Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Short History...


I finished reading Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything and I really enjoyed it. I learnt new and wondrous things about the solar system, the search for the age and weight of the earth, how the elements were discovered, atoms, the use and abuse of lead, the current thinking about the big bang theory, volcanoes, clouds, evolution, cells, genes, DNA and the list goes on and on. 574 exceedingly readable pages about the history life, the universe and everything.

Bryson traveled extensively, read widely and in-depthly, and met key figures in many different fields to compile this eclectic, scientific tome. He writes with such wit and awe about these many topics and provides amusing side stories or back histories that textbooks wouldn't dream of including. As you may well guess, this isn't a text book, it is a layperson's guide to understanding a little bit more the universe around them and how we got here. Bryson is the first to offer some idea of what we (collectively) also don't know, which is refreshing. You get the sense that we hairless apes have come a long way in our understanding, and still have a long way to go; but in the overall history of the world we have been here only seconds.


Here is one of my favorite informative passages, with a wonderful quirky aside, the kind that it prevalent in the book. This is about DNA...

"... researchers performed some rather bizarre experiements that produced curiously unbizarre outcomes. In one, they took the gene that controlled the development of a mouse's eye and inserted it into the larva of a fruit fly. The thought was that it would produce something interestingly grotesque. In fact, the mouse-eye gene not only made a viable eye in the fruit fly, it made a fly's eye. Here were two creatures that hadn't shared a common ancestor for 500 million years, yet could swap genetic material as if they were sisters.

The story is the same whereever researches looked. They found that they could insert human DNA into certain cells of flies and the flies would accept it as if it were their own. Over 60 per cent of human genes, it turns out, are fundamentally the same as those found in fruit flies. At least 90 per cent correlate at some level with those found in mice. (We even have the same gene for making a tail, if only they would switch on.)"

I wonder who is working on switching on that gene? A tail would come in very handy at times. Suffice to say, if you are like me and interested in science, but it is not your field, this is a handy introduction aimed at the interested and confused. But beware, you may never look at the stars or even dust in the same way again! Bill Bryson, he is charming, witty and amusing and so easy to love; I am sure that is why more people don't like him.

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