I’ve just finished the scariest book of my life.
Now, I’m no kid, so I’ve read a blood-curdler or two in my time.
Of course I had to read this one during a bloody pandemic …
We’re all getting a bit Covid-angsty in these parts.
Gaggles of young fellas pushing the social-distancing thing a bit more, we’re grumbling more about the government’s finger-pointing, and them not reaching their testing targets … and I’m staring daggers at the old dear who nearly brushed past me in Tesco (besides wondering what the hell she was doing out) …
The crazies are getting louder out there too, harassing police checkpoints and braying for the civil liberties they would deny others … the virtue-signallers are well on their way to self-canonisation, dressed up as altruism … and we’re bickering more on Twitter …
While my family and I are getting through our days.
Days, lots of days.
So what is this fright-buster of a buke I’m talking about?
Dracula … Carrie, The Silence of the Lambs … getting warm?
It’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson.
It kind of does what it says on the tin, it’s a popular science book exploring when and how we got here, and what we might do to hang around a bit longer.
Quite the tour de force, it takes in everything from the vast expanding universe to the micro-micro-micro-particles that make the world and us go round.
All in just 423 pages, not counting indices.
There’s layman physics aplenty, chemistry, biology, paleontology… every kind of ology, really … and of course, there’s dinosaurs and DNA, earthquakes and volcanoes, and the publisher who told Charles Darwin he would be better off writing a book about pigeons.
Homo sapiens finally shows up near the end.
Bryson has a lovely breezy delivery and is a great man for the telling anecdote, which is fine when he’s talking about some spectacularly socially inept whiz who made some genius scientific breakthrough, and they only found out about it when they opened up a musty, crowded drawer in his bedroom after he died.
But when he is talking to some dedicated follower of seismology, and he’s outlining all sorts of ways the world could be damaged, or even ended, Bryson’s genial tone is all the more chilling.
The book is full of Things That Would Frighten You If You Actually Thought About Them.
I mean Really Frighten You.
And so, the other day, I’m lazing on a bench in the sunny morning garden, all smiling bonhomie and momentary appreciation of life as a coronavirus recluse.
I’m squinting up at the shimmering blue sky when I suddenly have the most chilling vision: a booming red ball of cosmic fury bursts open the azure heavens, like a fire searing through a roll of film, followed by a microsecond of the coldest, blackest emptiness before I evaporate.
Hard to tell which. At least it’s quick.
None of the NASA hot-shots saw this thing the size of Everest coming, because their telescopes were pointing the wrong way.
Now how the heck are you supposed to think about new recipes for chicken fillets (again!!) when you’ve just sat through the end of the world?
Well, the end of Rush, County Dublin anyway, and me with it.
Thanks a lot, Bill Bryson!
Sure, I almost understood some of the simple science stuff in there and I’m sure I learned a few things I can use in family Zoom quizzes, but here’s the kind of things that have stayed with me:
Most species that ever lived are now extinct. Not just occasionally wiped out, they are repeatedly obliterated.
The Earth has actually been through five major extinction phases so far, each of which wiped out up to 85 per cent of its flora and fauna, the biggest one being the Permian, when at least 95 per cent of the animals checked out. Forever.
There’s been a few smaller, but still pretty spectacular killing episodes in between.
And scientists still don’t know much about what caused these extinction extravaganzas, nor do they know when the next one will be, or who and what will survive it.
Oh, and we’re between ice ages, did you know? The brainiest brains haven’t a clue when the next one will be along, how long it will last, or how severe it will be.
I’m only (global) warming up here … the Covid virus is only one of many possible viral epidemics that could get us.
There are over 5,000 types of virus out there, afflicting us with all sorts of ailments and illnesses, from the common cold and flu to deadly Ebola and AIDS
How prescient was Mr Bryson, writing in 2003, about these micro-demon killers: ‘They have an unnerving capacity to burst upon the world in some new and startling form and then to vanish again as quickly as they came’.
Of course, he drops a few jaw-dropping facts about the great Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, which killed far more people in a few months than the whole of the Great War of 1914-18.
Indeed we’re almost lucky the latest one it is not as virulent as it might be.
My little Asteroid Hits Earth fantasy was inspired by A Short History Of Nearly Everything’s description of the billions of asteroids orbiting in loose formations between Mars and Jupiter, and the observations of the boffins Bryson interviewed of how unprepared we would be if just one of them was disturbed in its orbit and came hurtling towards this planet, hundreds of times faster than the fastest bullet.
One expert cheerfully confessed we would most likely barely see it coming, let alone have time to do anything to deflect it.
And if it was big enough, we’d all be gone quicker than you could say ‘Pompeii’.
Or if we somehow survived the first impact, the shock-waves and the chain of off-the-scale earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis, there’d be no sunlight coming through all the dense clouds of ash and soot, and we’d soon be frozen colder than a polar bear’s breakfast.
Then we might pause to consider all that hot action bubbling beneath our feet, and the possibility of earthquakes and seismic venting that would fairly level the gaff …
Yes, fact fans, a volcanic eruption a trillion times more powerful than any atomic bomb could be about to blow any minute.
And you haven’t even brought in the washing … still, the drying might be good.
It could kill you instantly, or slowly, by blocking out the sun’s light for years, and killing off everything but some weird microbes, who could withstand the swirling intergalactic gas clouds and poisonous cosmic dust and … you get the picture.
So here I am, trying to cheer myself up by making up little ditties like “nine ways to fry, ten ways to die …” to the tune of the fast bit in the old Whipping Boy song We Don’t Need Nobody Else…
Then, the garden shudders violently beneath my bench, there’s an ear-splitting crack as a chasm opens between the cornflower-blue shed and the budding laburnum tree, and like a cosmic can opener has gone to work, shrubs and pots and decking and chairs are tumbling down, down into the bubbling red inferno revealed beneath.
That’s one way to fry …
Or the bubbling red inferno comes to me, and the patio flagstones are ripped up and strewn across the sky like breadcrumbs, and there’s the sulfuric whiff like a thousand rotten eggs as my little blue seat and I are plunged skywards atop a mountain of volcanic fury that is rising faster than the fastest elevator, spewing fire and lava as far as my melting eyes can, well, imagine …
There’s another …
Bryson, in fairness, does a masterful job of showing us how fantastically complicated and precious life is, and still so mysterious, and according to him it kind of all boils down to two things.
First, there was a cell, and this cell had the ability and the imperative to reproduce itself.
All of life in the universe has followed from that.
It’s just a cell who couldn’t say no to reproducing itself.
Or to stay, stay, stay, stay, staying alive.
On the brighter side, your seemingly indestructible atoms have been around forever, and will continue to be around long after you’re gone.
So you’ll always be there, somewhere … swinging on a star, nibbling on some luscious enzymes in a primordial slime pool on Mars, or maybe sparking off another Big Bang.
And something terribly bad might happen to your next world.
See that’s the thing about this virus epidemic, it makes these end-of-the-world type scenarios seem all too real — and possible.
So, the next time someone says to me “What can possibly go wrong?’ I’ll have something to tell them that will make their insides curl …
Maybe I had better work on my optimism a bit, or maybe I could just go on imagining the worst, and get it out of my system … binge on it like with one of those Netflix series that possess you for a week, and then you forget about them when you move on to the next one.
For some reason, I’m thinking now of Ruth Fitzmaurice’s book, I Found My Tribe, a heartbreakingly lyrical account of life with her film-maker husband Simon after he contracted motor neurone disease.
One of Ruth’s favorite possessions was a Winnie-the-Pooh plate she once made in a pottery class, and adorned with a quote from a conversation between Piglet and Pooh:
“ ‘Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?’
‘Supposing it didn’t,’ said Pooh after careful thought.”
So maybe that’s how I should approach all these end of the world jitters I’ve been getting.
Supposing the world went up, and I was underneath it?
Supposing it didn’t?
Take that, Bill Bryson!
- Thanks for reading.
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