A shorter history of nearly everything

BEAM ME UP: Teleportation is real - even if only an atom has been transported so far.
BEAM ME UP: Teleportation is real - even if only an atom has been transported so far.

It's a big word, "nearly". And the thing about big things is that there's often lots of room around them. Ten years on from the publication of Bill Bryson's ambitious and dauntingly enormous book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, it's still the go-to tome for those of us not blessed with the science gene.

He covers, as the title suggests, nearly everything, in an entertaining and accessible way. So the word 'nearly' prompts the question: what else is there, languishing in shadows, unknown and misunderstood? What has been discovered or invented since Bryson's book was published, or what crucial mysteries did it leave unsolved? What did he, simply, forget to include first time around?

The world is full of wonder, and as someone who wonders a lot, I propose to fill in some gaps. Consider the following an appendix to Bryson's masterwork (in that appendixes can go suddenly and unexpectedly septic and are not much missed once discarded).


Pluto was a planet when Bryson wrote the book. Now it's a strange kind of not-planet, which is probably confusing for its five moons who now don't know what to orbit and just aimlessly drift around looking embarrassed and not catching Pluto's eye. Worse than that, Pluto is currently designated a 'plutoid', and if you think that sounds ok, try adding 'oid' to your name. Her? She's a Susanoid. Hi, I'm a Davoid. It's demoralising. Pluto had less than 80 years to enjoy being a planet after its discovery in 1930, which means astronaut Buzz Aldren, born the same year, is still cheerfully outliving it. Those of us who painstakingly papier mâché-ed balloons or memorised the planets in order (Mother Very Thoughtfully Made Jelly Sandwiches Under No Protest) will never forget the little blue planet that couldn't.


If there is no branch of psychological science dedicated to national mottos, there should be. Essentially a country's mission statement, a motto is decided by committee and engraved solemnly upon the coat of arms, usually in Latin because it looks so more expensive. Australia went with 'Advance Australia', which is a slick marketing tie-in with their national anthem. Canada opted for the strict truth with their motto 'From Sea to Sea' which is strictly accurate and not bad considering their other option was 'From America to More America'. New Zealand used to have a motto: 'Onward', literally the Going Forward of slogans. Sensibly we got rid of it and now maintain a dignified silence on our coat of arms. It can't be long before some politician suggests selling the naming rights and our motto becomes 'Steinlager', so I suggest we get another one quickly. I'd like to take this opportunity to formally suggest 'Knock the Bastard Off'.


The problem with writing about science is that if scientists are doing their jobs properly, the writing dates fairly quickly. The same is true with technology. Within the last few years, amazing inventions like the photocopier have been quietly replaced with the sleek sci-fi of laser printers. Yet they represent a beautiful pinnacle of invention - the zenith where a need met twisted genius and created a deformed, monstrous thing that, bizarrely, worked. I'm going to try to explain photocopying. Some of it anyway. There are intermediary steps involving alternate dimensions I'm not allowed to tell you about. Right. So first a blinding light bounces off your memo, charging an internal drum with static electricity. Toner is actually a kind of plastic dust that is attracted to the static electricity (which is why pedants get huffy when you call it ink) and it sticks to the drum, only in the places where the light told it to because it's magic. Then a piece of blank paper rolls over the drum and the toner dust is melted onto the paper. Then you pry the paper out in pieces and repeatedly slam the tray door in a certain way that works for the receptionist and then press alt he buttons until the technician arrives. Someone had to think of all that. Lasers are pretty mundane in comparison.


Whether or not you think you need to take your multi, the world suffered terribly before the discovery of vitamins. Scurvy is one of the nastiest deficiency illnesses as it attacks collagen, useful for more than just trout lips. Scurvy reopens old wounds, dissolves teeth and eats into bones. The continents discovered by many European explorers were discovered at the expense of many European explorers: between 1500 and 1800 scurvy killed two million sailors, which was nearly all of them.

Although in the 1740s naval surgeon James Lind was pretty sure there was something good in limes (which worked quite a lot better than massive doses of seawater, something he also tried on his scurvy patients), as late as 1912 Antarctic explorers were still struggling with the disease, even as vitamin C was being discovered half a world away. We share our inability to make our own vitamin C with guinea pigs, which is why they make such excellent guinea pigs, and which someone ought to have told James Lind before he got so keen on human trials.


It may surprise you to know that spell check programmes have existed almost as long as computers. Clearly someone was paying attention to what people are like. The first functional one was produced in 1971 and promptly fulfilled its vocation of making people feel stupid. In the '90s Jerrold Zar, a man whose name gave him good reason to resent spellcheckers, wrote a snide poem mocking their limitations: "... Weather eye am write oar wrong/It tells me straight a weigh..."

The joke is on Zar, or Zero as my spellchecker calls him, because modern programmes look for linguistic sense as well as misspellings. They have however given rise to the 'Cupertino effect', where spellcheck dictionaries decide our intentions for us. The phrase comes from their assumption that we meant to refer to Apple's home town of Cupertino rather than write the clearly useless word 'cooperation'.


Global travel is the dream of many, but many a dream is curtailed by the discomfort of cattle class and the price of an in-flight tray of ill-advised butter chicken. With slightly queasy eyes we gaze at the fictional glitter-powered Star Treknology that allows people to casually 'beam' to their destinations. Glitter power is real though. Teleportation was achieved for the first time in 2009 at the University of Maryland. To be fair, all that was teleported was some data from a single atom, and even its luggage got lost, but the implications are exciting for anyone willing to trust their bodies and souls to the ineffable weirdness that is Quantum.


Invented only a few years after the publication of Bryson's book, YouTube is now a repository of educational films and lectures serving to broaden humanity's outlook, compassion and global understanding. More importantly though it has videos of cats. According to Jawed Karim who collaborated on the invention, the idea for a video sharing site came to him when he couldn't find footage of Janet Jackson's 2004 'wardrobe malfunction' online. The same high content standards have applied ever since. The ability to 'broadcast yourself' and the talents you may or may not have has turned out to be something people want, even though it's directly responsible for the career of Justin Beiber.


It's the scent of movie theatres and the treat that lasts till you floss. More than 5000 years old, popcorn's enduring popularity is not surprising: a hard dry seed that in one drama-filled moment transforms into a fluffy handful of deliciousness that you'll never completely banish from the space between your couch cushions. Those who homecook popcorn - and I mean old school stovetop style, not creepy microwave alchemy - know that popcorn is a temperamental master, involving much pot-shaking, temperature tweaking and burning butter that frequently results in a disappointing yield of sooty sog. Knowing the biology behind this firework of a food can help your chances.

Popcorn is like a tough guy confronted with a kitten: the kernel's hard exterior protects a soft, moist heart. When you heat the kernel, the moisture inside turns to steam which roils and mutters and tries to stretch out, a process humans call 'trying to get comfortable in a sleeping bag'. By the time they reach 180°C, the pressure is around 135 psi, too much for the kernel to contain. There's a big bang and a universe of salty goodness unfolds, the exuberant escaping steam whipping the corn's starch into a foamy pillow. All this so you can grind it into the theatre floor on your way out. Science dictates: store airtight, preheat oil, vent steam, and enjoy while reading Bryson's brilliant book.

The 10th anniversary edition of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything is out now (Black Swan, $29.99).

COPY THAT: Photocopiers, only a couple of years ago space-age inventions, have already been replaced with laser printers.
COPY THAT: Photocopiers, only a couple of years ago space-age inventions, have already been replaced with laser printers.

Sunday Magazine