A fragile planet and the limit to new discoveries

Reading Bill Bryson’s “Short history of nearly everything” on a bad day can be slightly depressing. We, as in ‘we humans’, have not only a fragile body, we also live in a fragile place and actually can call ourselves lucky to be here at all. In the tiny bit of okayish documented human history – roughly the last 10.000 years –  no massive comet hit Earth, none of the super vulcanos (such as Yellowstone) blew up and there was no ice age. All of which happen regularly though in the history of our little blue planet…

On a normal day , Bill Bryson’s tour de force of natural sciences and how we came to know what we know about ourselves, physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, and much else is as entertaining as it is insightful. A lot of facts, especially about the life of great scientists, their spleens, fights and discoveries, and plenty of knowledge, all of which amusingly written. Did you know that Marie Curie’s books are till today too polluted by radiation to be handled without protective clothing? Or that Darwin kept his paper ‘On the origin of species’ for 15 years in a drawer before publishing it? Or that the US were busy building their own, huge collider till Congress – probably wisely so – cancelled the budget?

It’s way beyond a short blog post to appropriately review this great book. Hence only two small notes. For one, scientists don’t seem to be any more immune to willful ignorance of scientific evidence than other people. Bryson gives several examples, usually from surveys of scientists not believing in something like, let’s say, plate tectonics. Or, to give a quote: “As late as 1988, more than half of American palaeontologists […] continued to believe that the extinction of the dinosaurs was in no way related to an asteroid or cometary impact.”

Another common misconception Bryson does away with, is the popular impression that everything important, the elements, physical laws, etc has been discovered, or would need a lot of money to research and understand – see hadron colliders. This is far from being true. There is still much left, even  on our planet what we barely understand. We know very little about what is under our feet, and why the Earth crust is on some places thinner or thicker than theory predicts. Antarctica remained ice free for a long time after it settled in its current position though, according to what we know, this can’t be. Dinosaurs appeared much further North than their physiognomy should have allowed them. Again, according to our knowledge. And, still the best of all: We have better maps of the moon than of our oceans…

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