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I didn’t know what a proton was, or a protein, didn’t know a quark from a quasar, didn’t understand how geologists could look at a layer of rock on a canyon wall and tell you how old it was, didn’t know anything really. I became gripped by a quiet, unwonted urge to know a little about these matters and to understand how people figured them out. That to me remained the greatest of all amazements – how scientists work things out. How does anybody know how much the Earth weighs or how old its rocks are or what really is way down there in the center? How can they know how and when the universe started and what it was like when it did? How do they know what goes on inside an atom? And how, come to that – or perhaps above all – can scientists so often seem to know nearly everything but then still can’t predict an earthquake or even tell us whether we should take an umbrella with us to the races next Wednesday? So I decided that I would devote a portion of my life -three years, as it now turns out – to reading books and journals and finding saintly, patient experts prepared to answer a lot of outstandingly dumb questions. The idea was to see if it isn’t possible to understand and appreciate – marvel at, enjoy even – the wonder and accomplishments of science at a level that isn’t too technical or demanding, but isn’t entirely superficial either.

Așa începe A Short History of Almost Everything a lui Bill Bryson, ca o încercare de a prezenta pe înțelesul tuturor o parte din ceea ce se știe la momentul actual despre Pământ, Univers, apariția vieții, a oamenilor, lumea în care trăim. Mai exact, de a o face spunând povestea oamenilor care au făcut aceste descoperiri, sau au contribuit la ele.

Ce rezultă e o carte antrenantă, plăcută, informativă, nici un moment plictisitoare, în ciuda lungimii apreciabile. Și asta chiar dacă nu e cu adevărat o istorie despre aproape orice, ci mai degrabă una despre “cele mai importante informații despre locul nostru în univers”: teoriile actuale despre nașterea universului, a sistemului nostru solar, istoria măsurării Terrei, a calculării greutății sale, estimarea vârstei, teoria plăcilor tectonice, amenințarea pe care ar reprezenta-o căderea unui meteorit pe Pământ, apariția vieții, teoria evoluției, o estimare a numărului de specii, primii hominizi. Și printre acestea: big-bang, găuri negre, materie întunecată, cutremure, canioane, colecționari, genii, oameni de știință excentrici, genetică, specii dispărute, enigme, scufundări, rivalități, muncă, surprize, stele, planete, celule, bacterii, expediții, eșecuri, cifre, rectificări și erori. (Apropo de ultimele două, puteți găsi aici o mică erată a cărții.)

This is perhaps a little odd because life has had plenty of time to develop ambitions. If you imagine the 4,500-billion-odd years of Earth’s history compressed into a normal earthly day, then life begins very early, about 4A.M., with the rise of the first simple, single-celled organisms, but then advances no further for the next sixteen hours. Not until almost 8:30 in the evening, with the day five-sixths over, has Earth anything to show the universe but a restless skin of microbes. Then, finally, the first sea plants appear, followed twenty minutes later by the first jellyfish and the enigmatic Ediacaran fauna first seen by Reginald Sprigg in Australia. At 9:04P.M. trilobites swim onto the scene, followed more or less immediately by the shapely creatures of the Burgess Shale. Just before 10P.M. plants begin to pop up on the land. Soon after, with less than two hours left in the day, the first land creatures follow. Thanks to ten minutes or so of balmy weather, by 10:24 the Earth is covered in the great carboniferous forests whose residues give us all our coal, and the first winged insects are evident. Dinosaurs plod onto the scene just before 11P.M. and hold sway for about three-quarters of an hour. At twenty-one minutes to midnight they vanish and the age of mammals begins. Humans emerge one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight. The whole of our recorded history, on this scale, would be no more than a few seconds, a single human lifetime barely an instant. Throughout this greatly speeded-up day continents slide about and bang together at a clip that seems positively reckless. Mountains rise and melt away, ocean basins come and go, ice sheets advance and withdraw. And throughout the whole, about three times every minute, somewhere on the planet there is a flashbulb pop of light marking the impact of a Manson-sized meteor or one even larger. It’s a wonder that anything at all can survive in such a pummeled and unsettled environment. In fact, not many things do for long. Perhaps an even more effective way of grasping our extreme recentness as a part of this 4.5-billion-year-old picture is to stretch your arms to their fullest extent and imagine that width as the entire history of the Earth. On this scale, according to John McPhee in Basin and Range, the distance from the fingertips of one hand to the wrist of the other is Precambrian. All of complex life is in one hand, and in a single stroke with a medium-grained nail file you could eradicate human history.

[…] paradoxically important motor of progress: extinction. It is a curious fact that on Earth species death is, in the most literal sense, a way of life. No one knows how many species of organisms have existed since life began. Thirty billion is a commonly cited figure, but the number has been put as high as 4,000 billion. Whatever the actual total, 99.99 percent of all species that have ever lived are no longer with us.

Every cell in nature is a thing of wonder. Even the simplest are far beyond the limits of human ingenuity. To build the most basic yeast cell, for example, you would have to miniaturize about the same number of components as are found in a Boeing 777 jetliner and fit them into a sphere just five microns across; then somehow you would have to persuade that sphere to reproduce.

No persuasive reason has ever been adduced for why hominid brains suddenly began to grow two million years ago. For a long time it was assumed that big brains and upright walking were directly related – that the movement out of the forests necessitated cunning new strategies that fed off of or promoted braininess – so it was something of a surprise, after the repeated discoveries of so many bipedal dullards, to realize that there was no apparent connection between them at all.

“One of the hardest ideas for humans to accept,” he says, „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. Even anthropologists tended to think this way right up until the 1970s.”

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Almost Everything (2003)

Cartea a fost tradusă în 2008 la editura Curtea Veche sub numele Despre toate pe scurt – de la Big Bang la ADN

Au mai scris despre carte: hastalaescribistabeibi / PopMatters / The Guardian

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