A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Summary
  1. Bill Bryson gives a very good overview of a natural history and describes how the Earth went from nothing to something, eventually to where we are today
Key Takeaways
  1. Main topics – molecules, atoms, physics, magnetism, volcanoes, age and size of Earth, solar system, elements, oceans, bacteria, fossils, taxonomy, cells, DNA, ice ages, early humans
  2. At the level of chemistry, life is curiously mundane
  3. Earth is very good at promoting life, even better at extinguishing it (99.9% of all species that have ever existed are extinct)
  4. Big Bang starts with the singularity – all in an infinitesimally small space
  5. Universe boundless but finite (as it bends on itself)
  6. Cavendish strange but a genius. Able to figure out the weight of the Earth and set up one of the most prolific laboratories in the world – Cavendish labs
  7. Hutton founded geology – changed the conception of Earth and its formation. Geology excited the world like no other science has
  8. Kelvin extremely impressive
  9. In 1780s, people didn’t know of dinosaurs and the idea that species could vanish was hard to accept. Montreal credited with their discovery. Age of Earth at this time thought to be between 55m-2.3B years old
  10. Chemistry founded ~1616 by Boyle, Brand, Scheele, Rumford, Lavoisier, Davy
    1. Mendeleyev formed periodic table and helped organize chemistry
    2. Marie Curie is known for her work in radiation and Rutherford for figuring out half-lives
  11. 1900s had many breakthroughs in electromagnetism, thermodynamics, physics. Scientists began to specialize
  12. Planck – Quantum theory foundation for modern physics – energy is not a continuous thing like flowing water but comes in individualized packets
  13. Einstein – proved Brownian motion (nucleus in atoms), special relativity, photoelectric effect, General Theory of Relativity (space and time are not absolute, but relative to both the observer and to the thing being observed, and the faster one moves the more pronounced these effects become)
    1. Gravity – a bending of space/time
  14. Hubble – found age and size of universe
  15. Lemaitre – Big Bang
  16. Dalton – atoms small, numerous and almost indestructible
  17. Rutherford – structure and nature of atoms
  18. Heisenberg – Uncertainty Principle (can know path or location of electron, but not both)
  19. Libby – Radiocarbon dating
  20. Quarks – building blocks of matter
  21. Wegener – tectonic shifts, Pangea
  22. Alvarez – death of dinosaurs instantaneous by meteorite crash
  23. Photosynthesis by bacteria maybe the most important evolutionary step. Oxygen more efficient to certain living things and it killed off competition that relied more on carbon
  24. Know virtually nothing about oceans or how life first began
  25. 3.5b years ago the first signs of visible life appeared (stromatolites)
  26. Bacteria one super organism that can share information. Lives everywhere
  27. Pathogens tend to strike quickly (flu) or disguise themselves (AIDS)
  28. “It is easy to overlook this thought that life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point. We have plans and aspirations and desires…Lichens, like virtually all living things, will suffer any hardship, endure any insult for a moment’s additional existence. Life, in short, just wants to be. But-and here’s an interesting point – for the most part it doesn’t want to be much.”
  29. Creatures forced out of water due to competition and predators (sharks)
    1. Pangea removed much of the safe coastal environment many species were used to
  30. Mystery which land-based animal we evolved from
    1. Evolved from synapsids
    2. Couldn’t compete with dinosaurs, most early mammals the size of mice
  31. Crises invariably followed by dramatic leaps
  32. There have been five major extinction episodes (Permian the worst)
  33. KT Impact paved way for our ancestors to dominate
  34. Every living cell has an overwhelming desire to simply be
  35. Darwin on HMS Beagle at age 22
    1. Didn’t even think of evolution (already existed as a theory) until back in England and read Malthus
    2. Ignored his work on evolution for nearly 15 years
  36. Mendel, largely ignored in his time, helped Darwin’s argument
  37. Most profound but true statement – all life is one. This becomes crystal clear when you take the long-term view and see how all of life has evolved together and relies on each other
  38. Dubois found “Java man,” on early human species in Sumatra
  39. Human ancestors left trees because global climate was turning jungle into Savannah
  40. “One of the hardest ideas for humans to accept is that we are not the culmination of anything. There is nothing inevitable about our being here. It is part of our vanity as humans that we tend to think of evolution as a process that, in effect, was programmed to produce us.”
  41. Neanderthals and homo erectus (modern humans) lived side by side with modern humans often copying Neanderthal’s tools. They were in fact very clever and strong but their bigger size meant more food which was a disadvantage in the cold periods in which they lived
What I got out of it
  1. Good book to get a broad overview over a number of natural sciences. For the most part entertaining and informative