Tuesday, August 17, 2004


Sidewalk psychiatry suggests that a sense of perspective is part of mental health. The hard part is: where and how do you get it?

Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything brims with the stuff. Here is his version of all-earthly-history-in-24-hours:

"If you imagine the 4.5 billion-odd years of the Earth's history compressed into a normal earthly day, then life begins very early, about 4 A.M., with the rise of simple single-celled organisms, but then advances no further for the next 16 hours. Not until 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 ... At 9:04 P.M. trilobytes swim onto the scene, followed more or less immediately by the shapely creatures of the Burgess Shale. Just before 10 P.M. plants begin to pop up on the land. Soon after, with less than two hours left in the day, the first creatures follow.

"Thanks to ten minutes 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 11 P.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 history, on this scale, would be no more than a few seconds ..."

Lots of history per phrase. This wonderful book is chock-full of fascinating information, always presented in lively and enjoyable prose. No need to be a science illiterate when there are people like Bryson to save us.