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The Body: A Guide for Occupants
More books on Health
There is a metre of DNA in every cell - so thin that 20 billion strands to match thickness of finest human hair.
Nothing you own right now will still be around in 1000 years, but yr DNA will almost certainly be around and recoverable.
All humans share 99.99% of their DNA, yet all are different. That .01% means a difference in about 2 million or so places. And each of us has at least 100 mutations - bits of our DNA that is different to either of our parents.
Body takes a lot of abuse. 5 out of 6 smokers won't get cancer. Most people don't have heart attacks. Every day 5 or 6 of your cells turn cancerous, but your immune system captures and destroys them all.
We are the product of 3 billion years of evolutionary tweaks. Our genes come from our ancestors, most of whom weren't human. Some were fish, lots more were small and furry and lived in burrows. A long history of interesting accidents.
Long way from ideal - bad backs, choking hazard, pregnancy. Other animals - zebrafish can grow new heart tissue. Nearly all animals can make their own Vit C, but not humans. We do the first 3 steps but not the final one bc the gene to make the required enzyme is broken.
The outermost surface of your skin is entirely dead cells. We shed skin cells continuously and copiously - over a million flakes an hour.
The dermis holds a range of exquisitly sensitive receptors. Pacinian corpuscles react to vibration - can detect a movement as slight as one ten thou of a mm, which isvirtually no movement at all. And they can interpret without even being in direct contact - dig into sand or gravel and you can tell the difference, even though all you're touching is a spade.
Interesting thing about touch is that it doesn't just tell you how something feels, it also tells you how it ought to feel. So the caress of a lover feels great, but the same touch by a stranger is creepy.
Only lips, nipples, genetalia and bottom of feet and hands have no hair. We are actually just as hairy as other apes; it's just that our hair is wispier and lighter.
Humans have far more sweat glands than most other mammals. Allows heat dissapation, where animals have to pant. And panting makes deep breathing difficult, so prolonged running hard.
Sweat on its own is odorless. It is the chemical breakdown by bacteria that produces the cheesy smell.
The only known cure for baldness is castration.
Bacteria provide us with about 10% of our calories that we wd otherwise be unable to digest. E. coli can reproduce 72 times in a day. Bacteria don't proof-read DNA very well, so they mutate more often. And they can swap DNA even with dead neighbours, giving them wide genetic variety.
Thin people have more microbes than fat people.
Of the million or so microbes that have been identified, just 1415 are known to cause disease in humans. But together those 1415 tiny entities cause one-third of all deaths on the planet.
Viruses are not quite alive, but certainly not dead. They are much smaller than bacteria and cannot be seen under a conventional microscope. They don't eat or breathe or move around. They just sit on a surface until they can get into a living cell, and start reproducing furiously. Most viruses only infect bacteriasl cells, have no effect on us at all. There are probably millions of viruses but only 263 affect humans.
The most common viral infection is the common cold. For years, Britain operated a research facility called the Common Cold Unit, but it closed in 1989 without finding a cure. It did carry out some interesting expts. In one, a volunteer was fitted with a device that leaked a thin fluid at his nostrils at the same rate a runny nose would. The volunteer then socialized with other voluteers as if at a cocktail party. The fluid contained a dye visible only under ultraviolet light. When that was switched on after mingling for a while, the participants were astounded to discover that the dye was everywhere - on the hands, head and upper body of every participant, and on glasses, doorknobs, sofa cushions, plates and cutlery. Within an hour, pretty much everyone and everything bore a festive glow of imaginary snot.
In a similar study at U of Arizona, researchers infected the metal door handle at the office entrance and found that within 4 hours the 'virus' has spread through the entire building, infecting half the employees and turning up on every shared surface.
A survey of subway trains in Boston found that metal poles fairly hostile environment but viruses loved seat fabrics and plastic handgrips.
A study in Switzerland found that a virus can survive on a banknote for two and half weeks if it is accompanied by a microdot of snot.
Everything that isn't plant, animal or fungus, bacteria or archaea gets dumped into the protist category. From human pov, Plasmodium most impt - malaria and toxiplasma.
Problem of antibiotic resistance. One way to combat cd be to attack quorum - bacteria only attack once they have mustered overwhelming numbers. If can keep them below threshhold, stop attack but also keep resistant bacteria in minority.
We have to find something, bc otherwise there will come a time when can't do routine ops like hip replacements bc risk of infection just too high.
Your mind doesn't work like a filing cabinet; it is more like a Wikipedia page: you can go in and change things, and so can other people.
One reason the Mona Lisa seems enigmatic is that she has no eyebrows.
Smells are not the same for everyone. A hormone called androsterone - one third can't smell it all, one third report smell urine, one third say sandalwood.
We all say that if had to lose any sense, it wd be sense of smell, but people who have actually lost it are amazed at how much pleasure it takes out of their lives.
Body discards about 100 billion red blood cells every day, which is main reason your poo is brown.
Leptin is a hormone produced in fat cells. One of the things it does is to assess and control the start of energy demanding processes such as pregnancy or puberty. If energy reserves too low, prevented. This is why puberty starts so much earlier today than did 500 years ago (when commonly 16 or 17) - simply better nutrution.
Samuel Pepys had a bladder stone the size of a tennis ball removed in 1658. While 4 strong men held Pepys down, the surgeon, Thomas Hollyer, inserted an instrument called an itinerarium up his penis and into his bladder to fix the stone in place. Then he took a scalpel and cut a 3 inch incision between the scrotum and anus. Peeling back the opening, he gently cut into the exposed bladder, thrust in a pair of duck-billed forceps and pulled out the stone. The entire procedure took fifty seconds. Pepys kept the stone in a display box and showed it off for the rest of his life.
About one person in eight has an extra pair of ribs, while Down Syndrome frequently have a pair missing.
We have about 206 bones in out body. half of them are in hands and feet, not bc we need them, but bc that was where evo left them.
Exercise builds stronger bones, and stronger bones produce more osteocalcin, which is involved in a lot of regulatory functions, partic keeping memory in order. So linked to staving off Alzheimers.
Most primates have opposable thumbs (meaning that they can touch the other fingers), but what makes humans unique are 3 little muscles in thumb that allow us to grasp and manipulate tools with great delicacy. These 3 small muscles are at the heart of human civilization.
Few people can claim to have brought relief to as many people as Manchester surgeon named John Charnley. The most problematic part of human anatomy after the back, is the hips. When the cartilage wore out, there were very few satisfactory remedies. But Charnley worked out that you cd replace the femur with a stainless steel socket lined with plastic.
Our legs don't drop straight down from our waist, as does in all other primates, but angle inwards from pelvis. So we don't waddle like chimps and apes, and use a quarter the energy they use when bipedal.
At the back of out head is a small ligament, unique to humans, that has one job - to hold our head still while running. And running is the one thing we do superlatively well. We aren't the fastest runners, but we can trot for hours, enabling us to run down prey.
Two stage transition. When first came down from trees, Homo became walkers and climbers. Then, gradually, we became walkers and runners, not climbers. Lucy was first stage - a walker and a climber, but not a runner (and she died falling out of a tree).
Fever may be a defence mech - incr body temp by one degree slows virus replication by factor of two hundred.
Vaccination is basically a process of getting the body to manufacture anitbodies to resist a scourge, without having to get sick first.
To obviate health concerns, and make smoking more attractive for women, cig manufacturers introduced filters in early 1950's. They used that as a justification to raise prices, even though the cost of the filters was less than the tobacco replaced. And to compensate for a perceived lack of taste, they started using stronger tobacco. So the smoker wound up taking in more tar and nicotine than had before.
Need to understand that carbohydrate, upon being digested, is just more sugar. So 150g of white rice, or a small bowl of cornflakes, will have same effect on your blood glucose levels as 9 teaspoons of sugar.
An avocado has 5 times as much saturated fat as a small packet of crisps. And coconut oil is totally saturated fat. "Coconut oil is no better for you than a big scoop of deep fried butter.
The fruits we eat have all been bred to be far sweeter than they used to be. Fruit in Shakespeare's time wd have been no sweeter than a modern carrot. And bc modern fruit has been selectively bred for yield and rapid growth, they are significantly less nutritious than used tyo be. 50% less iron, 12% less calcium and 15% less Vit A.
Expt in uni canteen, giving carrots diff label each day. One day just carrots, next low-sodium carrots, then high-fibre carrots, and then twisted glazed carrots. The students took 25% more of the sugary sounding twisted glazed carrots.
Lots of foods are advertised as being low in salt, fat or sugar, but whenever they reduce one of the three, they boost the other two to compensate.
'Bowel transit time' - mouth to anus for a man roughly 55 hours, and for a woman, 72 hours. We have no idea why, or what consequences of that difference.
Each meal spends 4-6 hours in stomach, 6-8 hours in the small intestine, and up to 3 days in the colon. main function of stomach is to kill off microbes, by bathing them in hydrochloric acid.
According to a study by US Dept of Agriculture, about a quarter of all chicken pieces sold in stores are contaminated with salmonella. There is no cure for salmonella poisoning. (Salmonella has nothing to do with fish; it is named after the head of lab that discovered it.)
Most digestion happens in the small intestine, 25 feet of coiled tubing. to prevent your acid digestive juices attacking rest of body, intestine is lined with a single layer of epithelium. This front line gets replaced every three days.
Wrapped around the small intestine is 6 feet of large intestine/bowel/colon. Where it meets small intestine is a small pouch called caecum, and jutting off the caecum is a small finger, the appendix. 80,000 people a year die when this ruptures or gets infected. The large intestine is basically a fermentation tank, where microbes slowly digest what's left by the small intestine.
The small of farts is mainly due to hydrogen sulphide, even though only about 1 or 2 parts per million of total gas expelled.
Horses and elephants get by on 2 or 3 hours of sleep a night, but most mammals need much more.
Pain is usually a warning that something is wrong. But chronic pain is a system gone wrong, like cancer. Basically it's a disease in its own right.
Every year 45000 Americans die of opoid o/d; far more than auto deaths. Big pharma delivered the opoid epidemic; now they profit from selling drugs to counter the side effects. There is one upside: increased organ donors - 3500 a year these days.
Two impt things about life expectancy: the first is expected - it is really helpful to be rich. If you are middle-aged, well off and living in a high-income nation, chances are excellent that you shd live into your late eighties. Someone who is otherwise identical to you - exercises as much, sleeps as many hours, eats a similarly healthy diet, but just has less money in the bank - can expect to die ten to fifteen years earlier. That's a lot of difference for an equivalent lifestyle, and we don't know how to account for it.
The second thing is less intuitive: it's not great to be an American. Compared with your peers in the rest of the developed world, even being well off doesn't help you. A random American aged 50 is more than twice as likely to die as someone from same age and demographic in Sweden. For every 400 middle-aged Americans who die each year, just 220 die in Australia, 230 in Britain, 290 in Germany, and 300 in France.
Among rich countries, America is at or near the bottom for virtually every measure of medical well-being.
And these poorer outcvomes don't apply just to under-priveleged citizens, but to prosperous, white, college-educated Americans when compared to their socio-economic equivalents abroad.
Breast cancer screening doesn't save a lot of lives. For every 1000 women screened, 4 will die of breast cancer anyway (either bc cancer was missed or bc already too late). For every 1000 women not screened, 5 will die. So screening saves 1 woman per 1000.
Same thing with prostate cancer. The PSA test only predicts that cancer might be likely. A biopsy may or may not hit the tumour, and if it does, current tech has no way of saying whether tumour benign of malignant. The test is hardly more effective than a coin toss.
Sim stats to breast cancer. For every 1000 men screened, 1 life is saved. But most who get operated on spend rest of their lives impotent and incontinent, and probably with a reduced life expectancy.
A true smile lasts less than 4 secs; a fixed smile is threatening. A genuine smile contracts muscle (orbicularis oculi) in eaach eye, over which we have no control. You can make yourmouth form a smile, but you can't make your eyes sparkle with feigned joy.
One of reasons the Mona Lisa looks enigmatic is that she has no eyebrows.
Sometimes see little white sparks - these are your own white blood cells moving through a capillary in front of the retina.
20/20 vision just means that you can see at 20 feet what any reasonably well-sighted person sees at 20 feet. Doesn't mean you have perfect vision.
Our ears have 2700 hair-like filaments called stereocilia. The high frequency ones are at front, and low-frequency ones further in. That means all sound waves, high and low, pass over the high frequency cilia, and this heavier traffic means they wear out more quickly. Stereocilia wear away, and do not regenerate. They grow back in birds, but not in humans.
We all smell the world differently. Smell hormone androsterone: one third of people can't smell anything; one third say smells like urine, and one third sandalwood. So we can't agree on whether something smells pleasant, revolting or is simply odourless.
MSG is one of most intensively studied food additives around. No scientific reason to condemn it. Demonised as causing headaches and indigestion, but this whole rep based on a single letter (not a study or even an article) to med journal in 1968.
Fish can regrow damaged heart muscle but not humans.
Only post-WW2 realised heart disease a problem (once infectious diseases removed as cause of death). Used to think high blood pressure meant active, healthy heart. Then FDR died 1945 with BP 300/100,and realised meant problem.
About 1 in 8 people has an extra, 13th, pair of ribs, whle Down Syndrome people usually have a pair missing.
We were originally tree-dwelling apes who rarely walked upright. Tranformation in two stages - first we became walkers who climbed; then gradually we became walkers and runners, but no longer climbers.
More books on Evolution
in 1940's Jeremy Morris became convinced that increasing heart attacks and coronary diseasewas linked to levels of activity, not just "stress". There was no money for a large scale study, but he realised London buses gave him a ready-made A-B test - drivers sat on their bums all day, while conductors on feet all shift, and climbing up and down stairs. Found that drivers twice as likely to have heart attack as conductors.
Even in deep sleep, some part of us is monitoring outside world. EEG readings show spike when subject's name read aloud, but didn't react when unknown names spoken.
All mitochondria is transferred by mothers - sperm has none. So a mother passes her mitochondria to both sons and daughters, but only her daughters will pass it on. So if she has only sons, or no children, her mitochondrial line will become extinct. So the human mitochondrial line shrinks a little every generation. So much that only one mitochondrial line survives from 200,000 years ago - a female who lived in Africa is the Mitochondrial Eve, and in a sense, the mother of us all.
If ever there was an event that challenges the idea of Intelligent Design, it is the act of childbirth. No woman, no matter how devout, has ever in childbirth said "Thank you Lord, for thinking this through for me."
More books on Religion
About two million Americans are thought to be opiod addicts. Every year claims 45,000 lives, far more than in car crashes. The one positive is incr in organ donors - from 150 addicts in 2000 to 3500 today.
The word placebo has been in English since Middle Ages, originally from L. word 'to please'. Chaucer used it in sense of flatterer or sycophant.
More books on Words
Chemotherapy began when a researcher noticed that victims of mustard gas poisoning in WW2 (a ship carrying gas was bombed in Italy) had dramatically reduced production of white blood cells. What we use today is still basically mustard gas.
The cartilage in your joints is smoother than glass, and has a friction coefficient five times less than ice. The more exercise we do the more our bones produce a hormone that boosts mood, fertility and memory - staving off frailty, depression and dementia. Taste receptors trigger insulin release, so that before we've even swallowed our bodies are preparing for a meal (there are even taste receptors in the testicles). We are made of seven billion billion billion atoms, the constituent elements of which would cost £96,546.79 on the open market (excluding VAT). A study of 60 people's belly buttons found 2,368 species of bacteria, 1,458 of them 'unknown to science'. Our ears can discern a volume range of a 1,000,000,000,000 factors of amplitude. Over a lifetime your heart performs the equivalent work to lifting a tonne weight 150 miles into the air. Through her nipples a breast-feeding mother's body gauges the microbes in her baby's saliva, to adjust the antibody content of her milk. If you laid all the DNA in your body end to end it would stretch 10bn miles, beyond the orbit of Pluto: 'Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system,' Bill Bryson writes; 'You are in the most literal sense cosmic.
Bryson's The Body is a directory of such wonders, a tour of the minuscule; it aims to do for the human body what his A Short History of Nearly Everything did for science. He has waded through a PhD's worth of articles, interviewed a score of physicians and biologists, read a library of books, and had a great deal of fun along the way. There's a formula at work - the prose motors gleefully along, a finely tuned engine running on jokes, factoids and biographical interludes.
Bryson is concerned not just with the peculiarities of our bodies, but their expiry dates.
His introduction, 'How to Build a Human', explores the mystery of life, why £96k worth of atomic matter self-organises into the miraculous and autonomous beings that we are (spoiler alert: no one really knows). After dispensing with the skin and hair ('no one ever died of baldness'), and the trillions of bacteria that share our bodies ('bacteria can swap genes between themselves, like Pokemon cards'), the brain, head, throat, heart, liver, skeleton, lungs, guts and genitals are given the Bryson treatment: wry, companionable, avuncular and always lucid. Despite his geniality, the pace is breakneck: six pages of the 454 span the history of cardiac surgery (a subject Thomas Morris's The Matter of the Heart recently spent more than 400 pages on). In an express chapter on pain and nerves, migraine is allotted just one paragraph, as is the pain of cancer.
Bryson's tour of the marvellous arcs into the remarkable achievements of an elite few of our fellow humans: the toddler who was fully resuscitated from hypothermia even though her heart had stopped for hours; the flight attendant who survived a fall of 33,000ft, cushioned by fir trees; the Spanish diver who held his breath for 24 minutes; the Chilean miners who do hard labour 19,000ft up a mountain. In terms of our reproductive capacities, you might be interested to know that the chance of conceiving on a single, randomly timed act of sex is 3%, the lucky sperm welcomed to the egg 'like a long-lost if curiously diminutive friend'. As for the average size of the human penis, you can find it on page 287.
Bryson is concerned not just with the peculiarities of our bodies, but their expiry dates: through the 20th century, human life expectancy improved as much again as in the previous 8,000 years. The first thousand days of life from conception are crucial for your future health - stress in early childhood, and in the womb, makes you an unhealthier and more miserable adult. Junk food and sedentary lives mean that children born now are expected to have shorter lives than their parents - a development that prompts Bryson into a rare bitter jibe: 'We aren't just eating ourselves into early graves, it seems, but breeding children to jump in alongside us.' This is a political more than a medical problem, and it has political solutions: men in the East End of Glasgow have a life expectancy of 54, 25 less than the UK average - improving that statistic requires government action, not medicine. A 30-year-old black man in Harlem has a worse prospective lifespan than a 30-year-old Bangladeshi, just on the basis of stroke, diabetes and heart disease risk, and excluding drug deaths and violence. What factors improve our life expectancy? 'One is that it is really helpful to be rich,' Bryson answers. And the second? 'That it is not a good idea to be American.'
In the final chapters he gets angrier, and the book becomes even more interesting. He points out that even rich Americans die younger than the average-income European because of diet, obesity and America's anomalous, hyper-expensive and iniquitous healthcare system. Bryson was born in Iowa but has made his home in Britain, and relates with barely disguised horror that the average American eats two entire cheesecakes-worth of calories more than the average person in Holland or Sweden, every week. Americans shoot one another more often than anyone else, drink and drive more than 'almost anybody else' and wear seatbelts less frequently than anyone but the Italians. Insulin, the patent for which was donated by its discoverers for the good of mankind, is six times more expensive in the US than in Europe. Cuba and Lithuania have better infant survival rates than America. The US has double the number of financial administrators in its healthcare system than it does physicians. And just in case Brits are starting to feel smug, Bryson points out that UK government austerity between 2010 and 2017 has led to about 120,000 preventable early deaths. To its shame, the UK languishes among the poorest in the developed world in terms of cancer survival - because the very barriers to specialist care that make the NHS comparatively cheap to run also make it lumberingly slow.
The more exercise we do the more our bones produce a hormone that boosts mood, fertility and memory.
On the subject of prostate cancer, the PSA test is 'hardly more effective than a coin toss' according to Professor Richard J Ablin, who discovered it in 1970: 'I never dreamed that my discovery four decades ago would lead to such a profit-driven disaster' (one of many moments in The Body when I stopped to applaud, and scrawled in my notes 'I wish all my patients would read this'). It makes sense that enjoying good friendships in later life might promote longevity, but Bryson notes that a positive social and emotional life seems to actually protect our DNA. In one study looking at diabetic care and outcomes, the patients of doctors who were rated highly for compassion had a 40% lower complication rate.
You are a walking, talking catalogue of wonders. 'And how do we celebrate the glory of our existence?' Bryson asks. 'Well, for most of us by exercising minimally and eating maximally.' For all Bryson's encyclopedic reading, his brain-picking sessions with medicine's finest minds, the ultimate conclusions of his book could stand as an ultimate prescription for life: eat a little bit less, move a little bit more.
The Body is a fairly straightforward traipse through organs or organ systems (a chapter on the brain, another on the skeleton, another on the gut, and so on), The Body is the sort of book that makes one wonder how it is that Bryson lost his magic touch in making very big books transcend the common textbook. Oftentimes during The Body, it's unclear what exactly makes Bryson feel that the words of a living scientist or two per chapter are sufficient to enthrall the reader more than an introductory human biology textbook would. If anything, the way The Body moves along, it makes one wish there were sub-headings and diagrams — things textbooks have. So, what happened?
Perhaps what's missing most is Bryson's characteristic wit and ingenious ways of analysis. There is a little of both. In the first chapter, Bryson takes us through a tour of the different price tags groups of scientific experts put on the human body: "Altogether, according to the [Royal Society of Chemistry], the full cost of building a new human being, using an obliging Benedict Cumberbatch as a template, would be a very precise $151,578.76." It's a promising start. In A Short History, Bryson almost always used a fun framing through which to edify. In The Body, it's an early stunt that's almost never attempted again. Wit is even more rare. This is a shame.
The reason Bryson has had so many fans, like myself, over the years is not because he's uniquely good at synthesis, but because he's able to do what similar books cannot: make the synthesis compulsively readable. For my money, the best joke in this almost-400-page book with hardly any is the following sentence about the Polish chemist Casimir Funk who came up with the idea of vitamins:
"Although Funk coined the term 'vitamines,' and is thus often given credit for their discovery, most of the real work...was done by others, in particular Sir Frederick Hopkins, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1929 — a fact that left Funk permanently in one."
Bryson knows well that readers are suckers for a good pun. But the jokes are too few and far between to make a difference.
What The Body is left with, then, is a heavy sense of didacticism, and a pedestrian tone of unrelenting pomp and hyperbole so common in popular science books that aim to make everything about scientific discovery seem just awesome. There are glimmers of hope when Bryson uses quirky, fascinating stories. The story of Alphonse Bertillon, a man called to the scene of a murder in a Paris apartment in 1902, is one such glimmer. Bertillon went on to deduce the fact that fingerprints are unique, which made fingerprinting a standard forensic technique; this story, relatively brief, allows the reader to glide right to Bryson's musings about how it is still unknown what evolutionary purpose unique fingerprints confers and straight on to more interesting stuff about the organ of skin without Eureka! traps.
But more often than not, Bryson shies away from story-telling entirely: When discussing heart disease, he writes that "the triggering event for public awareness seems to have been the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt...when he died...the world suddenly seemed to realize that heart disease had become a serious and widespread problem." That's all we get on FDR and this sudden transformation. Where Bryson could replace a gap with an interesting story, he places a period and simply moves on — to more boring subjects.
The tendency to abandon fruitful threads can be infuriating. The Body seems well-placed to inform readers about controversy in the history of biology. The gruesome, controversial experiments that led to knowledge about heart pressure are a welcome presence, as is the rabid discord between the two men who shared the 1923 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of an efficient way of procuring insulin. But one cannot help but wish for Bryson to move closer to controversy. He briefly flirts with the fraught ethics of what counts as "brain death," and elsewhere with the fact that due to the economics of patents the vast majority of modern pharmaceutical companies have stopped searching for new antibiotics. But that's all they are: brief flirtations. And in at least one particular case, Bryson's aversion to sit with controversy is truly damning. When discussing the cost of new therapies that work remarkably for certain melanomas, Bryson quotes a professor of immunology. The professor asks: " What are we going to do...cure a few rich people and tell everyone else that it is not available?" And Bryson says: "But that is, of course, another issue altogether." I genuinely cannot remember when I have been more enraged by the ending to a chapter. Or more surprised that the humanist writer of A Short History would be so ignorant to the broader connections and implications of his subject.
The truth is, it's just not clear who The Body is for. Is it the sort of book targeted to the children bored by textbooks, or is it targeted to the casual adult reader? Is it meant for people who care for and know about the human body, or is it for people who know nothing about it? It is a strange burden to put on a writer to expect an entirely different book than the one that is present, but for many long-time Bryson fans, this may be exactly the conundrum.
And no matter who the reader is, it is hard to imagine The Body making the kind of incredible impact that A Short History did, especially in a time when so many wonderful books with similar scope exist. The Body does not rise to the level of Siddhartha Mukherjee's wonderful The Gene, or Henry Gee's Across the Bridge; Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish, or Daniel Lieberman's The Story of the Human Body. The sense of the prosaic overwhelms the ambition of the scope — but perhaps, in a sense, I'm having the same argument I had as a teenager. I like Bryson's less ambitious books more. Only this time, it's not a hard call to make at all.
Toward the end of Bill Bryson’s hugely enlightening and entertaining “A Short History of Nearly Everything” (2003), an early model of modern man emerges from Africa a little over 100,000 years ago with primitive stone axes. Smaller-brained and more fragile than their stout, adaptable Neanderthal competitors, modern humans, improbably, prevail.
Later, we name ourselves Homo sapiens because we think we’re smart. What do we do with our wits? Mostly, kill off other species and destroy their habitat and our own. And that predilection long predates our more recent zeal for torturing ourselves and our fellow life-forms by recklessly raising the global thermostat because Hummers are cool and we don’t like drinking out of faucets.
Still, among this generally arrogant species, some, like Bryson, have always appreciated the glorious complexity and privilege of our unlikely existence.
Having described the physical nature of our world and beyond, from the atomic to the intergalactic, in “The Body” he now turns inward to explain — in his lucid, amusing style — what we’re made of. Along the way, as he has before, he weaves in stories of the astonishing characters who have been figuring humans out.
Consider John H. Gibbon’s quest, in the early 1930s, to oxygenate blood to make open-heart surgery possible: “To test the capacity of blood vessels deep within the body to dilate or constrict, Gibbon stuck a thermometer up his rectum, swallowed a stomach tube, and then had icy water poured down it to determine its effect on his internal body temperature.”
Bryson also chronicles myriad examples of medicine gone wrong. Founding Father and esteemed surgeon Benjamin Rush, during a yellow-fever epidemic, “bled hundreds of victims and was convinced that he had saved a great many when in fact all he did was fail to kill them all.”
“Part of the problem,” Bryson explains, “was that he believed that the human body contains about twice as much blood as it actually does and that one can remove up to 80 percent of that notional amount without ill effect.”
Why didn’t Bryson subtitle “The Body: A Guide for Occupants” as “An Owner’s Manual” instead? Wouldn’t that have been terribly clever?
No, because, as Bryson makes clear, we don’t own our bodies. Evolution owns our bodies. We occupy them — although the more you read, the less clear it is how to define these roving, rickety, skin-slathered bone towers of electric impulses, chemical cocktails and micro-organismic colonies as “we.” And, as you know, we take pitiful care of these fleshly loaners, filling them with crud, parking them in chairs and laying them out on sofas to the point of reversing the mortality gains modern science has enabled. Then again, there are exceptions, such as Jeanne Louise Calment, who ate two pounds of chocolate a week, smoked until she was 117 and died at 122. (Bryson doesn’t mention it, but she also enjoyed red meat, cheap wine and hunting.)
Shorter than “Nearly Everything” and with more snack-size chapter lengths, “The Body” nonetheless draws on dozens of experts and a couple hundred books to carry the reader from outside to inside, from up to down and from miraculous operational efficiencies to malignant mayhem when things go awry. In some cases, that biological ingenuity and chaos are two sides of the same coin.
Cancer, for instance, as one expert puts it, “is the price we pay for evolution. If our cells couldn’t mutate, we would never get cancer, but we also couldn’t evolve.” There are more than 200 cancers, and age is usually a major factor, with an 80-year-old 1,000 times as likely as a teenager to get it.
Despite the body’s harrowing malfunctions, you will marvel at the brilliance and vast weirdness of your design. The brain, holding its “200 exabytes of information, roughly equal to ‘the entire digital content of today’s world.’” The heart, beating some 3.5 billion times in a lifetime. The bones, “stronger than reinforced concrete, yet light enough to allow us to sprint.” The lungs, processing 4,000 gallons of air a day.
“You are pretty seriously perforated,” Bryson writes, with “two to five million hair follicles and perhaps twice that number of sweat glands.” And you are “exquisitely fine-tuned,” with nerve receptors able to detect movement of 0.00001 millimeters.
You grow 25 feet of hair in a lifetime. You host 40,000 species of microbes, and when you kiss you transfer some 1 billion bacteria to your beloved. While that statistic might not enhance the mood, the special sharing is thought to be helpful in sampling the partner’s histocompatibility genes involved in immune response. Oh, baby!
In a lifetime, you eat 60 tons of food, extracting the nutritional necessities and then producing seven tons of poop. That’s almost the weight of three Hummer H3s. (Not that I have some weird thing about Hummers.) We produce enough flatulence that before laparoscopic insertion of carbon dioxide became the norm, patients undergoing anal surgery sometimes literally exploded.
Bryson dispels some long-held biological myths. That “taste map” on your tongue you learned about in middle school — sweet on the tip, sour on the sides, bitter on the back? Not true. What is true is that we have taste receptors not just in the mouth, throat and gut, but in the heart, lungs and testicles too, perhaps so that they can send signals to the pancreas to adjust insulin output.
And no, men don’t think about sex every seven seconds. They think about it 19 times a day, about the same rate they think about food.
While we’re timing things, let’s note that our sex acts take about nine minutes (“in Britain at least”). Men burn 100 calories during those encounters, women 70.
Older people have an increased risk of heart attack for three hours after coitus, but Bryson, ever the practical life coach at age 67, wisely points out that the risk “was similarly raised for shoveling snow, and sex is more fun than shoveling snow.”
Bill Bryson first shambled onto our shores from his native US in 1973, an instinctive anglophile. Since then he has turned a kindly and satirical eye on everything from the rationing of hot baths in coastal B&Bs (Notes from a Small Island, 1995) to the elusive genius of Shakespeare (2007) and the fiery birth of the planet Earth (A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003).
Having graduated from genial travel writing to popular science, Bill Bryson wields a childlike determination to keep asking questions until he understands something well enough to explain it. How do you weigh the Earth? How does a human blood cell work? Why can’t we live forever?
Curiosity is the driving force of science – and in Bryson’s case that also rings true of science writing. At a time when you can’t throw a crystal without it hitting an anti-vaxxer, an antioxidant moisturiser or a marginally qualified wellness guru, his latest book is particularly welcome. In The Body: A Guide for Occupants, Bryson brings all his usual powers of poetry and precision to “the warm wobble of flesh” that is our enigmatic home.
As usual, the book is filled with enough factoids to fuel many a late-night conversation in the pub, but here are a few of my favourites.
1. You cost £96,546.79 to build. Or at least a human of the same dimensions as Benedict Cumberbatch does, according to a Royal Society of Chemistry calculation that Bryson cites. As The Body makes vividly clear, we are both mundane and miraculous: composed of a bunch of mostly everyday elements, pieced together in astonishingly complex systems that scientists today are still a long way from understanding.
To run the numbers: you are 61 per cent oxygen (£8.90) and 10 per cent hydrogen (£16), mostly bound up together to make water. It gets pricier when we get to carbon, which costs £44,300 for the 30lbs’ worth we typically contain. Calcium, phosphorus, potassium and a smattering of rarer elements make up the rest. But as Bryson writes: “It hardly matters. You could call together all the brainiest people who are alive now or have ever lived and endow them with the complete sum of human knowledge, and they could not between them make a single living cell, never mind a replicant Benedict Cumberbatch.”
2. You get cancer every day. Or you would do if your natural defences weren’t cellular stormtroopers. “Every day, it has been estimated, between one and five of your cells turns cancerous and your immune system captures and kills them.”
And there isn’t just one “immune system”. Every individual’s immune system is both unique and changeable: it varies if you are stressed or exhausted. Little wonder, then, that our understanding of so many illnesses remains murky. While techniques that harness the body’s immune response are proving successful against some types of cancer, in other areas we remain woefully stumped. Auto-immune diseases – a category including allergies in which your own immune system works against you – remain poorly understood and largely incurable. As Bryson writes, it’s a “grossly sexist” type of illness: 80 per cent of sufferers are women.
3. Race is one millimetre deep. Intrepidly attending the dissection of a corpse, Bryson quotes the surgeon who pulled back a minute layer of skin and said: “That’s all that race is – a sliver of epidermis.” As we spread across the world, some people are thought to have evolved lighter skin in order to glean vitamin D from weaker sunlight. Throughout human history, people have “de-pigmented” and “re-pigmented” to suit their environment.
Biologically, skin colour is just “a reaction to sunlight”, Bryson quotes the anthropologist Nina Jablonski as saying. She adds: “And yet look how many people have been enslaved or hated or lynched or deprived of fundamental rights through history because of the colour of their skin.”
4. You just aren’t built to walk on two legs. When our ape-like ancestors came down from the trees, there was an evolutionary advantage to walking upright: we could cover more ground and see further. But our skeleton is still largely engineered to cope with life on four feet, not two. As Bryson writes: “Becoming upright put extra pressure on the cartilage discs that support and cushion the spine, in consequence of which they sometimes become displaced or herniated in what is popularly known as a slipped disc.” General back pain is ridiculously common: some 60 per cent of adults suffer from it. Our knee and hip joints are nothing to brag about, either, giving out with dispiriting frequency.
But where we have really paid the price – as anyone who has been anywhere near a labour ward can testify – is in our ability to give birth. At a time when the cult of natural childbirth makes women feel as though they are perfectly formed to expel a baby with only a scented candle and a visualisation exercise or two for comfort, this is vital stuff. Bryson writes:
“Above all, the adoption of a narrower pelvis to accommodate our new gait brought a huge amount of pain and danger to women in childbirth. Until recent times, no other animal on Earth was more likely to die in childbirth than a human, and perhaps none even now suffers as much.”
5. You shed half a kilo of skin flakes every year. Enough said. Read The Body, just don’t read it over a bowl of pasta with shavings of parmesan.
During the few moments it will take you to read this review, your body will be extremely busy.
Your lungs will inhale and exhale about 300 sextillion oxygen molecules.
Your bone marrow will create some 200 million red blood cells.
Your eyebrows will serve as a buffet for thousands of tiny mites that, as Bill Bryson puts it, munch on our cells as if they are a “giant crusty bowl of Corn Flakes.”
I like to remind myself of these mind-boggling (and occasionally disgusting) facts because I so often take my body for granted.
One of the strengths of Bryson’s delightful new book, “The Body,” is that it reveals the thousands of rarely acknowledged tasks our body takes care of as we go about our day. We should be thankful.
Well, mostly thankful. In some respects, the human body is terribly designed. It’s a collection of evolution’s Scotch-tape-and-bubble-gum fixes (see our injury-prone knees or the dangerously exposed scrotum). Plus, our bodies can and do go horribly awry, whether from tennis elbow or deadly infections.
But still, this cluster of interdependent 37.2 trillion cells is all we’ve got — at least until we upload our brains into the cloud. And on the whole, it’s pretty remarkable.
Bryson built his career with wry first-person travel books (for instance, “A Walk in the Woods,” about his ill-fated trek on the Appalachian Trail) and has since moved onto popular guides to science and history (“A Short History of Everything,” about, well, everything).
This time, Bryson takes us on a body-part-by-body-part tour, with chapters devoted to the brain, the guts and the skin and hair. Each chapter weaves together history, anecdotes, expert interviews and vocabulary lessons. I learned about “horripilation” (the proper name for goose bumps) and “adermatoglyphia” (the rare condition of having no fingerprints).
The overall result is informative, entertaining and often gross (kissing, according to one study, transfers up to one billion bacteria from one mouth to another, along with 0.2 micrograms of food bits).
Bryson particularly excels at ferreting out unsung heroes. Here, he gives some love to John Charnley, a British orthopedic surgeon, who perfected the artificial hip made of steel and plastic. “Almost no one has heard of Charnley,” Bryson writes, “but few people have brought relief to greater numbers of sufferers than he did.” And Bryson gives much-deserved credit to a woman named Fanny Hesse, albeit in a footnote. Hesse, who was married to a German scientist, suggested growing microbes in agar, which her grandmother used in pudding recipes. Agar turned out to be the perfect habitat for microbes. Hesse likely saved millions of lives by speeding up tuberculosis research and microbiology in general. Thank you, Frau Hesse.
Bryson, who gives off a Cronkite-like trustworthy vibe, is good at allaying fears and busting myths. For instance, he says you don’t have to worry about MSG — there’s no science indicating that eating normal amounts of this synthetic umami causes headaches or malaise (though there is evidence people find it delicious). You can also stop obsessing about antioxidants. There’s little science behind the claim that you can increase your life span with antioxidant supplements (a $2- billion-a-year industry).
So when a levelheaded guy such as Bryson gets worried, it’s probably wise to worry too. If there’s one part of this book everyone should read, it’s the five pages on the antibiotic crisis. It will light up your amygdala.
Because of the continuing overuse of antibiotics on ourselves, our farm animals and even our fruits, we’ve created some really nasty germs. Already the superbug MRSA and its cousins kill an estimated 700,000 people around the world annually, Bryson says. It’s an arms race bacteria are threatening to win, and humans can’t keep up. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t inventing enough new antibiotics because they’re too expensive to develop.
If we continue on our current trajectory, we’re talking a dystopian future that looks a lot like the past: infectious diseases overtaking heart disease as the biggest killer. We need new antibiotics so our bodies can continue their amazing, unacknowledged drudge work.
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