I would call this book a “multivitamin” of natural sciences: It fills the gaps in the general knowledge of:
- The cosmological and geological history of the planet earth,
- History of physics, history, astronomy, and the science itself,
- History of our – and other – species
In “The Interconnected Mess of it all,” I wrote about how dismantling the world into discrete disciplines is not serving science that well. “A Short History of Nearly Everything” drives that point home, as it showcases the interdisciplinary pursuits of famous scientists and the cross-pollination of ideas between disciplines. Particularly in the period of Romantic Science (the late 1800s – early 1900s), few prolific scientists amassed discoveries and inventions by applying new scientific methods to previously unconnected disciplines.
It is a surprise that we are still here.
The Book starts with the tumultuous early days of the universe, solar system, the earth, and our atmosphere. It underscores how many seemingly miraculous coincidences have had to happen in order to make life on earth possible.
It also lists a long list of threats to our continual existence: Asteroids, Supervulcanoes, Diseases, Ice Ages, Warming periods, and other cyclical cataclysms that can render the planet uninhabitable.
There are just so many threats beyond our control that gained a renewed understanding of Elon Musk‘s efforts to make humanity a multi-planetary species.
Scientists are as petty and random as the rest of us
Max Planck is credited with saying that “the Science progresses one funeral at a time“. Scientists who made their careers by discovering X are not very happy with the new generation trying to disprove the painstakingly proven theories of the old guard.
Scientists are, after all – human and not that much more objective than the rest of us. Their idiosyncratic quirks are pretty interesting.
Halley (for whom the Halley’s commet was named) was an exceptional figure. In the course of a long and productive career, he was a sea captain, a cartographer, a professor of geometry at the University of Oxford, deputy controller of the Royal Mint, Astronomer Royal, and inventor of the deep-sea diving bell. He wrote authoritatively on magnetism, tides and the motions of the planets, and fondly on the effects of opium.
(Parkinson had one other slight claim to fame. In 1785 he became possibly the only person in history to win a natural history museum in a raffle. The museum, in London’s Leicester Square, had been founded by Sir Ashton Lever, who had driven himself bankrupt with his unrestrained collecting of natural wonders. Parkinson kept the museum until 1805, when he could no longer support it and the collection was broken up and sold.)
In the 1860s, journals and other learned publications in Britain began to receive papers on hydrostatics, electricity and other scientific subjects from a James Croll of Anderson’s University in Glasgow. One of the papers, on how variations in the Earth’s orbit might have precipitated ice ages, was published in the Philosophical Magazine in 1864 and was recognized at once as a work of the highest standard. So there was some surprise, and perhaps just a touch of embarrassment, when it turned out that Croll was not an academic at the university, but a janitor.
(Cavendish) he was particularly devoted to the weekly scientific soirées of the great naturalist Sir Joseph Banks – it was always made clear to the other guests that Cavendish was on no account to be approached or even looked at. Those who sought his views were advised to wander into his vicinity as if by accident and to ‘talk as it were into vacancy’. If their remarks were scientifically worthy they might receive a mumbled reply,
We are not the best stewards of our planet.
For almost the entire history of our species, we had to fight for survival. We had to dominate nature and the elements, protect ourselves against predators and survive the perils of the natural world.
But since the scientific revolution, we started winning disproportionately, and the fight stopped being fair. We continue to exert our dominance, wiping the entire species’ and polluting the environment out of habit.
Now it’s our responsibility to grow up and become good stewards of our planet.
Since 1946, the United States had been ferrying 55-gallon drums of radioactive gunk out to the Fallarone Islands, some 50 kilometres off the California coast near San Francisco, where it simply threw them overboard.
Imagine ground sloths that could look into an upstairs window, tortoises nearly the size of a small Fiat, monitor lizards 6 metres long basking beside desert highways in Western Australia. Alas, they are gone (because of us), and we live on a much diminished planet.
- There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.
- Most star systems in the cosmos are binary (double-starred), which makes our solitary sun a slight oddity.
- The reason the Voyager craft were launched when they were (in August and September 1977) was that Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune were aligned in a way that happens only once every 175 years. This enabled the two Voyagers to use a ‘gravity assist’ technique in which the craft were successively flung from one gassy giant to the next in a kind of cosmic version of crack the whip.
- Halley was an exceptional figure. In the course of a long and productive career1, he was a sea captain, a cartographer, a professor of geometry at the University of Oxford, deputy controller of the Royal Mint, Astronomer Royal, and inventor of the deep-sea diving bell. He wrote authoritatively on magnetism, tides and the motions of the planets, and fondly on the effects of opium.
- He merely recognized that the comet he saw in 1682 was the same one that had been seen by others in 1456, 1531 and 1607. It didn’t become Halley’s comet until 1758, some sixteen years after his death.
- Halley’s traumas were not yet quite over. The Royal Society had promised to publish the work,
- Jean Chappe spent months travelling to Siberia by coach, boat and sleigh, nursing his delicate instruments over every perilous bump, only to find the last vital stretch blocked by swollen rivers, the result of unusually heavy spring rains, which the locals were swift to blame on him after they saw him pointing strange instruments at the sky. Chappe managed to escape with his life, but with no useful measurements.
- (Cavendish) he was particularly devoted to the weekly scientific soirées of the great naturalist Sir Joseph Banks – it was always made clear to the other guests that Cavendish was on no account to be approached or even looked at. Those who sought his views were advised to wander into his vicinity as if by accident and to ‘talk as it were into vacancy’20. If their remarks were scientifically worthy they might receive a mumbled reply,
- Among much else, and without telling anyone, Cavendish discovered or anticipated the law of the conservation of energy, Ohm’s Law, Dalton’s Law of Partial Pressures, Richter’s Law of Reciprocal Proportions, Charles’s Law of Gases, and the principles of electrical conductivity. That’s just some of it. According to the science historian J. G. Crowther, he also foreshadowed ‘the work of Kelvin and G. H. Darwin on the effect of tidal friction21 on slowing the rotation of the earth, and Larmor’s discovery, published in 1915, on the effect of local atmospheric cooling
- It is hard to imagine now, but geology excited the nineteenth century – positively gripped it – in a way that no science ever had before or would again.
- And when, in 1841, the great Charles Lyell travelled to America to give a series of lectures in Boston, sellout audiences of three thousand at a time packed into the Lowell Institute to hear his tranquillizing descriptions of marine zeolites and seismic perturbations in Campania.
- Throughout the modern, thinking world, but especially in Britain, men of learning ventured into the countryside to do a little ‘stone-breaking’, as they called it. It was a pursuit taken seriously and they tended to dress with appropriate gravity, in top hats and dark suits, except for the Reverend William Buckland of Oxford, whose habit it was to do his fieldwork in an academic gown. The field attracted many
- In 1794 he was implicated in a faintly lunatic-sounding conspiracy10 called ‘the Pop-gun Plot’, in which it was planned to shoot King George III in the neck with a poisoned dart as he sat in his box at the theatre. Parkinson
- (Parkinson had one other slight claim to fame. In 1785 he became possibly the only person in history to win a natural history museum in a raffle. The museum, in London’s Leicester Square, had been founded by Sir Ashton Lever, who had driven himself bankrupt with his unrestrained collecting of natural wonders. Parkinson kept the museum until 1805, when he could no longer support it and the collection was broken up and sold.)
- His other slight peculiarity14 was the habit, when distracted by thought, of taking up improbable positions on furniture – lying across two chairs at once or ‘resting his head on the seat of a chair, while standing up’ (to quote his friend Darwin).
- Jurassic refers to the Jura Mountains on the border of France and Switzerland.
- for his work with dinosaurs that Owen is remembered. He coined the term dinosauria in 1841. It means ‘terrible lizard’
- Before Owen, museums were designed primarily for the use and edification of the elite27, and even they found it difficult to gain access. In the early days of the British Museum, prospective visitors had to make a written application and undergo a brief interview to determine if they were fit to be admitted at all. They then had to return a second time to pick up a ticket – that is, assuming they had passed the interview – and finally come back a third time to view the museum’s treasures. Even then they were whisked through in groups and not allowed to linger. Owen’s plan was to welcome everyone, even to the point of encouraging working men to visit in the evening, and to devote most of the museum’s space to public displays. He even proposed, very radically, to put informative labels on each display28 so that people could appreciate what they were viewing.
- at a place called Bone Cabin Quarry, only a few miles from Marsh’s prime hunting ground at Como Bluff, Wyoming. There, hundreds and hundreds of fossil bones were to be found weathering out of the hills. They were so numerous, in fact, that someone had built a cabin out of them – hence the name37.
- The number of neutrons is generally about the same as the number of protons, but they can vary up and down slightly. Add or subtract a neutron or two and you get an isotope23.
- When you sit in a chair, you are not actually sitting there, but levitating above it at a height of one angstrom (a hundred millionth of a centimetre), your electrons and its electrons implacably opposed to any closer intimacy.
- The picture of an atom that nearly everybody has in mind is of an electron or two flying around a nucleus, like planets orbiting a sun. This image was created in 1904, based on little more than clever guesswork, by a Japanese physicist named Hantaro Nagaoka.
- Soon afterwards, at a meeting in Wisconsin, Patterson announced a definitive age for the Earth of 4,550 million years (plus or minus 70 million years) – ‘a figure that stands unchanged 50 years later’16, as McGrayne admiringly notes. After two hundred years of attempts, the Earth finally had an age. Almost at once, Patterson turned his attention to the question of all that lead in the atmosphere. He was astounded to find that what little was known about the effects of lead on humans was almost invariably wrong or misleading – and not surprisingly, since for forty years every study of lead’s effects had been funded exclusively by manufacturers of lead additives.
- It would prove to be a hellish campaign. Ethyl was a powerful global corporation with many friends in high places. (Among its directors have been Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell and Gilbert Grosvenor of the National Geographic Society.) Patterson suddenly found research funding withdrawn or difficult to acquire. The American Petroleum Institute cancelled a research contract with him, as did the United States Public Health Service, a supposedly neutral government body.
- To his great credit, Patterson never wavered. Eventually his efforts led to the introduction of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and finally to the removal from sale of all leaded petrol in the United States in 1986. Almost immediately lead levels in the blood of Americans fell by 80 per cent21.
- Clair Patterson died in 1995. He didn’t win a Nobel Prize for his work. Geologists never do. Nor, more puzzlingly, did he gain any fame or even much attention from half a century of consistent and increasingly selfless achievement. A good case could be made that he was the most influential geologist of the twentieth century.
- Most particle physicists feel, as Leon Lederman remarked in a 1985 television documentary, that the Standard Model lacks elegance and simplicity. ‘It is too complicated. It has too many arbitrary parameters19,’ Lederman said. ‘We don’t really see the creator twiddling twenty knobs to set twenty parameters to create the universe as we know it.’ Physics is really nothing more than a search for ultimate simplicity, but so far all we have is a kind of elegant messiness – or as Lederman put it: ‘There is a deep feeling that the picture is not beautiful.’
- It was Arthur Holmes, the English geologist who did so much to determine the age of the Earth, who came up with a suggestion. Holmes was the first scientist to understand that radioactive warming could produce convection currents within the Earth.
- extensive mountain range on Earth was – mostly – under water. It traced a continuous path along the world’s seabeds, rather like the pattern on a tennis ball. If you began at Iceland and travelled south, you could follow it down the centre of the Atlantic Ocean, around the bottom of Africa, and across the Indian and Southern oceans and into the Pacific just below Australia; there it angled across the Pacific as if making for Baja California before shooting up the west coast of the United States to Alaska. Occasionally its higher peaks poked above the water as an island or archipelago – the Azores and Canaries in the Atlantic, Hawaii in the Pacific, for instance
- tiny grains of iron ore within the rocks point to wherever the magnetic poles happen to be at the time of their formation, then stay pointing in that direction as the rocks cool and harden.
- attachment to rocks, but this problem intrigued him. It occurred to him that the answer might lie in dust from space.
- Scattered through this thin dusting are exotic elements not normally much found on Earth. Among these is the element iridium, which is a thousand times more abundant in space than in the Earth’s crust (because, it is thought, most of the iridium on Earth sank to the core when the planet was young). Luis Alvarez
- ‘Well, you have to remember,’ Asaro recalls, ‘that we were amateurs in this field. Walter was a geologist specializing in palaeomagnetism, Luis was a physicist and I was a nuclear chemist. And now here we were telling palaeontologists that we had solved a problem that had eluded them for over a century. It’s not terribly surprising that they didn’t embrace it immediately.’ As Luis Alvarez joked: ‘We were caught practising geology without a licence.’ But there
- But let’s suppose we did see the object coming. What would we do? Everyone assumes we would send up a nuclear warhead and blast it to smithereens. There are some problems with that idea, however. First, as John S. Lewis notes, our missiles are not designed for space work32. They haven’t the oomph to escape Earth’s gravity, and even if they did there are no mechanisms to guide them across tens of millions of kilometres of space. Still less could we send up a shipload of space cowboys to do the job for us, as in the movie Armageddon; we no longer possess a rocket powerful enough to send humans even as far as the Moon. The last rocket that could, Saturn 5, was retired years ago and has never been replaced. Nor could we quickly build a new one because, amazingly, the plans for Saturn launchers were destroyed as part of a NASA spring-cleaning exercise.
- Although it is little more than a guess, it is thought that in over four billion years the temperature at the core has fallen by no more than 110 degrees Celsius. No one knows exactly how hot the Earth’s core is, but estimates range from something over 4,000 degrees to over 7,000 degrees Celsius – about as hot as the surface of the Sun.
- Did you know there are more geysers and hot springs at Yellowstone than in all the rest of the world combined?’ ‘I didn’t know that.’ He nodded. ‘Ten thousand of them, and nobody knows when a new vent might open.’
- Put the human body under pressure, and that nitrogen is transformed into tiny bubbles that migrate into the blood and tissues. If the pressure is changed too rapidly – as with a too-quick ascent by a diver – the bubbles trapped within the body will begin to fizz in exactly the manner of a freshly opened bottle of champagne, clogging tiny blood vessels, depriving cells of oxygen and causing pain so excruciating that sufferers are prone to bend double in agony – hence ‘the bends’.
- Aluminium is the fourth most common element on Earth, accounting for nearly a tenth of everything that’s underneath your feet, but its existence wasn’t even suspected until it was discovered in the nineteenth century by Humphry Davy, and for a long time after that it was treated as rare and precious. Congress nearly put a shiny lining of aluminium foil atop the Washington Monument to show what a classy and prosperous nation we had become, and the French imperial family in the same period discarded the state silver dinner service and replaced it with an aluminium one29. The fashion was cutting edge even if the knives weren’t.
- What sets the carbon atom apart is that it is shamelessly promiscuous. It is the party animal of the atomic world, latching on to many other atoms (including itself) and holding tight, forming molecular conga lines of hearty robustness – the very trick of nature necessary to build proteins and DNA.
- Trillions upon trillions of tiny marine organisms that most of us have never heard of – foraminiferans and coccoliths and calcareous algae – capture atmospheric carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide, when it falls as rain and use it (in combination with other things) to make their tiny shells. By locking the carbon up in their shells, they keep it from being re-evaporated into the atmosphere where it would build up dangerously as a greenhouse gas. Eventually all the tiny foraminiferans and coccoliths and so on die and fall to the bottom of the sea, where they are compressed into limestone. It is remarkable, when you behold an extraordinary natural feature like the White Cliffs of Dover in England, to reflect that it is made up almost entirely of tiny deceased marine organisms,
- If you have ever been struck by how beautifully crisp and well defined the edges of cumulus clouds tend to be, while other clouds are more blurry, the explanation is that there is a pronounced boundary between the moist interior of a cumulus cloud and the dry air beyond it. Any water molecule that strays beyond the edge of the cloud is immediately zapped by the dry air beyond, allowing the cloud to keep its fine edge. Much higher cirrus clouds are composed of ice and the zone between the edge of the cloud and the air beyond it not so clearly delineated, which is why they tend to be blurry at the edges.
- Charles William Beebe and Otis Barton in 1930. Although they were equal partners, the more colourful Beebe has always received far more written attention. Born in 1877 into a well-to-do family in New York City, Beebe studied zoology at Columbia University, then took a job as a birdkeeper at the New York Zoological Society. Tiring of that, he decided to adopt the life of an adventurer and for the next quarter-century travelled extensively through Asia and South America with a succession of attractive female assistants whose jobs were inventively described as ‘historian and technicist’ or ‘assistant in fish problems20’. He supported these endeavours with a succession of popular books with titles like Edge of the Jungle and Jungle Days, though he also produced some respectable books on wildlife and ornithology.
- Navy provided funding for a more advanced submersible, to be operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution of Massachusetts. Called Alvin, in somewhat contracted honour of the oceanographer Allyn C. Vine, it would be a fully manoeuvrable mini-submarine, though it wouldn’t go anywhere near as deep as Trieste. There was just one problem26: the designers couldn’t find anyone willing to build it. According to William J. Broad in The Universe Below: ‘No big company like General Dynamics, which made submarines for the Navy, wanted to take on a project disparaged by both the Bureau of Ships and Admiral Rickover, the gods of naval patronage.’ Eventually, not to say improbably, Alvin was constructed by General Mills, the food company, at a factory where it made the machines to produce breakfast
- Today Alvin is nearly forty years old, but it remains the world’s premier research vessel.
- Perhaps nothing speaks more clearly of our psychological remoteness from the ocean depths33 than that the main expressed goal for oceanographers during International Geophysical Year, 1957/8, was to study ‘the use of ocean depths for the dumping of radioactive wastes’.
- Since 1946, the United States had been ferrying 55-gallon drums of radioactive gunk out to the Fallarone Islands, some 50 kilometres off the California coast near San Francisco, where it simply threw them overboard.
- Crab-eater seals are not a species of animal that most of us have heard of, but they may actually be the second most numerous large species of animal on Earth, after humans.
- At depth, microbes shrink in size and become extremely sluggish. The liveliest of them may divide no more than once a century18, some no more than perhaps once in five hundred years. As The Economist has put it: ‘The key to long life, it seems, is not to do too much19.’ When
- Making a host unwell has certain benefits for the microbe. The symptoms of an illness often help to spread the disease. Vomiting, sneezing and diarrhoea are excellent methods of getting out of one host and into position for boarding another.
- in 1983 when Barry Marshall, a doctor in Perth, Western Australia, found that many stomach cancers and most stomach ulcers are caused by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori. Even though his findings were easily tested, the notion was so radical that more than a decade would pass before they were generally accepted.
- In an attempt to devise a vaccine, medical authorities conducted experiments on volunteers at a military prison on Deer Island in Boston Harbor52. The prisoners were promised pardons if they survived a battery of tests. These tests were rigorous to say the least. First, the subjects were injected with infected lung tissue taken from the dead and then sprayed in the eyes, nose and mouth with infectious aerosols. If they still failed to succumb, they had their throats swabbed with discharges taken straight from the sick and dying. If all else failed, they were required to sit open-mouthed while a gravely ill victim was sat up slightly and made to cough into their faces. Out of – somewhat amazingly – three hundred men who volunteered, the doctors chose sixty-two for the tests. None contracted the flu – not one. The only person who did grow ill was the ward doctor, who swiftly died. The probable explanation for this is that the epidemic had passed through the prison a few weeks earlier and the volunteers, all of whom had survived that visitation, had a natural immunity.
- Happily the outbreak stopped there, but we can’t count on always being so fortunate. Our lifestyles invite epidemics. Air travel makes it possible to spread infectious agents across the planet with amazing ease. An Ebola virus could begin the day in, say, Benin, and finish it in New York or Hamburg or Nairobi, or all three.
- Walcott had found, in effect, the holy grail of palaeontology. The outcrop became known as the Burgess Shale, from the name of the ridge on which it was found, and for a long time it provided ‘our sole vista upon the inception of modern life12
- Anapsids gave rise to the turtles, which for a time, perhaps a touch improbably, appeared poised to predominate as the planet’s most advanced and deadly species, before an evolutionary lurch let them settle for durability rather than dominance.
- Some animals absolutely prospered – including, a little surprisingly, the turtles once again. As Flannery notes, the period immediately after the dinosaur extinction could well be known as the Age of Turtles31. Sixteen species survived in North America and three more came into existence soon after.
- Rarely has a man been more comfortable with his own greatness. He spent much of his leisure time penning long and flattering portraits of himself, declaring that there had never ‘been a greater botanist or zoologist’, and that his system of classification was ‘the greatest achievement in the realm of science’. Modestly, he suggested that his gravestone should bear the inscription Princeps Botanicorum, ‘Prince of Botanists’. It was never wise to question his generous self-assessments. Those who did so were apt to find they had weeds named after them. Linnaeus’s
- In the 1860s, journals and other learned publications in Britain began to receive papers on hydrostatics, electricity and other scientific subjects from a James Croll of Anderson’s University in Glasgow. One of the papers, on how variations in the Earth’s orbit might have precipitated ice ages, was published in the Philosophical Magazine in 1864 and was recognized at once as a work of the highest standard. So there was some surprise, and perhaps just a touch of embarrassment, when it turned out that Croll was not an academic at the university, but a janitor .
- Croll was the first to suggest that cyclical changes in the shape of the Earth’s orbit, from elliptical (which is to say, slightly oval) to nearly circular to elliptical again, might explain the onset and retreat of ice ages. No-one had ever thought before
- In fact, global warming could plausibly, if paradoxically, lead to powerful localized cooling in North America and northern Europe.
- We don’t know precisely the circumstances, or even the year, attending the last moments of the last dodo, so we don’t know which arrived first, a world that contained a Principia or one that had no dodos, but we do know that they happened at more or less the same time.
- dodos were so spectacularly short on insight, it is reported, that if you wished to find all the dodos in a vicinity you had only to catch one and set it to squawking, and all the others would waddle along to see what was up.
- In 1755, some seventy years after the last dodo’s death, the director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford decided that the institution’s stuffed dodo was becoming unpleasantly musty and ordered it tossed on a bonfire. This was a surprising decision as it was by this time the only dodo in existence, stuffed or otherwise.
- biggest-ever member of the pigeon family,
- Imagine ground sloths that could look into an upstairs window, tortoises nearly the size of a small Fiat, monitor lizards 6 metres long basking beside desert highways in Western Australia. Alas, they are gone, and we live on a much diminished planet.
- Schouten made life-sized paintings of every animal they could reasonably recreate and Flannery wrote the words. The result was an extraordinary book called A Gap in Nature,
- Book: A Gap in Nature