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by William H. Benson  

May 3, 2007

     Great writers of science need not be scientists, although some certainly were, such as Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, as well as the paleontologist Jay Gould. But my vote for the best modern-day science writer is Bill Bryson, an American who writes on a multitude of subjects, one of which happens to be science. Bryson married an English girl, Cynthia, and they have chosen to live in England.

     In 2003 Bryson published what became a bestseller, A Short History of Nearly Everything. In less than five hundred pages, he presents an overview of the entire body of scientific knowledge accumulated by thousands of scientists over the last four centuries. He writes in a style that is readable and yet engaging, even stimulating.

     He writes on the formation of the universe, on the Milky Way galaxy, on the stars, the solar system, the sun, the planets, the comets, the meteors, the elements, the atoms, and on the myriad forms of life on planet Earth: plants, animals, fungi, and the several forms of life on micro level. He made trips around the world to visit museums and interview living scientists, he read a number of books, and he covers a lot in a short amount of time.

     Bryson tells in chapter 13 about the crater located at Manson, Iowa, ninety miles northwest of Des Moines. Sometime in the distant past, a rock that weighed perhaps ten billion tons and traveling at perhaps two hundred times the speed of sound slammed into the earth at the point where Manson, Iowa now sits.  The resulting hole was three miles deep and more than twenty miles across.

     “The Manson impact,” Bryson writes, “was the biggest thing that has ever occurred on the mainland United States. Of any type. Ever. The crater it left behind was so colossal that if you stood on one edge you would only just be able to see the other side on a good day. It would make the Grand Canyon look quaint and trifling.”

     But then, after 2.5 million years of ice sheets which ground and scraped and dumped rich glacial deposits into it, the crater filled in and left a landscape that “is as flat as a tabletop. Which is of course why no one has ever heard of the Manson crater.” The occasional visitor to the site is disappointed.

     The latter half of the book he devotes to Earth’s different life forms.

     One of the most interesting is the trilobite, a prehistoric arthropod—three-bodied with a head, thorax and abdomen, like insects and crustaceans—that lived everywhere on the planet for about 300 million years, which is twice the span of the dinosaurs. The trilobites were mostly the size of beetles, but some were as big as crabs, and they included some 60,000 species.

     In the Natural History Museum in London stand a series of file cabinets with drawers filled with trilobites in fossilized form, some twenty thousand specimens. Richard Fortey of the Museum said, “It seems like a big number, but you have to remember that millions upon millions of trilobites lived for millions upon millions of years in ancient seas, so twenty thousand isn’t a huge number.”

     Bryson writes, “As with all extinct creatures, there is a natural temptation to regard them (the trilobites) as failures, but in fact they were among the most successful animals ever to live.”

     But it is the microscopic life forms—the bacteria—that demands humans’ undivided attention. We tend to think that we can banish bacteria or kill them off through antibiotics and disinfectants. “Don’t you believe it, Bryson writes. “Bacteria may not build cities or have interesting social lives, but they will be here when the Sun explodes. This is their planet, and we are on it only because they allow us to be. Bacteria, never forget, got along for billions of years without us. We couldn’t survive a day without them. They process our wastes and make them usable again. . . . Microbes, such as algae, provide us with the air we breathe.”

     Craters that do not exist anymore because of the action of the ice ages, trilobites that lived for eons and then died, and bacteria who appear indestructible—all that and much more appear in Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything.