Number 1 - A Short History Of Nearly Everything. Bill Bryson

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Welcome to Philosophy Club, and congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn't easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It's an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence. Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention, your atoms don't actually care about you indeed, don't even know that you are there. They don't even know that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive. (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.) Yet somehow for the period of your existence they will answer to a single overarching impulse: to keep you you.

The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting; fleeting indeed. Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes past, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will shut you down, silently disassemble, and go off to be other things. And that's it for you. Still, you may rejoice that it happens at all. Generally speaking in the universe it doesn't, so far as we can tell. This is decidedly odd because the atoms that so liberally and congenially flock together to form living things on Earth are exactly the same atoms that decline to do it elsewhere. Whatever else it may be, at the level of chemistry life is curiously mundane: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, a little calcium, a dash of sulphur, a light dusting of other very ordinary elements-nothing you wouldn't find in any ordinary drugstore-and that's all you need. The only thing special about the atoms that make you is that they make you. That is of course the miracle of life.

Whether or not atoms make life in other corners of the universe, they make plenty else; indeed, they make everything else. Without them there would be no water or air or rocks, no stars and planets, no distant gassy clouds or swirling nebulae or any of the other things that make the universe so usefully material. Atoms are so numerous and necessary that we easily overlook that they needn't actually exist at all. There is no law that requires the universe to fill itself with small particles of matter or to produce light and gravity and the other physical properties on which our existence hinges. There needn't actually be a universe at all. For the longest time there wasn't. There were no atoms and no universe for them to float about in. There was nothing-nothing at all anywhere. So thank goodness for atoms. But the fact that you have atoms and that they assemble in such a willing manner is only part of what got you here. To be here now, alive in the twenty-first century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune. Survival on Earth is a surprisingly tricky business. Of the billions and billions of species of living thing that have existed since the dawn of time, most-99.99 percent-are no longer around. Life on Earth, you see, is not only brief but dismayingly tenuous. It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.

The average species on Earth lasts for only about four million years, so if you wish to be around for billions of years, you must be as fickle as the atoms that made you. You must be prepared to change everything about yourself-shape, size, colour, species affiliation, everything-and to do so repeatedly. That's much easier said than done, because the process of change is random. To get from "protoplasmic primordial atomic globule" (as the Gilbert and Sullivan song put it) to sentient upright modern human has required you to mutate new traits over and over in a precisely timely manner for an exceedingly long while. So at various periods over the last 3.8 billion years you have abhorred oxygen and then doted on it, grown fins and limbs and jaunty sails, laid eggs, flicked the air with a forked tongue, been sleek, been furry, lived underground, lived in trees, been as big as a deer and as small as a mouse, and a million things more. The tiniest deviation from any of these evolutionary shifts, and you might now be licking algae from cave walls or lolling walrus-like on some stony shore or disgorging air through a blowhole in the top of your head before diving sixty feet for a mouthful of delicious sandworms.

Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favoured evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely-make that miraculously-fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth's mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result-eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly-in you.

This is the opening passage of Bill Bryson’s Book – “A Short History of Nearly Everything”




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11 comments:

Benjamin Broadbent said...

BT2015 Mar 21, 2015
Hi all,

It thought i'd kick this off with a little background on why I particularly like this reading. in 2006 I was a young 19 year old off to explore the world. When I was in Auckland airport I saw a book for sale that looked like it would keep me occupied for my encroaching 11 hour flight to Calgary, Canada. The book was Bill Bryson's - A Short History of Nearly Everything and the opening three pages made up the passage above. At this time in my life I was without a career direction, i'd done every thing from Bar Tender, Waiter, Petroleum Transfer Technition (I worked at a Shell station) and even a job at the Warehouse. I was off over seas to broaden my mind, travel and discover a passion, and this book co-incidently joined me on board my 747 outbound from Auckland.

I instantly was drawn to Bill Bryson's writing style. He sells himself as a travel writer who accidentally wrote a science book, and for this reason he describes things in a way that assume you may have no prior knowledge of science, because he himself had none. What an amazing way to start the book. He instantly makes you feel that existence itself is something to marvel at, to celebrate and to enjoy. How cool is that! The first passage I like is "For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence". That final sentence the "generally underappreciated state known as existence" personally inspires me. I don't think often enough we reflect on the miracle that is being alive. However, I think it is easy to feel uncomfortable reflecting on this fact. What if I didn't exist? Do I exist after death? Did I exist before Birth? While these questions can cause unease they also help to inspire. From these concepts I decided that since I do exist, and so does everything around me, I was going to dedicate my life to gaining knowledge about this world around me. The knowledge I was interested in was the nuts and bolts of what makes up the world. While I appreciated ideas like media, languages, television, sports & everything else that humans have invented (man-made things), I was more interested in things that have existed since time began. Atoms, Forces, Planets, Electricity and the like. Why do these things combine to make me? what is the full-story here? I needed to know.

So It was with this overriding sense of curiosity I enrolled in a Physics Degree at University. Physics allowed me to explore these concepts and through Physics I discovered that Mathematics is really the language of the Universe. These factors combined much like the extraordinary string of hereditary combinations that preceded them to end up in the year 2015 with something you all get to experience; The fact that im excited to teach and share with others the trials and tribulations I have uncovered as I still search the universe for its clues to existence, and I am happy to share this journey with the awesome peeps at Newlands College.

Benjamin Broadbent said...

natasha_scott Mar 23, 2015
Well. That certainly puts my troubles in perspective.
But to be honest, if something in the past had been altered, and my genetic code along with my atoms had been given a different life, I would have no utter clue that my life had been changed. Maybe I am who I am now, or maybe I was supposed to be a mutant from X-Men or a cross-species between an ant and a slug that got wiped out 1.5 billion years ago. But then that would be irrelevant to me. I would be running around saving the world, or sliming across the natural surface of the Earth eating everything that attacked or irritated me. I might be a one-of-a-kind combination of genetics and atoms, but so is everything else, from the smallest flea to the biggest dinosaur that roamed the planet. As I said above - maybe my code's been altered like a computer, and I wouldn't know or care. So it's still basically fate, no matter what happened to my predecessors or not.
But something else on the ancestors of humans. We see ourselves as the high and mighty ones over everything, because we can build skyscrapers and control the flow of water with dams and whatnot. Everything else is dumb and stupid and weak compared to us.
But, in every single way, they were better than us.
Think about it. They used the land for survival and shelter, but didn't take anymore than they needed. Do you see the dolphins stuffing their faces with fish until there's nothing left for the other species? Nope. They only take what they need. And do you see them starting fights with each other, for not other reason than the fact a species from the chimp tribe stole a banana? O.k, maybe they get into fights over food occasionally. But blowing each other up with high-tech weapons because the two don't like each other? If that happened with the cats and mice, we'd have a global-scale Tom and Jerry on our hands, with assault rifles and nuclear bombs. Our ancestors don't hack down countless trees just to get money and mansions.
And they don't kill other species so they can just take a few things and leave them to rot like the white settlers and the Native American buffalo. The death will be used as an opportunity for dozens of other lives. Unlike us, who just kill lower-ranked people because higher-ranking people told them so, and then throw the bodies into dark pits where they rot and decay and take up space.
We say animasl are stupid and dumb, when they have amazing techniques to survive, and think we're so superior.
And yet we get insulted when someone from our same species says they're more superior.
To sum it up: Our species kills and destroys, while our predecessors protected and nurtured it, without even realising.
I think they deserved to take up more atoms than we do, sometimes.

Benjamin Broadbent said...

AmyWalton-97 Apr 1, 2015
I completely, utterly agree with what Natasha has stated. Honestly I couldn't have put it better than that. Humans think they're so superior to everything, because we can build & speak etc.. But in reality, we're made up of atoms, the very same thing that everything else is made up of, so how does this make us superior to them?

Benjamin Broadbent said...

KaydenBorchowsky Mar 21, 2015
Wow! These first three pages really make you think.
What did it make me think about? The answer to this question is extinction. This text talked about how, to survive in this world, creatures have to adapt. Many have.
Some animals have adapted to live in the sea, to live on land, even in tree's. One thing that animals (including us) haven't been able to adapt to is Humans.
We have been responsible the extinction of over 50 animal species. Thats one measly species killing over 50 others. Is this fair?
No it isn't and if we continue on like this, polluting the earth and killing other species, we will soon kill our selves off as well as many other animals.
This raises the question: Should we just let the Human race die out? That would be the kind thing to do, wouldn't it be? With out us, other animal life would flourish. The Earth, over time, would become less polluted and heal itself. Who knows? Maybe, without us humans damaging habitats, new animals would be able to survive.
Look at Chernobyl. Because of this nuclear explosion Humans weren't allowed to enter the city. As a result of this, after the radiation had died down, animals began to take refuge there to get away from the murderous humans. Some of which include: the Lynx, Otters and Eagle owls.
So, instead of keeping the Human race going, shouldn't we just let it die out? If we do we would stop more extinctions and let other animals flourish, as well as stop damaging the Earth.
Really, in my opinion, I have no ideas. All I know is, I am not going to be the first human to do this.

Benjamin Broadbent said...

Jayden_Hooper Mar 21, 2015
I find that anything that relates to species has a larger impact on the reader for this kind of topic. The idea that everything has been made from nothing (theoretically) is one of the biggest questions to the human species and has been revisited by countless people way too many times. What intrigued myself personally the most, was the second to last verse of the opening where Bryson talks about evolution. Believe it or not, the line that got me the most was "That's much easier said than done, because the process of change is random." The process of change is random? I've come across most ideas in this opening in a little less detail before and so I was only a little more than mildly intrigued in to this opening, although this one in particular line surprised me a bit. The process of change is random... I've mostly always thought about evolution in one way (if I did another way, then it wasn't the way he has stated). When I think about evolution, I immediately think about the diagram that shows a monkey evolving into a human over time, rarely into more detail. I've never thought about how evolution could have happened a different way consciously and seriously, like what if monkey's evolved without some vital part to the human body? Imagine if our brains developed slightly differently to make our species all the more intelligent. Even if we were missing something like the saliva glands, it's a small thing but without it, it could emerge some complex situations, thus it is a vital component to our species. I am pleased as to how even the opening of this book from a single perspective has already shown me some insight and got me thinking some more into this topic.

Benjamin Broadbent said...

lilly_zhang Mar 22, 2015
I found these pages rather interesting, and a little motivational as well. Earth creates and offers us opportunities in the form of life, and while we can’t reverse that fact that we were placed here, we can use it for the better.

The question Kayden raised is a good one though. Should we let our own race die out to allow the others to flourish? Species are only expected to survive four million years, and we have surpassed that. Should we now allow others to take our place, particularly in hopes we’ll make a new generation who are smarter, wiser and kinder than we are, to fix our mistakes? Animals have fallen and still are falling at our fingers, and we’ve too far gone to reverse this. We (our atoms, that is) could go off and make new creatures who know what it means to sustain all life. Would it benefit us or would it not? Our Earth is destined for destruction million years from now. Do we survive while we can, with the competitive goal to rise above others, the goal which flows in our veins, or can we find a way to reverse the damage, stop greed, bring back what we lost? Our rainforests are falling, the tiger's roar is dying out. Our generations are already tied to their technology, with kids barely out of kindergarten wielding iPhones they can call their own, and our lives recorded in million of lines of code. We’re losing our grasp on the damage we cause, as more black fumes spill into our air we breathe, and the pollution we pile overrides nature. We value our current lives more than we seek to preserve future ones. Some of us only want to be remembered, but what happens when there is no one left to remember us?

We are made of millions of Near Nothings, all put together to become Something. What do we do with this Something we become? With what Mr Broadbent said about existence before and after Birth, I drew in another question. Am I made of another Something who deteriorated into Nothing, or is every atom unique to myself? If it’s the former, what was I originally? A savior or destroyer?

The idea we only have an average of 650,000 hours on this Earth is an interesting and crazy concept. As each one passes and our numbers tick down, we slowly start to think about our footprints. Do they lead us where we want them to? Do they destroy more than they make? Do we use this unique form of atoms for better or worse? As each hour passes, our chances to make a new beginning out of our own beginnings slowly start to end.

This feels a little off topic, but it's basically how this went in my head. The reading is good, but it really got me thinking about the purpose of how we're created and if we are better off here or not.

Benjamin Broadbent said...

Mr_Lambert Mar 22, 2015
If Mr Broadbent is going to share his personal story of how he first encountered this special book, I will share mine. My Grandfather had a copy and we forgot, so we bought him another and that copy got passed onto me - and cause it was such a huge book the best place I decided to read 'A Breif History of Nearly Everything' was on the lavatory. And so it was. Longer and longer I hid on the loo, door closed, my mum racing around calling my name, 'Ash do the dishes,' 'Ash do the vacumming,' 'Ash you'll die of suffocation.' The funny thing is, I've never actually finished the book. I would always just read the sections on the universe and kind of just zone out. Still to this day I struggle to express why this passage resonates with me - but I'll do my best.

"For all their devoted attention, your atoms don't actually care about you indeed, don't even know that you are there. They don't even know that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive. (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.) Yet somehow for the period of your existence they will answer to a single overarching impulse: to keep you you." Hahaha what?????????? I beleive there are two ways to look at this, one is with hopeless frustration; dissapointed with the seemingly arbitary construction of the universe, we hang our heads in despair and clench our fists before letting out a lengthy sigh, giving in, and thinking what is the point?

OR

You could be stoked. I now I am. This passage sends me on a transcendental buzz - what an absolute privelage to be a part of this universe. And what's more than that, what an absolutely treat it is to be alive when we are. Sure, as Lily pointed out there's some not so good things but I believe it's all about perception - I don't read newspapers, I don't allow myself to focus on the negatives in life because why should I? It seems illogical to me that we should infect our one absolute gift of a life with negativity and nihilism - some may call this denial, but I am perfectly aware about the shortcomings of our species. But life is about balance so lets focus on all the absolutely awesome things that we as a species have created. Because this passage is about essentially that creation. Everyday I am staggered by this world - I get to spend my time with the best people imaginable, passionate students and teachers. I live in a wonerful and vibrant city with a bursting culutral heart. Anytime I want I can look at the night sky and apperciate it's beauty and majesty. I have brain that create and appreciate, I can think myself small and insignificant when compared to the awesome power of the sun but I can also reflect at how dazzling I am, how dazzling we are. If our existance is short and meaningless then isn't amazing that there are dedicated people, artist's, scholars, educators, philanthropists, dogs, fighting every day to make it not so? We fight to understand and fight inspire we fight to make each other laugh and feel and make life not just bearable but absolutely extaordinary. My man Kurt Vonnegut has three awesome quotes that help me express my worldview as a response to this passage and they are:

Benjamin Broadbent said...

Mr Lambert (continued)

"Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, “Why, why, why?”

Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand."

"Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything.

"Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward."

Actually there's way more so here we go:
“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies-"God damn it, you've got to be kind.”

I think the essence of these quotes sums up my worldview as inspired by exploring texts like Bill Brysons and that is, life may seem strange and pointless - but it's all we've got, and some would say that's a lot so let's just have an awesome time, be kind and appreciate the natrual and cultural world that we find ourselves in, because one day it'll be gone and wouldn't it be great to close your eyes, ready for the 'big sleep' and think my god wasn't that fun?

Some may argue that my hedonistic worldview is unjustifiable. But I disagree, life can suck and for some people it really does, but I believe in the limited power we have that it is our job to make it better for ourselves and those around us. So love those around you and love what they do, create and spread good cheer, be awesome and kill the world with kindness.

One more from Kurt and some added viewing that's free to a good home


“If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
WAS MUSIC”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sg8S9yBlRFM -

*note - Kurt Vonnegut has been described as a cynical optimist and a man who blessed this world with some bittersweet wisdom. He's the man and a real hero of mine. Just google search Kurt Vonnegut quotes and you'll see what I mean. Or read his books they're great. The clip I've attached is from another hero of mine which I think should be essential viewing for everyone in the world and hopefully your as touched as I am after watching, that is if you do watch, but if you're reading this that means you're smart, so really you have no excuse, because smart people don't do dumb things. Do they?

Benjamin Broadbent said...

BenvdV Mar 23, 2015
Bill Bryson certainly hits the nail on the head when he talks about how life, and the world is a miracle. It is entirely improbable that anything should exist, let along the wondrous things that surround us every second of every day. I mean, why should they? Everything didn't have to exist. There could have been nothing, nothing and always nothing. There's no reason I, or anything, should be sitting here thinking right now. And I think that's what Bill Bryson misses out in this passage. He talks extensively about the what, speculates on the how, but doesn't even consider the why (Unless he talks about it later?), the most important question in all philosophy. To fully explore this thought, we need to think about WHY we are all here. I think I'll just repeat the quote Mr Lambert posted for emphasis.

"Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, “Why, why, why?”

Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand."

Benjamin Broadbent said...

MalithBatuwantudawe Mar 24, 2015
I really like Bryson's writing style, it reminds me of when I watch documentaries like "The Universe" or "Cosmos". Documentaries are by far one of my favorite text types because I lose my self in the world of something new and unknown, or it see my world in a completely different light.
Recently I saw a cool documentary on Van Gogh, showing that he was an amateur (really bad) at first, but years of practice gave him skill, and I learnt about how he saw the beauty in the working underclass in that time. A lot of his paintings were based on his feelings about them. And that his colorful abstract style was not original but inspired showing that every idea/decison we have is somewhat influenced by our environment.
Like how your (Mr Broadbent) interests in physics from Bryson's book led you to where you are now. Do you think you would be somewhere different if you never bought that book?
Back to writing, I would like to learn and practice this style one day, I haven't done much writing in the 2nd person, or non-fiction for that matter - so this will be new territory for me.

Benjamin Broadbent said...

harveymolloy Mar 27, 2015
What an incredible conversation. Bryson so wonderfully captures my own sense of wonder at the cosmos. There are a couple of issues that have been raised: 1) Life on Earth is incredibly precious--we have no indication yet that the cosmos is teeming with life although it may we be. This is so unknown to us. 2) We have complex origins that start at the beginning of the cosmos. 3) As a species we are now seriously impacting other species on Earth and the composition of the earth's atmosphere--some have said that we are now entering the period of the 'sixth mass extinction' http://www.npr.org/2014/02/12/275885377/in-the-worlds-sixth-extinction-are-humans-the-asteroid
Some people do believe that Gaia would be better without humanity. I can’t help thinking, though, that there is something special and important about us. I don’t see my kids as being vermin. (Well, most of time I don’t!) It may be a bias, but I can’t see humanity as just being a scourge on the Earth. Some thinkers, like John Grey, do: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/sep/07/highereducation.news2
We do need to respect that we are part of a complex web of life and we do need to respect non-human life. For me, part of the challenge is to find solutions—it is not a certainty that the Maui Dolphin must become extinct or that our carbon emissions must continue to rise. I’m learning more Te Reo this year and a whakatauki I’m sharing is: He maki kai te taonga: ‘survival is our greatest goal.’