Bill Bryson / David Christian

October 05 2016

A Short History of Nearly Everything chronicles the history of human scientific discovery. It takes us on close encounters with the men and women who risked the comforts of 9-to-5 lives to unravel the secrets of everything we see: the universe, the earth, life. As human beings stretched their knowledge across the universe and into the very ingredients of existence, their manifest destiny became clear: they are the zenith of evolution and the stewards of countless life forms on earth: the only life that so far exists across trillions of light years. But as human knowledge and discovery exploded, the science of it all became less about what we can see and more about the invisible: billions of bacteria that cover our bodies, trillions of quarks that compose our thoughts and eons of distance that stretch between us and an infinite universe that's getting inconceivably bigger every microsecond. This has led to some rather uncomfortable questions: - Really, we need 11 dimensions to understand why the sun sets? - What's the difference between a Big Bang nanosecond that created the universe and the work of God? - Why does the Physics of the stars not work for quarks? Or is it all just a joke? - Who cares? My iPhone just works. Science is now about the abstract. We are groping around the dark in the experimental control room of life. We have locked everyone out and steer the course of history in our sweaty palms. Our fumbling around has resulted in an incomplete picture of how things work. And as we know from the movies, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. We created leaded gasoline to make sure our rides stay rust-free only to find the lead is killing us from the inside. We created CFCs to help keep our foods refrigerated only to find out it is eating our earth's ozone and has a half-life of a billion years. We have trawled our ocean floors and urbanized ecosystems without knowing how they fit in the circle of life (beneath us). Oh yes, we have also developed atomic instruments that can wipe us out and have a history of placing trust in tyrants. It seems to be a race now to see who can snuff humans out first: ourselves or nature. Asteroids, super volcanoes and solar flares have wiped out entire evolutionary epochs without warning but we seem to be trying to hurry the process by tampering with earth's delicate environmental calibrations without knowing the blowback. Luckily, earth, as we smugly know, is a miracle. It has an infinitesimally small chance of having exactly the right elemental composition to be conditional for life. It has thrived for billions of years, caressing life on its way to becoming us. Unfortunately, earth is only resilient in the long run. Humans have been around for less than 1% of its history and all indications are that we are due for another ice age around the corner to shake things up. Maybe we can hope our successors as chaperones of this planet will have better luck preserving the jewel of life than we had. Hopefully they also have time machines so they can save us from ourselves.