Thursday, March 22, 2018

book, A short history of nearly everything

A short history of nearly everything, 2013
by Bill Bryson. spent 3 years in reading and writing.
He attended Drake University for 2 years before dropping out in 1972. Then backpack around Europe for 4 months. First visited Britain in 1973 then got a job in a psychiatric hospital. Met a nurse there and married her in 1975. Moved back to hometown in Iowa and completed his college degree. Settled in Britain in 1977.
His most books are on travel.


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, 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.
The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting. Even a long human life adds up to only about 650, 000 hours (72 years).And when that modest milestone flashes past, for reasons unknown your atoms will shut you down, silently disassemble, and go off to be other things.
To get from atoms 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. … The tiniest deviation from any of these evolutionary shifts, and you might now be licking algae from cave walls, or lolling walruslike on some stony shore, or disgorging air through a blowhole in the top of your head before diving 60 feet for a mouthful of delicious sandworms.
some science writers who pen the most lucid and thrilling prose:
  • Timothy Ferris
  • Richard Fortey
  • Im Flannery
  • Richard Feynman

1. How to build a universe: big bang

In 1965, Arno Penzia and Robert Wilson tried to make use of a large communications antenna owned by Bell Lab but were troubled by a persistent background noise. They described the problem to Princeton researchers, who were actively searching for some cosmic background radiation. The results are published in Astrophysical Journal and the two engineers won the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics though they knew very little about the theory.
Alan Guth, who pioneered the theory of cosmic inflation, said,
Although the creation of a universe might be very unlikely, Tryon emphasized that on one had counted the failed attempts.
Martin Rees makes an analogy with a very large clothing store.
Goldilocks principle. Originally from the children’s story, the three bears. A little girl sneaked into the three bears’ house and tried their porridge. One is too hot, one is too cold, and the third one is just right. In astrobiology, the Goldilocks zone refers to the habitable zone around a star.
The universe is boundless but finite. The closest analogy is a sphere that you will never reach the edge or stand at the center. Anywhere could be the center.

2. welcome to the solar system: how Pluto was spotted

Clark Chapman:
most people think that astronomers get out at night in observatories and scan the skies. That’s not true. Almost all the telescopes we have in the world are designed to peer at very tiny little pieces of the sky way off in the distance to see a quasar or hunt for black holes or look at a distant galaxy.
Pluto was first found in 1930 by Pervival Lowell’s Observatory in Flagstaff. He came from one of the oldest and wealthiest Boston families. Lowell died in 1916 and they resumed the search by hiring a young man from Kansas named Clyde Tombaugh. He had no formal training as an astronomer, but he was diligent and astute. After a year’s patient searching, he somehow spotted Pluto.

3. the Reverend Evans’s universe: he hunts supernovae

“I just seem to have a knack for memorizing star fields” Evans told me, with a frankly apologetic look. “ I’m not particularly good at other things,” he added. “I don’t remember names well.”
The term supernova was coined in 1930s by an odd astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky. He has an abrasive personality and erratic talents. He was notoriously aggressive, his manner eventually becoming so intimidating that his closest collaborator, a gentleman named Walter Baade, refused to be left alone with him. Anyway, he was capable of insights of the most startling brilliance. In 1934, Physical Review published their concise abstract about the idea of a neutron star.
Interestingly, Zwicky had almost no understanding of why any of this would happen. He did not understand the laws of physics well enough to be able to substantiate his ideas. His talent was for big ideas.
One of his favorite insults was to refer to people he did not approve of as “spherical bastards”, because, he explained, they were bastards no matter which way one looked at them.

4. The measure of things: earth’s size and mass

In 1683, Wren offered a couple of weeks’ay to people who can provide a solution why planets orbits in the ellipse.
Hooke was well known for taking credit for ideas that weren’t necessarily his own, claimed that he had solved the problem already but declined now to share it on the interesting and inventive grounds that it would rob others of the satisfaction of discovering the answer for themselves.
Halley tried hard to get Newton’s work published, even using his own pocket money.
The transit of Venus can be used to calculate the distance to the Sun. But the transit only happened in 1761, 1769, 1874,1882,2004, 2012.
Michell has designed a machine for measuring the mass of the Earth. He died before he can conduct the experiments and both the idea and the necessary equipment were passed on to Henry Cavendish.
Cavendish is a book in himself. He was born into a rich family. His grandfather ere dukes. He was the most gifted English scientist of his age, but also the strangest. Any human contact was for him a source of the deepest discomfort. Even his housekeeper communicated with him by letter.
Because of his asocial and secretive behavior, Cavendish often avoided publishing his work, and much of his findings were not even told to his fellow scientists.

5, the stone breakers: the birth of geology

the members met twice a month from winter to early summer, then went off to spend the summer doing fieldwork. These weren’t people with a pecuniary interest in minerals, you understand, or even academics for the most part, but simply gentlemen with the wealth and time to indulge a hobby at a professional level.

6, Science red in tooth and claw: fossil animals

7, elemental matters: Chemistry

8, Einstein’s universe: relativity

26, the stuff of life: DNA

29, the restless Ape: ax stone, fossil and mitochondrial DNA

p 465:
When I asked Harding about the book (The seven daughters of Eve), she smiled broadly but carefully, as if not quite certain where to go with her answer.
Well, I suppose you must give him some credit for helping to popularize a difficult subject.
And there remains the remote possibility that he’s right.
Data from any single gene cannot really tell you anything so definitive. If you follow the mitochondrial DNA backward, it will take you to a certain place — to an Ursula or Tara or whatever. But if you take any other bit of DNA, any gene at all, and trace it back, it will take you someplace else altogether.
They might have come from there, of course, but equally, they could have arrived from any of hundreds of other places. In this sense, according to Harding, every gene is a different highway, and we have only barely begun to map the routes.
she said,
No single gene is ever going to tell you the whole story.
so genetic studies aren’t to be trusted?
oh, you can trust the studies well enough, generally speaking. what you can’t trust are the sweeping conclusions that people often attach to them.
out-of-Africa is probably 95% correct. I think both sides have done a bit of a disservice to the science by insisting that it must be one thing or the other. Things are likely to turn out to be not so straightforward as eighter camp would have you believe. The evidence is clearly starting to suggest that there were multiple migrations and dispersals in different parts of the world going in all kinds of directions and generally mixing up the gene pool. that’s never going to be easy to sort out.

30, Good-bye: animal extinction by human

my summary: The book is an interesting read. It goes to the very beginning of each science branch: physics, geology, chemistry, biology, …. It is filled with many less-known personal stories of well-known professionals. I am amazed by how the author can include so many things in a single book and how broad the knowledge scope is.
The only drawback is that it is covering too much that I lost my focus several times. That’s why I tried to assign keywords to each chapter, and that’s why I could not finish the whole book right now.