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“A short history of nearly everything” by Bill Bryson, (part 1)

Posted on October 22, 2008 (written on September 25, 2007 before joining wordpress.com)

This is a voluminous book of 575 pages that describes and explains the scientific achievements that tried to comprehend Earth and the life processes.

I will try to summarize the discoveries chronologically, each discipline taken separately such as physics, chemistry, and geology and so forth. 

It is a long undertaking but it would be useful for me in this assimilation process and quick review of science on the march, to explain, and to conquer.

The manuscript is divided into 6 parts: lost in the Cosmos, the size of the earth, the new age, dangerous planet, life itself, and the road to us.  I am including a few quotations of scientists that preface each main part.

A few quotes might set the tone:

Hans Christian von Baeyer in “Taming the atom“:

The physicist Leo Szilard announced to Hans Bethe that he was thinking of keeping a diary: “I don’t intend to publish.  I am merely going to record the facts for the information of God”   Bethe asked him: “Don’t you think God knows the facts?”   Szilard replied: “God knows the facts, but Not this version of the facts

The Astronomer Geoffrey Marcy describing the solar system:

They’re all in the same plane. They’re all going around in the same direction.  It’s perfect, you know.  It’s gorgeous. It’s almost uncanny”.

Alexander Pope in an epitaph intended for Sir Isaac Newton: ” Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said: “Let Newton be!” and all was light”

An anonymous: “A physicist is the atoms’ way of thinking about atoms”

The British geologist Derek V. Alger: “The history of any one part of the Earth, like the life of a soldier, consists of long periods of boredom and short periods of terror

Freeman Dyson: “The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming

Remark of the wife of the Bishop of Worcester after Darwin’s theory of evolution was explained to her: “Descended from the apes! My dear, let us hope that it is Not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known”

Byron in “Darkness”: “I had a dream which was not all a dream

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars

Did wander…”

Lonely planet

Earth is not the easiest place to be an organism, even if it is the only place in our nearest galaxies. 

The portion of land mass or continental area we are able to live in is only about 12% because we are not adaptable to hot or very cold weather.  Apparently, the most recent super volcano eruptions occurred at Toba in Northern Sumatra, about 74,000 years ago and almost annihilated human kind.

Maybe a thousand human survived, which account for the lack of our genetic diversity.

Greenland ice cores show that the Toba blast was followed by at least six years of “volcanic winter” and many poor growing seasons after that. 

There are currently 13 active super volcanoes and Yellowstone in the USA is the only continental one.  Yellowstone is estimated to erupt every 600, 000 years and is ready for another of his monstrous feat; the last eruption was estimated to spew enough ash to bury the State of California under 6 meters of ash

Ash covered the whole western states of the USA and a large part of Canada.

We belong to the portion of living things that decided 400 million years ago to crawl out of the sea and become land-based and oxygen-breathing creatures. 

We abandoned the vast seas for a more restricted area with the advantage that we can climb over 7000 meters and live at very high altitude while the feat of the Italian Umberto Pelizzari recorded 72 meters under water.  We cannot bear the pressure of the water; for every 10 meters of depth we add one atmosphere.

A few professional divers, aided by weight to descend up to 150 meters, their lungs are compressed to the dimensions of a Coke can

Since our body is mostly water and water cannot be compressed by water, it is the gases in our body that is fatal in the depths.  At a specific depth, Nitrogen in our system starts to bubble and enter our bloodstream and obstruct the tiny blood vessels, depriving cells of oxygen.

Human technology was able to send a diving vessel to the deepest point in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific at 11.3 kilometers down; they discovered a type of crustacean similar to shrimp but transparent.  There are particular microbes that thrive in water at temperature over 70 degrees Celsius.

Observers have identified two dozen fortunate breaks we have had on Earth to create the living organism. 

If the Sun was larger it would have exhausted its fuel before Earth could be formed because the larger the star the more rapidly it burns.  If we were two light minutes closer to the Sun we would be like planet Venus that cannot sustain life; Venus surface temperature is 470 degrees Celsius and all its water has evaporated driving hydrogen away into space.

If we were 1% further from the Sun we would be like frozen Mars. If our core didn’t contain molten liquid we would not have magnetism to protect us from cosmic rays.  If our tectonic plates didn’t collide to produce more gases and continually renew and rumple the surface with mountains then we would be under 4,000 meters of water.

If our moon was not large enough, one fourth the size of Earth, then Earth would be wobbling like a dying top with unstable climate and weather.

It is to be noted that the Moon is slipping away at a rate of 4 centimeters a year, relinquishing its gravitational hold.  If comets didn’t strike Earth to produce the Moon or asteroid to wipe out the Dinosaurs or if we didn’t enjoy enough stability for a long time, human would not be what they are.

Earth contains 92 naturally occurring elements and barely 6 of them are of central importance to life.

Of every 200 atoms in our body, 126 are hydrogen, 51 are oxygen, 19 are carbon, 3 are nitrogen and the remaining atom is divided among all the other elements such as iron to manufacture hemoglobin, Cobalt for the creation of vitamin B12, Potassium and Sodium for the transmission of electrical charges in the nerves, Molybdenum, manganese and vanadium to keep the enzymes purring and Zink to oxidize alcohol.

Oxygen is the most abundant element on Earth crust of about 50%, then silicon, and aluminum the fourth.  Carbon is only the 15th most common element or 0.05% of Earth crust, but is the most promiscuous since it adheres to almost every atom and holds extremely tight, and is the very trick of nature to build proteins and DNA.

What we marvel at is not that Earth is suitable to life but that it is suitable to our life. 

A big part that Earth seems so miraculously accommodating is that we evolved to suit its severe conditions. 

When elements don’t occur naturally on earth, like plutonium, we have evolved zero tolerance for them.  Selenium is vital to all of us but is toxic at a little higher level. Even tiny doses of arsenic, lead, copper and other natural elements we have managed to tolerate, but industrialization is not allowing the natural tolerance process in evolution to absorb these huge amounts of noxious elements in our artificial environment.

The building blocks of life might be the 20 amino acids that combine in certain sequences to form the 700,000 kinds of proteins in our body; the number of proteins discovered is increasing and might be in the range of one million kinds.

Hemoglobin is only a chain of 146 amino acids long, a runt by protein standards in length, and yet it offers 10 at an exponent of 190 possible amino-acid combinations in order to have the exact sequence of the different kinds of amino acids.

To make the protein called “collagen” you need to arrange 1,055 amino acids in precisely the right sequence which means you need 1,055 spinning wheels with 20 symbols in each wheel to coincide exactly for the jack pot! Thus, the odd that any protein was formed by hazard is nil.

Any protein cannot reproduce itself and it needs DNA, which is a whiz in replicating itself.

DNA can do nothing but replicate proteins. And proteins are useless without DNA.  Are we to assume that these two organisms arose simultaneously with the purpose of supporting each other?

No atom or molecule has achieved life independently; it needs some sort of membrane to contain them so that they come together within the nurturing refuge of a cell

Without the chemicals, the cell has no purpose. 

It is little wonder that we call it the miracle of life. 

Forming amino acids is Not the problem because if we expose water to ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and methane gases and introduce some electrical sparks, as a stand-in for lighting, then within days you will have amino acids, fatty acids, sugar and other organic compounds.

What was needed is a process of a few of these amino acids to procreate and then cluster to discover some additional improvement.

What do we know about cells so far?

A single cell splits to become two and after 47 doublings you have 10 thousand trillion cells and ready to spring forth as a human being.  Each cell carries a copy of the complete genetic code, the instruction manual for your body, and it knows far more about you that you do, and is devoted in some intensively specific way to your overall well-being.

The human body has at least a few hundred types of cells and they vary in shape, size, and longevity: we have nerve cells, red blood cells, photocells, liver cells that can survive for years, brain cells that last as long as we live and they don’t increase from the day we are born but 500 die every single hour, and so forth. 

The components within a cell are constantly renewed so that everything in us is completely renewed every nine years.

The outer casing of a cell is made up of lipid or light grade of machine oil but on the molecular level it is as strong as iron, then the nucleus wherein resides the genetic information and the busy space called cytoplasm. The cell contains about a thousand power plants or mitochondria that convert processed food and oxygen into ATP molecules or battery packs.

A cell would use up one billion ATP molecules in two minutes or half the body weight every day.

The electrical energy activities in a cell is about 0.1 volts traveling distances in the nanometers; or when this number is scale up it is the equivalent of 20 million volts per meter or the amount of what a thunderstorm is charged.

Each strand of DNA is damaged 10,000 times a day and swiftly repaired, if the cell is Not to perish by a command received from a hormone.

When a cell receives the order to die then it quietly devour its components. For example, nitric oxide is a formidable toxin in nature but cells are tremendous manufacturers of this substance which control blood flow, the energy level in cells, attacking cancerous cells, regulating the sense of smell, and penile erection among other things.

Our body contains 200,000 different types of protein and we barely understand a tiny fraction of them. 

Enzymes are a type of protein with tasks to rebuild molecules and marking the damaged pieces and other protein for processing. 

A cell might contain 20,000 different types of protein.

In the 1860s, Louis Pasteur showed that life cannot arise spontaneously, but come from pre-existing cells. 

Brain, senses, and sixth sense; (October 3, 2009)

 

            There is this modern tendency to consider man as plainly a brain that controls all our behavior and actions.  The senses are considered as supplement to our brain to execute the various brains’ commends. How about this venue that it is our brain that created and developed our five senses?  There are many animals and living creatures with less numbers of senses and many with senses far more developed than man. Our brain is an amalgam of cells, nerves, neurons, axons, synapses, and chemical molecules (hormones).  Our brain has developed four specialized parts in addition to our primitive brain but all working together to achieving an elementary input/output task by firing electrical and chemical signals to the specialized glands and members.

            Man can atrophy one sense or develop all his five senses and permit the brain to create a new compartment for a sixth sense in order to handle complementary inputs that cross the current normal threshold for a qualitative shift to what could be the emergence of an additional sense or a new specialized lobe.  In the last century, almost everything was designed to rely exclusively on the eyes and ears.

            First, let me offer preliminary knowledge of our brains, constituents, and functions. The sensorial perceptions are mainly located in the parietal lobes (the top back of the head); the taste, touch, temperature and pain are solicited in that compartment; these lobes also integrate the hearing and visual signals and link them to our global sensorial memory.  The temporal lobes (on both sides of the head) are the locations of musical signals (intensity and tonality of the sounds), and the comprehension of the meaning of words. The frontal lobes or cortex (upper and front of the head) are the newly developed brains and locate the functions of organization, reflection, planning, and modulate our emotions. Voluntary movements take their sources in the posterior section of these lobes.  The occipital lobes (back of the head) are engaged in reading, and decoding visual information (shape, color, and movement of objects are analyzed in these lobes).

            There are specialized neurons that can be activated when an action is executed or when an action is also observed (mirror neurons).  These mirror neurons are the biological basis for empathy, imitation, and training; almost every decision is influenced by our emotions.  Neurons have the potential to flow or transfer from one brain to another when recycling cognitive aptitudes such as reading and writing are elevated.  Neurons and connections are modified when training tasks are memorized. It is the quantity of synapses (connections) that differentiate among intelligence. There are phases in our sleep when brain activities are most intense while muscular activities are extremely inhibited; this phase is called “paradox sleep”.  We produce new neurons at every stage of growth, especially in the hippocampus and the smell brains. Almost 10% of our synapses are established when we are born and they increase with our activities and cognitive demands (efforts, mental and physical, mean increase in fresh synapses and neurons).

            We have 8 varieties of intelligence; mainly the visual, spatial, naturalist, logic-mathematics, corporal, musical, inter-personal, and intra-personal intelligences. The new battery of experiments for testing cognitive and movements capabilities are designed to account for our eight kinds of intelligences.

           

            Each brain compartment has a daily program to activate depending on the daily strength of activations of the synapses and a longer term memory.  When we fast the brain compartments for the senses, mainly the smell and the taste buds, send frenzied signals for feedback; the daily program is mainly saying “you activate me or I will be forced to delete the daily program very shortly”; the cortex sends signals for the brain senses to cool down their engines because it is bombarded by counter-mending instructions; it is saying to the brains senses “I am not able to function properly because I am overwhelmed by increased rate of urgent though  superfluous instructions to control your damned activities”.  The tag of war among the brains induces the fasting individual to go to sleep or be diverted to ignore the senses signals by daydreaming activities.

 

            The cortex was developed to specialize in comprehending the interactions among the senses. Man can consciously interpret the interactions of three senses simultaneously; this is no small feat. Not only you have to weight the strength and potency of each one of the three senses but you have to interpret the interactions between two senses out of the three and then the three senses altogether.  This conscious capacity to interpret the interactions of three senses simultaneously at every moment is what we call developing a sixth sense for forecasting events, foreseeing changes, and planning ahead for incoming changes in climate and survival.  Man can interpret interactions among three variables (in experiments) but his abilities to interpret senses interactions are faltering due to the deficiencies in the senses of smell, touch, and taste.

            Before the advent of modern man, people could occasionally experience their power of premonition or forecasting accurately; this is the main reason people elected elders as shaman leaders and believed in their spiritual power because they experienced it personally and was not a matter of faith at all.  Modern man has elected unconsciously to atrophy several of his senses on the basis that smart machines, fast communications, and powerful programs for analyzing huge quantity of data could easily supplant human cortex power. That might be true for the few specialists but surely human mental capabilities have significantly dwarfed compared to man seven thousand years ago. We might grow in length, weight, and physical power but our mental potentials of making good use of our senses is waning and we are no longer fit to survive in catastrophic events.

            As holistic man we have degraded in the past four centuries for individual survival because four of our senses have been gradually atrophied.  The consistent atrophy of our senses of touch, taste, and smell has damped our capabilities for developing our sixth sense to forecast emerging needed precautions for the near future. What is needed urgently is that the newer generations be initiated at schools and in the communities to get in touch with the deficient senses.  Weekly lab sessions to acquire the ability to discriminate among odors, texture, and tastes should be formalized and encouraged.  The whole gamut of subtleties in numbers and flavors of the deficient senses should be re-integrated in our brains in order to acquire stronger affection to nature, the environment, and the surrounding habitat and relationship among communities.

            Man can prove to the brain that he appreciates living on earth and enjoying its nature and environment or he may instruct his brain that he prefers to return to caves or being confined to capsules roaming the sky amid the planets. These choices will be reflected in our teaching methods, community behavior, and new professions that encourage the atrophied senses to emerge as valid and effective resources for the next generations.

            So far, the activists for “back to nature” and caring for the environment are mostly urban dweller with moistly abstract concepts on climate changes and natural degradations.  It is far more effective to ground our determination for alternative life styles by rejuvenating our faltering senses and appreciating what gifts we are wasting.


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