Saturday, May 2, 2009

Book Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

I encountered Bill Bryson's work only recently (don't know how I missed him), but this is the third of his books I've read (you can read my reviews of his Shakespeare and The Thunderbolt Kid).

At 500-plus pages and with its compendious title, A Short History of Nearly Everything is the friendly bedside companion I expected it to be. Bryson is incurably curious, a trait all too rare in our entertainment-anesthetized society. What's more, he's obsessively curious about science, which elevates his geekiness to the level of sainthood, in my view. (I'd be willing to bet he has a well-thumbed copy of The Way Things Work, for example.)

As I read his description of nearly everything, I kept hearing the ghost of Carl Sagan muttering "billions and billions" in my ear. If nothing else, Bryson's comparative anecdotes -- if electrons were the size of beach balls (or it is the other way around?) -- will redefine your notions of small (substring size) and large (universe). I recall he had a similar penchant for numeric comparisons when he informed me that Shakespeare's vocabulary contained just 20,000 words and mine 50,000 but the bard personally coined at least 800 of mine.

I learned somewhere else that every breath we take includes about one air molecule that Julius Caesar breathed in his last breath. Bryson informs us that we share billions of molecules with our forebears. Nature recycles. Indeed, the Earth has only so many molecules, and the more complex elements including many we need to live had to be cycled through the furnaces of at least five stars to be manufactured. Just assembling the raw materials for life takes billions upon billions of years.

However, although we may contain a lot of Shakespeare and the detritus he shed over a lifetime, apparently Elvis shit is not yet sufficiently dispersed for all of us to be so full of him.

As Bryson has in the other two books of his I read, he slips into lessons that verge on sermonizing about the future of our race and planet. There is a lot of anger underneath his whimsy. But like him, I really wonder whether we will destroy our habitat or whether the planet will destroy us.

It would not have seemed so likely before the recent announcements from the scientific community that they have apparently been "underestimating" the extent and rate of global warming.

So I recalled a scientific curiousity that Bryson doesn't mention. But I wish he had. I'd like to have his take on it. Sagan was fond of it -- a mathematical formula called the Drake Equation. It's a series of ratios (probabilities) that, when multiplied together, predicts how many intelligent, communicative civilizations are likely to be in our galaxy.

The last factor in the Drake Equation is crucial and yet seemingly impossible for us to know. It's essentially the typical lifespan (actually, the communicative technological span) of an advanced civilization. Drake estimated it at 10,000 years.

If you plug that number into the formula, the result is about two. That is, there could be two potential civilizations in our galaxy with whom we could become Twitter friends, presuming we didn't mind the years-long communication delays as our tweets traverse the light-years between stars.

However, the Wiki article on the Drake Equation points out that the typical lifespan of ancient civilizations on Earth has been only a few hundred years. And the span of time since we've had radio telescopes for signaling has been about 70 years. And our prospects for longevity as a species are not looking all that good.

Civilizations may be as brief as summer roses in their beautiful flowering. (Shakespeare could have said that, but without my rich context.)

If that's true, don't bother to do the math. Our existence might not be the rarest of accidents, but for all practical purposes, there's no one else around at the moment.

That should make us feel very, very special. And very fortunate to have what we have, for however long we have it.


Paula B. said...

Beautiful post, G. I just love Bryson. Fortunately he's prolific, so you've got a lot of great reading ahead of you.

I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that he agrees with your take on Drake's equation either.

daboychik said...

As the Wiki article points out, the late Michael Crichton railed against the Drake Equation, joining other experts in calling it meaningless.

As an empirical method, yes, perhaps it is fraught with so much uncertainty that the result isn't useful.

However, it does a nice job of decomposing the problem so it can be studied.

And, as it turns out, that's why Drake developed it -- to guide the discussions at the first SETI conference.