Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result -- eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly -- in you.
If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here-and by 'we' I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp.
As my father always used to tell me, 'You see, son, there's always someone in the world worse off than you.' And I always used to think, 'So?
I became quietly seized with that nostalgia that overcomes you when you have reached the middle of your life and your father has recently died and it dawns on you that when he went he took some of you with him.
We know amazingly little about what happens beneath our feet. It is fairly remarkable to think that Ford has been building cars and baseball has been playing World Series for longer than we have known that the Earth has a core. And of course the idea that the continents move about on the surface like lily pads has been common wisdom for much less than a generation. Strange as it may seem, wrote Richard Feynman, we understand the distribution of matter in the interior of the Sun far better than we understand the interior of the Earth.
What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die of course. Literally shit myself lifeless.
There are three stages in scientific discovery. First, people deny that it is true, then they deny that it is important; finally they credit the wrong person.
It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.
It is easy to overlook this thought that life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point. We have plans and aspirations and desires. We want to take constant advantage of the intoxicating existence we've been endowed with. But what's life to a lichen? Yet its impulse to exist, to be , is every bit as strong as ours-arguably even stronger. If I were told that I had to spend decades being a furry growth on a rock in the woods, I believe I would lose the will to go on. Lichens don't. Like virtually all living things, they will suffer any hardship, endure any insult, for a moment's additions existence. Life, in short just wants to be.
In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one's face.
Consider the Lichen. Lichens are just about the hardiest visible organisms on Earth, but the least ambitious.
As we parted at the Natural History Museum in London, I asked Richard Fortey how science ensures that when one person goes there's someone ready to take his place.He chuckled rather heartily at my naiveté. 'I'm afraid it's not as if we have substitutes sitting on the bench somewhere waiting to be called in to play. When a specialist retires or, even more unfortunately, dies, that can bring a stop to things in that field, sometimes for a very long while.'And I suppose that's why you value someone who spends forty-two years studying a single species of plant, even if it doesn't produce anything terribly new?''Precisely,' he said, 'precisely.' And he really seemed to mean it.
Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numberous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms-up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested-probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name.
Bipedalism is a demanding and risky strategy. It means refashioning the pelvis into a full load-bearing instrument. To preserve the required strength, the birth canal in the female must be comparatively narrow. This has two very significant immediate consequences and one longer-term one. First, it means a lot of pain for any birthing mother and greatly increased danger of fatality to mother and baby both. Moreover, to get the baby's head through such a tight space it must be born while it's brain is still small - and while the baby, therefore, is still helpless. This means long-term infant care, which in turn implies solid male-female bonding.
I know this goes without saying, but Stonehenge really was the most incredible accomplishment. It took five hundred men just to pull each sarsen, plus a hundred more to dash around positioning the rollers. Just think about it for a minute. Can you imagine trying to talk six hundred people into helping you drag a fifty-ton stone eighteen miles across the countryside and muscle it into an upright position, and then saying, 'Right, lads! Another twenty like that, plus some lintels and maybe a couple of dozen nice bluestones from Wales, and we can party!' Whoever was the person behind Stonehenge was one dickens of a motivator, I'll tell you that.
It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavors look interesting and lively, that was merely an unintended side effect.
[About Uluru] I'm suggesting nothing here, but I will say that if you were an intergalactic traveler who had broken down in our solar system, the obvious directions to rescuers would be: Go to the third planet and fly around till you see the big red rock. You can't miss it. If ever on earth they dig up a 150,000-year-old rocket ship from the galaxy Zog, this is where it will be. I'm not saying I expect it to happen; not saying that at all. I'm just observing that if I were looking for an ancient starship this is where I would start digging.
The pleasant fact is that the British are not much good at violent crime except in fiction, which is of course as it should be.
In America, alas, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition--either you ruthlessly subjugate it, as at Tocks Dam and a million other places, or you deify it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart, as along the Appalachian Trail. Seldom would it occur to anyone on either side that people and nature could coexist to their mutual benefit--that, say, a more graceful bridge across the Delaware River might actually set off the grandeur around it, or that the AT might be more interesting and rewarding if it wasn't all wilderness, if from time to time it purposely took you past grazing cows and till fields.
Nothing - really, absolutely nothing - says more about Victorian Britain and its capacity for brilliance than that the century's most daring and iconic building was entrusted to a gardener.
Shakespeare 'never owned a book,' a writer for the New York Times gravely informed readers in one doubting article in 2002. The statement cannot actually be refuted, for we know nothing about his incidental possessions. But the writer might just as well have suggested that Shakespeare never owned a pair of shoes or pants. For all the evidence tells us, he spent his life naked from the waist down, as well as bookless, but it is probably that what is lacking is the evidence, not the apparel or the books.
It was an odd situation. For a century and a half, men got rid of their own hair, which was perfectly comfortable, and instead covered their heads with something foreign and uncomfortable. Very often it was actually their own hair made into a wig. People who couldn't afford wigs tried to make their hair look like a wig.
For anyone of a rational disposition, fashion is often nearly impossible to fathom. Throughout many periods of history – perhaps most – it can seem as if the whole impulse of fashion has been to look maximally ridiculous. If one could be maximally uncomfortable as well, the triumph was all the greater.
Considerable thought was given in early Congresses to the possibility of renaming the country. From the start, many people recognized that United States of America was unsatisfactory. For one thing, it allowed of no convenient adjectival form. A citizen would have to be either a United Statesian or some other such clumsy locution, or an American, thereby arrogating to ourselves a title that belonged equally to the inhabitants of some three dozen other nations on two continents. Several alternatives to America were actively considered -Columbia, Appalachia, Alleghania, Freedonia or Fredonia (whose denizens would be called Freeds or Fredes)- but none mustered sufficient support to displace the existing name.
From that original colony sprang seven names that still feature on the landscape: Roanoke (which has the distinction of being the first Indian word borrowed by English settlers), Cape Fear, Cape Hatteras, the Chowan and Neuse Rivers, Chesapeake, and Virginia. (Previously, Virginia had been called Windgancon, meaning what gay clothes you wear - apparently what the locals had replied when an early reconnoitering party had asked the place's name.)
Whatever happens in the world - whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over - eventually ends up, in one way or another, in your house. Wars, famine, the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment - they are all there in your sofas and chests of drawers, tucked into the folds of your curtains, in the downy softness of your pillows, in the paint on your walls and the water in your pipes. So the history of household life isn't just a history of beds and sofas and kitchen stoves ... but of scurvy and guano and the Eiffel Tower and bedbugs and body-snatching and just about everything else that has ever happened. Houses aren't refuges from history. They are where history ends up.
It's an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe's supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously.
Disassemble the cells of a sponge (by passing them through a sieve, for instance), then dump them into a solution, and they will find their way back together and build themselves into a sponge again. You can do this to them over and over, and they will doggedly reassemble because, like you and me and every other living thing, they have one overwhelming impulse: to continue to be.
Hunters will tell you that a moose is a wily and ferocious forest creature. Nonsense. A moose is a cow drawn by a three-year-old.
Three hundred types of mussel, a third of the world’s total, live in the Smokies. Smokies mussels have terrific names, like purple wartyback, shiny pigtoe, and monkeyface pearlymussel. Unfortunately, that is where all interest in them ends. Because they are so little regarded, even by naturalists, mussels have vanished at an exceptional rate. Nearly half of all Smokies mussels species are endangered; twelve are thought to be extinct.This ought to be a little surprising in a national park. I mean it’s not as if mussels are flinging themselves under the wheels of passing cars. Still, the Smokies seem to be in the process of losing most of their mussels. The National Park Service actually has something of a tradition of making things extinct. Bryce Canyon National Park is perhaps the most interesting-certainly the most striking-example. It was founded in 1923 and in less than half a century under the Park Service’s stewardship lost seven species of mammal-the white-tailed jackrabbit, prairie dog, pronghorn antelope, flying squirrel, beaver, red fox, and spotted skunk. Quite an achievement when you consider that these animals had survived in Bryce Canyon for tens of millions of years before the Park Service took an interest in them. Altogether, forty-two species of mammal have disappeared from America's national parks this century.
I know a man who drives 600 yards to work. I know a woman who gets in her car to go a quarter of a mile to a college gymnasium to walk on a treadmill, then complains passionately about the difficulty of finding a parking space. When I asked her once why she didn't walk to the gym and do five minutes less on the treadmill, she looked at me as if I were being willfully provocative. 'Because I have a program for the treadmill,' she explained. 'It records my distance and speed, and I can adjust it for degree of difficulty.' It hadn't occurred to me how thoughtlessly deficient nature is in this regard.
America's industrial success produced a roll call of financial magnificence: Rockefellers, Morgans, Astors, Mellons, Fricks, Carnegies, Goulds, du Ponts, Belmonts, Harrimans, Huntingtons, Vanderbilts, and many more based in dynastic wealth of essentially inexhaustible proportions. John D. Rockefeller made $1 billion a year, measured in today's money, and paid no income tax. No one did, for income tax did not yet exist in America. Congress tried to introduce an income tax of 2 percent on earnings of $4,000 in 1894, but the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. Income tax wouldn't become a regular part of American Life until 1914. People would never be this rich again.Spending all this wealth became for many a more or less full-time occupation. A kind of desperate, vulgar edge became attached to almost everything they did. At one New York dinner party, guests found the table heaped with sand and at each place a little gold spade; upon a signal, they were invited to dig in and search for diamonds and other costly glitter buried within. At another party - possibly the most preposterous ever staged - several dozen horses with padded hooves were led into the ballroom of Sherry's, a vast and esteemed eating establishment, and tethered around the tables so that the guests, dressed as cowboys and cowgirls, could enjoy the novel and sublimely pointless pleasure of dining in a New York ballroom on horseback.
The hard and unexpected part is the realization not just that my son is not here but that the boy he was is gone forever. I would give anything to have them both back. But of course that cannot be. Life moves on. Kids grow up and move away, and if you don't know this already, believe me, it happens faster than you can imagine.
Mr. Schlubb, the pear-shaped PE teacher, sent us all out to run half a dozen laps around a preposterously enormous cinder track. For the Greenwood kids—all of us white, marshmallowy, innately unphysical, squinting unfamiliarly in the bright sunshine—it was a shock to the system of an unprecedented order.
Take a moment from time to time to remember that you are alive. I know this sounds a trifle obvious, but it is amazing how little time we take to remark upon this singular and gratifying fact. By most astounding stroke of luck and infinitesimal portion of all the matter in the universe came together to create you and for the tiniest moment in the great span of eternity you have the incomparable privilege to exist.For endless eons there was no you. Before you know it, you will cease to be again. And in between you have this wonderful opportunity to see and feel and think and do. Whatever else you do with your life, nothing will remotely compare with the incredible accomplishment of having managed to get yourself born. Congratulations. Well done. You really are special.