Fun, life-affirming science trivia



By Bill Bryson

Doubleday/Hardcover/454 pages/$42.80/Books Kinokuniya/3.5 stars

Sixteen years ago, American-British travel writer Bill Bryson published what would become his most famous work – A Short History Of Nearly Everything, a layman’s guide to science that shuttles dizzyingly from the Big Bang to the rise of civilisation.

His latest excursion, The Body: A Guide For Occupants, now turns its lens inwards, into the terrain of the human body.

And it is a worthy successor, with Bryson doing what he does best – explaining difficult concepts with journalistic clarity, humour and an eye for a story.

Readers may be surprised to learn how vast and teeming with life the body is. It takes seven billion billion billion atoms to make a person. Some 40,000 species of microbes call your body home. And just one cubic millimetre of brain cortex – the size of a grain of sand – is enough to store all the movies ever made, trailers included.

All these fascinating facts, and many more, are happily packed into Bryson’s 450-page survey of human biology, from microbes and disease to the brain and the heart.

In these pages, eccentric and tragic characters of the scientific world rear their heads.

Who knew that Henry Heimlich, who invented the life-saving thrust that bears his name, was a showman who “maneuvered the truth as well as trapped lumps of food”?

Or that Nettie Stevens discovered the Y chromosome, but was not initially given her due credit?

This book is targeted at the layman, the sort of person who did not find biology interesting in school. Naysayers may dismiss it as “science-lite” or “biology for dummies”. Perhaps it is nothing more than a well-written compendium of interesting facts.

But what is wrong with that?

Readers craving more in-depth, focused studies by people with science backgrounds can always reach for books such as The Gene, by Indian-American physician Siddhartha Mukherjee; or I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us And A Grander View Of Life, by British science writer Ed Yong, both of which were published in 2016.

Bryson, a former copy editor and reporter, is no biologist.

What makes his contribution significant is the way he uses his literary gifts to not just explain the science but also inspire a sense of wonder.

And he does so without devolving into the sort of careless caricature you might find in, say, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind (2011), which has been criticised for its sweeping statements and assertions.

The Body makes for immensely pleasurable reading as readers have in Bryson a companionable and witty guide. “Dying is, to coin a phrase, the last thing your body wants to do,” he writes.

Myths are busted – it is not true, for example, that each taste occupies a well-defined zone on the tongue.

And serious topics are broached, such as the overuse of antibiotics, how flu is more dangerous than people think and the fact that many fruit have less nutrition now than they did in the early 1950s.

Books of science do not always age well. Much of what people believe now will no doubt be proven false one day.

A list of errata for A Short History Of Nearly Everything can be found online, detailing various things the book got wrong.

But none of this is going to stop Bryson’s The Body from being the life-affirming – and illuminating – read that it is. It is hard to pick it up without, afterwards, feeling very glad to be alive.

If you like this, read: A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (Transworld Publishers, 2003, $21.40, Books Kinokuniya). It is the author’s quest to find out everything that has happened from the Big Bang to the rise of civilisation.

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