Derek Sivers

A Short History of Nearly Everything - by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything - by Bill Bryson

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Fun read of everything from the big bang to tectonic plates to the evolution of early man.

my notes

Because gravity holds planets in orbit and makes falling objects land with a bang, we tend to think of it as a powerful force, but it is not really. It is only powerful in a kind of collective sense, when one massive object, like the Sun, holds on to another massive object, like the Earth. At an elemental level gravity is extraordinarily unrobust. Each time you pick up a book from a table or a dime from the floor you effortlessly overcome the combined gravitational exertion of an entire planet.

When we die our atoms will disassemble and move off to find new uses elsewhere - as part of a leaf or other human being or drop of dew. Atoms, however, go on practically forever.

Earth’s surface is made up of eight to twelve big plates and twenty or so smaller ones, and they all move in different directions and at different speeds. They bear only an incidental relationship to the landmasses that sit upon them. Iceland is split down the middle, which makes it tectonically half American and half European. New Zealand, meanwhile, is part of the immense Indian Ocean plate

Kazakhstan was once attached to Norway and New England. One corner of Staten Island, but only a corner, is European. So is part of Newfoundland. Pick up a pebble from a Massachusetts beach, and its nearest kin will now be in Africa. The Scottish Highlands and much of Scandinavia are substantially American. Some of the Shackleton Range of Antarctica, it is thought, may once have belonged to the Appalachians of the eastern U.S.

California will float off and become a kind of Madagascar of the Pacific. Africa will push northward into Europe, squeezing the Mediterranean out of existence. Europe and North America are parting at about the speed a fingernail grows.

At any one moment 1,800 thunderstorms are in progress around the globe - some 40,000 a day. Day and night across the planet every second about a hundred lightning bolts hit the ground.

In 1742 Anders Celsius, made boiling point zero and freezing point 100 on his scale, but that was soon reversed.

The first International Cloud Atlas produced in 1896, divided clouds into ten basic types, of which the plumpest and most cushiony-looking was number nine, cumulonimbus. That seems to have been the source of the expression “to be on cloud nine.”

When you look at a lake, you are looking at a collection of molecules that have been there on average for about a decade. In the ocean the residence time is thought to be more like a hundred years.

About 60 percent of water molecules in a rainfall are returned to the atmosphere within a day or two. Once evaporated, they spend no more than a week or so - Drury says twelve days - in the sky before falling again as rain.

The Gulf Stream carries an amount of heat to Europe which is why Britain and Ireland have such mild winters compared with Canada and Russia.

Seawater: we sweat and cry seawater, but curiously we cannot tolerate it as an input.

Life occurs just for its own sake.

What’s life to a lichen? Yet its impulse to exist, to be, is every bit as strong as ours - arguably even stronger. If I were told that I had to spend decades being a furry growth on a rock in the woods, I believe I would lose the will to go on. Lichens don’t. Like virtually all living things, they will suffer any hardship, endure any insult, for a moment’s additional existence.

Plankton created their shells by drawing oxygen from the atmosphere and combining it with other elements (carbon especially) to form durable compounds such as calcium carbonate.

Plankton take to the grave with them are two very stable isotopes - oxygen-16 and oxygen-18.

The isotopes accumulate at different rates depending on how much oxygen or carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere at the time of their creation. By comparing these ancient ratios, the geochemists can cunningly read conditions in the ancient world - oxygen levels, air and ocean temperatures, the extent and timing of ice ages, and much else. By combining their isotope findings with other fossil residues - pollen levels and so on - scientists can, with considerable confidence, re-create entire landscapes that no human eye ever saw.

99.99 percent of all species that have ever lived are no longer with us. “To a first approximation, all species are extinct.”

There were guinea pigs the size of rhinos and rhinos the size of a two-story house.

The raccoon family migrated to South America, discovered a vacancy, and evolved into creatures the size and ferocity of bears.

A gigantic, flightless, carnivorous bird called Titanis was possibly the most ferocious creature in North America. Certainly it was the most daunting bird that ever lived. It stood ten feet high, weighed over eight hundred pounds.

Museum displays are artificial. Antique models, not ancient bones.

Kevin Kelly, cofounder of Wired magazine, launched an enterprise called the All Species Foundation with the aim of finding every living organism and recording it on a database.

The large flightless New Zealand bird called the takahe had been presumed extinct for two hundred years before being found living in a rugged area of the country’s South Island.

They could insert human DNA into certain cells of flies, and the flies would accept it as if it were their own. Over 60 percent of human genes, it turns out, are fundamentally the same as those found in fruit flies. At least 90 percent correlate at some level to those found in mice.

Researchers found that whatever organism they were working on - whether nematode worms or human beings - they were often studying essentially the same genes. Life, it appeared, was drawn up from a single set of blueprints.

We are even quite closely related to fruit and vegetables. About half the chemical functions that take place in a banana are fundamentally the same as the chemical functions that take place in you.

It cannot be said too often: all life is one. That is, and I suspect will forever prove to be, the most profound true statement there is.

In Java, a team led by Ralph von Koenigswald studying the Solo People from the Solo River at Ngandong. He had offered locals ten cents for every piece of hominid bone they could come up with, then discovered to his horror that they had been enthusiastically smashing large pieces into small ones to maximize their income.