Blake Snow

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Science: “A mountain of theory built on a molehill of evidence”


I recently finished A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. From a single book I’ve never learned so much and so little at the same time. I’ve also never read a more absorbing science book. Whereas I usually highlight a few passages from each book, I highlighted more than two dozen parts of this book upon completion — it covers that much ground. 

The reason: After spending three years researching the world’s greatest scientific discoveries and interviewing the people who know them best, Bryson succeeds in summarizing how we “big banged” from nothing and got to where we are today. But he’s also quick to note the little we do know scientifically. “Tons of conjecture,” he objectively writes. “A mountain of theory built on a molehill of evidence.”

The thing that makes this book so special, however, is the way Bryson makes sense of otherwise meaningless astronomical figures. For instance, if you condense the 4.5 billion years Earth is estimated to have existed into 24 hours, humans don’t appear until two minutes from midnight! Similarly, it would take more than 5,000 average sized books to print your entire (and astonishingly unique) genetic code. Or if Earth were the size of a pea, you’d have to travel several miles before you reach the speck of Pluto. (In other words, our scale of the Solar System is woefully but inevitably out of perspective — space is mostly empty.)

Bryson’s masterful work is also further proof that academic writing (or otherwise technical or scientific) is more problematic than helpful, because it fails to clearly tell the reader (and by extension, the world) why it should care. Take James Hutton, for example. The guy invented geology some 100 years before the discipline was born, but wasn’t originally credited for it because he couldn’t articulate his point, neither orally and especially not in the thousands of pages he wrote. It wasn’t until his loyal understudy succinctly summarized his findings decades later that the world finally took notice of his seminal erosion and plate tectonic findings.

In reading the book, I was disappointed to learn just how little we’ve observed in the last 50 years scientifically. For several centuries leading up to the mid twentieth, we made our most impressive discoveries. Gravity. The universe. Evolution. Electricity. DNA. The Periodic Table. General relativity. Penicillin. Over the last 50 years, however, it seems we may have been distracted with slow-going (perhaps futile) efforts to study particle physics and black holes. For what?! We don’t even know how the human brain works, let alone the placebo effect.

As Bryson puts it, quantum theory is like trying to understand the larger universe by observing a grain of sand at the bottom of the ocean that physically behaves in inexplicable ways. “Our large-world minds weren’t wired in a way to understand differing quantum laws,” he writes.

More troubling is what some of our greatest scientific minds (and even consensus) got wrong. Even geniuses like Newton and Einstein, two of the world’s most important individuals I believe, got things wrong. The latter most notably opposed Hutton’s plate tectonics discovery. Scientific consensus once invented air ether to explain light travel. And don’t even get me started on Madagascar or the bad science and F.U.D. when attempting to explain legitimate global warming. (For the insecure scientists in the room, please note I critique everything I love. Science is no exception.)

All told, we’ve learned a lot about life, our planet, and the universe over the last few centuries, the book points out. But so much remains a mystery, which, of course, adds to the majesty of life. In explaining the biology of a known universe that almost always disallows it, Bryson writes, “It’s as if all the ingredients in your kitchen somehow got together and baked themselves into a cake—but a cake that could moreover divide when necessary to produce more cakes. It is little wonder that we call it the miracle of life.”

As for our oversized human brains, they don’t make much sense from an evolutionary perspective. “Huge brains are demanding organs: they make up only 2 percent of the body’s mass, but devour 20 percent of its energy,” Bryson writes. “They are also comparatively picky in what they use as fuel. If you never ate another morsel of fat, your brain would not complain because it won’t touch the stuff. It wants glucose instead, and lots of it, even if it means short-changing other organs.”

But wait! There’s more: “Over 60 percent of human genes, it turns out, are fundamentally the same as those found in fruit flies. At least 90% correlate at some level to those found in mice. (We even have the same genes for making a tail, if only they would switch on.)” And… “As Alan Walker and Pat Shipman have drily observed, if you correlate tool discovery with the species of creature most often found nearby, you would have to conclude that early hand tools were mostly made by antelopes.”

Again, life is an enigma. Our scientific understanding is filled with uncomfortable gaps, in both modern history and prehistory. That’s not to say we shouldn’t keep learning. But as Charlie Munger says, “Acknowledging what you don’t know is the dawning of wisdom.” That sentiment is perhaps best summed up by this on the subject of scientific disagreement: “I think both sides have done a bit of a disservice to science by insisting that it must be one thing or the other. Things are likely to turn out to be not so straightforward as either camp would have you believe.”

Well said from a well-written book. For anyone with even a remote interest in how the world works, I highly recommend A Short History of Nearly Everything. Five stars out of five, Mr. Bryson.

Bonus passages

  • Water is strange stuff. It is formless and transparent, and yet we long to be beside it. It has no taste and yet we love the taste of it. We will travel great distances and pay small fortunes to see it in sunshine. And even though we know it is dangerous and drowns tens of thousands of people every year, we can’t wait to frolic in it.
  • It has been suggested that there isn’t a single bit of any of us—not so much as a stray molecule—that was part of us nine years ago. It may not feel like it, but at the cellular level we are all youngsters.
  • Faced with attack, modern humans have only two advantages. We have a good brain, with which we can devise strategies, and we have hands with which we can fling or brandish hurtful objects. We are the only creature that can harm at a distance. We can thus afford to be physically vulnerable (compared to wild animals)
  • “Descended from the apes! My dear, let us hope that it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.”—One woman’s reaction after the theory of evolution was explained to her.
  • Even thinking, it turns out, affects the ways genes work. How fast a man’s beard grows, for instance, is partly a function of how much he thinks about sex (because thinking about sex produces a testosterone surge).
  • If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here—and by “we” I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better.

This article first published to in fall 2014