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Nontrivial Pursuit

I’m currently reading A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.  It is well-written and engaging. Bryson writes with an amusing and well-researched voice. I’m only a few chapters in, but I’m already learning some surprising facts that put the process of scientific discovery and our place in the universe in perspective:

  • Pluto is just one quarter of 1% of Earth’s mass. It’s about half the size of the lower forty-eight states in America.
  • Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the Cosmic Microwave Background in 1965. They received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1978, but they didn’t completely comprehend the importance of their discovery until they read about it in the New York Times.
  • The outer edge of our solar system is surrounded by the Oort cloud, and it would take 10,000 years for us to reach.

Oort-Cloud

  • Isaac Newton, no doubt, was a brilliant scientist. He invented Calculus, identified the laws of nature, laid the foundations for spectroscopy, etc. He also spent a lot of time on alchemy and studying the floor plan of the lost Temple of King Soloman in Jerusalem because he thought it contained mathematical clues to the dates of the second coming of Jesus and the end of the world.
  • The first dinosaur bone was discovered in New Jersey in 1787. It was sent to Dr. Caspar Wistar, the leading anatomist at the time. Wistar didn’t recognize how significant of a discovery it was, and the bone was put in a storeroom and eventually was lost.
  • In 1797, Henry Cavendish accurately calculated the mass of the Earth at six billion trillion metric tons. The current estimate for the Earth’s mass is 5.9725 billion trillion metric tons, which is only 1% different from Cavendish’s conclusion.
  • There are about 5,000,000,000,000 protons in the dot of an “i.” By comparison, there are more protons in that much space than there are seconds within half a million years.

The book is filled with several facts like this, but I hesitate to label them all as trivia. While I don’t gain practical knowledge that I will use in my everyday life or on the job, Bryson writes about the people who made discoveries that we take for granted. I can’t imagine a general awareness without dinosaurs, our place in the solar system, or having some clue about our building blocks. They are so fundamental to our worldview, yet we rarely stop to consider where such notions originated. I look forward to learning more.

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One comment on “Nontrivial Pursuit

  1. I like that fact about the first dinosaur bone being lost. One of the most significant archaeological finds ever and it gets misplaced in a warehouse, hahahah. I imagine it looking like that scene at the end of Indiana Jones.

    I suppose one takeaway is that the scientific method is only as brilliant as the person applying it!

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