1.
  • Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle - An electron is a particle but a particle that can be described in terms of waves. The uncertainty around the theory is that we can know the path an electron takes as it moves through a space or we can know where it is at a given instant but we cannot know both.
  • Two forces keep atoms together - strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force. The strong force binds atoms together and allows the protons to stay in the nucleus. It's strong, but doesn't have a wide range of effect. This is why elements with big, crowded nuclei are so unstable. The force can't hold on to the protons in the nucleus, so some escape and then you get a new element.
  • Hadrons, a collective term to describe protons, neutrons, and other particles governed by strong nuclear force are made up of quarks - rhymes with larks. Richard Feynman wanted to call these partons, but was overruled. Quarks are sub-divided into sub categories - up, down, strange, charm, top, and bottom-which are refered to as their "flavors." These are even further divided into red, green, and blue.
  • A Mars sized object slammed into Earth to create the Moon out of debris. This was very good for us, since the moon helps earth so much. But if it happened in 1986 or last Wednesday, we wouldn't be so pleased about it.
  • The elements of chemistry are very strange... Oxygen and hydrogen are two of the most combustible elements in the world, but put them together and they make water. A similar thing happens with Sodium and Chlorine. Chlorine is a harsh chemical useful for cleaning and sodium is explosive. Smash them together and you get sodium chloride, or what most people call salt.
  • When elements don't occur naturally on Earth, they become extremely toxic to us. Plutonium is a good example.
  • Temperature is really just a measure of the activity of molecules.
  • Storm clouds can contain enough energy for four days of power for the US. These clouds can contain updrafts and downdrafts and are often side by side, which is why pilots don't like to fly through them. The lighter particles tend to become positively charged, the heavier particles become negatively charged and stay at the base of the cloud. The negative particles want to race towards the positively charged earth - creating lightning.
  • Overcast clouds are formed when moisture-bearing updrafts lack the oomph to break through a level of more stable air above, and instead spread out, like smoke hitting a ceiling.
  • Darwin originally proposed that all organisms competed for resources, and the ones that had some innate advantage would prosper. That advantage would be passed on to the offspring. This is how species evolved. He first explained this is "Descent with modification."

Quotes

  • [One cannot] predict future events exactly if one cannot even measure the present state of the universe precisely.
  • Every living thing is an elaboration on a single original plan. As humans, we are mere increments–each of us a musty archive of adjustments, adaptations, modifications, and providential tinkerings stretching back 3.8billion years.
  • "Nobody knows quite how destructive human beings are, but it is a fact that over the last fifty thousand years or wherever we have gone animals have tended to vanish, in often astonishingly large numbers.
  • "It's an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe's supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously."
  • "We really are at the beginning of it all [life.] The trick, of course, is to make sure we never find the end. And that, almost certainly, will require a good deal more than lucky breaks."

Stories/Studies

  • One of the most unlucky scientists, Guillaume Le Gentil (p. 54)
  • Mary Anning found a strange 17 foot long sea monster fossil which is now known as ichtyosaurus embedded in the English Channel. For the next 35 years, she collected and sold fossils to tourists. It's long been held that she coined the original tongue twister, "She sells sea shells by the sea shore."
  • Sometime in the 1950s, during the mass production phase of lead, a lot of studies were conducted to see the effects of lead. The problem was that most studies were funded by lead producers. In one such case, a doctor who had no training in chemical pathology conducted a study where they gave lead samples to volunteers in increasing doses. After, they tested their urine and feces for lead samples. But what the doctor didn't know was that lead isn't produced as a waste product. Rather it gets absorbed by the blood and bones - which is why it was so dangerous. It makes me think, shouldn't the fact that there was no lead being produced in waste send of a warning light?

Questions

  • If the earth formed from the Big Bang, where did the oceans come from - and how were the oceans already so deep compared to land?Was it just one big grand canyon like thing before someone turned the hose on and filled it with water?
    • “We have identified a vast reservoir of Earth-like water in the outer reaches of the solar system,” said Darek Lis, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, and lead author of the study. “Water was crucial for the development of life as we know it. We not only want to understand how Earth’s water was delivered, but also if this process could work in other planetary systems.”
    • https://www.nasa.gov/feature/comet-provides-new-clues-to-origins-of-earth-s-oceans
  • What was the Reign of Terror in Paris and why was Marie Antoniette beheaded?
  • If the universe is expanding, where is it expanding to? Or expanding in?