Tag Archives: evolution

Review 175: The Last Continent

The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett

Quick – what do you know about Australia?

I reckon if you live in Australia, you probably know quite a lot. If you’ve known someone from Australia or perhaps have visited there, you might know a few things. If your experience is limited to a few “Crocodile Dundee” movies and the Crocodile Hunter, then you could probably stand to know a little more. No matter what your level of Australiana is, though, you probably know at least enough to get a lot of enjoyment out of this book, Terry Pratchett’s homage to the strangest continent on Earth.

Now keep in mind, Pratchett does state quite clearly that this is not a book about Australia. “It’s about somewhere entirely different which happens to be, here and there, a bit… Australian.” So that’s okay then.

This adorable little thing? IT WILL END YOU.

Really, this is Pratchett’s homage to Australia, a country that he clearly likes a lot. In reality, Australia is a pretty strange place. It’s a giant island, most of which is barren desert. It’s been disconnected from the other continents for so long that evolution has given us species unlike any others on Earth. Pretty much anything that you come across, from the lowliest spider to the cutest jellyfish to the weirdest platypus, is deadly. The country is a tribute to Nature, both in its beauty and its danger, and really deserves more attention than it gets.

In one memorable scene, Death asks his Library for a complete list of dangerous animals on the continent known as XXXX, aka Fourecks. He is immediately buried under books, including Dangerous Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians, Birds, Fish, Jellyfish, Insects, Spiders, Crustaceans, Grasses, Trees, Mosses and Lichens of Terror Incognita, volume 29c, part three. A slight exaggeration? Perhaps. He then asks for a complete list of species that are not deadly, and gets a small leaflet on which is written, “Some of the sheep.”

This book isn’t about Death, though, as much fun as that may be. This is about the worst wizard on the Disc. The classic inadvertent hero, who had seen so much of the world but only as a blur while he ran from danger. The hero who truly just wants to be left alone, perhaps with a potato – Rincewind.

What you most need to know about Rincewind is that he absolutely does not want to be a hero. He craves a boring life, one in which the most he has to worry about is whether to have his potatoes baked, mashed, or deep fried. He does not want to be chased by mad highwaymen, put in prison for sheep theft, or required to completely change the climate of an entire continent. He doesn’t want to time travel, be guided by strange, otherworldly kangaroos or fall in with a troupe of suspiciously masculine female performers. He just wants peace and quiet.

This? This is an Australian rain forest.

The universe, of course, has other ideas. And so it is up to Rincewind to once again save the day. The continent of Fourecks has never seen rain – in fact, they think the very idea of water that falls from the sky is ludicrous. But there are legends of what they call The Wet – the day when water will be found on the surface of the ground, rather than hundreds of feet below it. And while they don’t know how it will happen exactly, they do know it will happen. Lucky for Rincewind, the universe has chosen him to make sure that it does.

I really can’t list all of the Australia references because there are just too many. From drop bears to Vegemite, Mad Max to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, they’re pretty much all there.

This book is, like so many other Discworld, books, a lot of fun to read. One of the more interesting sections in the book is one that’s not strictly necessary. Exploring a strange window in the University which, for some reason, leads to a beach, the Wizards of the Unseen University find themselves marooned thousands of miles away and thousands of years back in time. On this weird little island, they meet one of the most unusual gods on the Disc – the god of evolution.

And sometimes even gods get bored.

This god isn’t interested in the normal godly things – lolling about and being worshiped, occasionally smiting a few followers here and there. As Pratchett puts it, “It is a general test of the omnipotence of a god that they can see the fall of a tiny bird. But only one god makes notes, and a few adjustments, so that next time it can fall further and faster.” This god of evolution is devoted to making life forms better, often one at a time, and lives on a strange little island where there’s only one of everything, but everything yearns to be useful. With him, the wizards are able to explore evolution and natural selection and figure out why sex is just so darn useful.

I say that this section isn’t strictly necessary because it just isn’t. It’s certainly interesting, and I suppose the god’s island is a nice echo of the real Australia, where evolution has had a long time to tinker and come up with some really weird stuff, but in terms of the story, it’s not all that important a plot point. In fact, the wizards in general don’t contribute much to the story other than to make it longer and funnier. Their exploration of evolution and Rincewind’s unwilling quest to bring rain to the barren land of Fourecks are almost wholly unrelated to each other, up until the very end.

I can’t see how a group like this would ever cause trouble.

This isn’t to say that they’re unwelcome – I love watching the wizards explore the world. The combination of personalities whenever all the wizards get together is one that offers endless hours of reading fun, and I think that without them, the book would have been less enjoyable. They’re just not essential to the plot, is all, and if that kind of thing is important to you, then you might not enjoy this book so much.

Me, I love science and I love Discworld. While the actual Science of Discworld series was kind of dry and boring in the end, I love it when Pratchett explores real-world science through the eyes of his Discworld characters. By looking at science from another perspective, he is able to make it perhaps a little more understandable to people who otherwise might write science off as “too hard.”

This book is a trip through time and space and Australia. It’s a long, strange trip, to be sure, but an entertaining one.

—————————————————-
“It’s not many times in your life you get the chance to die of hunger on some bleak continent some thousands of years before you’re born. We should make the most of it.”
– The Dean
—————————————————–

Terry Pratchett on Wikipedia
The Last Continent on Wikipedia
The Last Continent on Amazon.com
Terry Pratchett’s homepage

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Discworld, evolution, fantasy, gods, humor, science, Terry Pratchett, wizardry

Review 90: The World Without Us


The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Death is a bummer.

I mean, here’s the thing – we all know we’re going to die. It’s part of the human condition, knowing that sooner or later the only existence that we’ve ever known is going to come to an end. And that’ll be it – no more us. It’s a creepy thought, to be honest, which is why most of us do our everlovin’ best to ignore it. We all know that we’re going to die, but we don’t want to know it, so we ignore it. We eat our Super-Double-CheezyFries, go BASE jumping, vote Republican, willfully ignoring the inevitable truth that these things are going to end up killing us.

Even when we are confronted with our mortality, we still find ways to console ourselves. We look around at our families and our friends and say things like, “No one truly dies so long as they’re remembered.” And we accept that even if we aren’t there, other people are. The things we’ve done in our lives, no matter how tiny, will echo around humanity as long as it lasts. If we are truly lucky, we will have contributed greatly to our species as a whole and gained a very special place in history.

But then we remember that even history is impermanent. The average species only gets to live about four million years, and we’ve already eaten up about a quarter of that. What’s more, we seem to be doing our level best to come in below average. Science tells us one inescapable fact: nothing lasts forever. One day, maybe sooner, maybe later, the last of the humans will die. Perhaps we’ll be replaced by another intelligence, one that can continue our work. Or perhaps we’ll just leave everything behind. All that will be left will be artifacts, objects that tell the story of humanity.

And that cheers you up a bit. We’re good at leaving marks, after all. We built a wall that’s so big it’s practically landscape. We split two continents apart in the name of commerce. We have girded our land masses in iron and asphalt, erected great cities of glass, concrete and steel. We have lowered mountains and raised seas, extracted the blood of the earth and bent the rivers to our will. Even if the human race vanished tomorrow, some far-future alien archaeologist would still be able to come here and know that a brilliant and puissant species once walked this world.

Yeah. About that….

This book was inspired by a very simple question: what would happen if all the humans just… disappeared? How it happened doesn’t really matter. Maybe aliens, maybe Jesus, perhaps some strange, species-specific quantum Critical Existence Failure. Whatever the cause, the sun rises in the morning and humans just aren’t there anymore. How would the world handle our disappearance? Would it even notice? What has humanity wrought that would last?

It’s a simple question with an incredibly complex answer. In order to even begin to know what would happen upon our disappearance, we need to know how the world works. We need to look at the forces that drive evolution and species propagation. What is it that allows life to spread and to flourish, to adapt to changing circumstances and make the best of a hard situation? What do we know from our studies of the unimaginably distant past that will help us foretell the future?

In addition, we need to know what effect humans have already had on the world. We’ve all heard the horror stories about the species driven to extinction by carelessness or ignorance – the passenger pigeon, the moa, the dodo – but our effect has been so much greater. Weisman is willing to categorize humanity as a force of nature thanks to the effect that we’ve had. Our relentless conquest of the Earth has, in small ways and large, unavoidably set evolution on a path that would have been very different had we never arisen in the first place. In a way, our influence can never be truly erased, and will likely survive for as long as biology does.

Finally, we need to know about the things we’re leaving behind. What is our world made of, and how well would it survive the rigors of time? The oceans of concrete that we’ve poured will freeze and thaw over and over again, and, aided by the surprising power of flowers and grass, will split, crack and crumble in time. Our massive steel skyscrapers will be undone by water and creeping vegetation. Our stonework will be worn down by wind and water, our satellites will fall, dams will burst and the wilderness will relentlessly take over the sacred places of the world. In the end, the only testament to our existence will be a handful of bronze statues and gold ornaments, and the impassive visages of the faces on Mt. Rushmore.

And even they will one day fall.

If you’re one of those people who worries about the impact that humanity has had on the earth, this will be a heartening book. As the geologic record shows, there’s pretty much nothing the universe can throw at this planet that can kill it. At least not so far. And the impact that humans are having isn’t anywhere near the great extinctions of the past, in which great swaths of death cut through the biosphere in a matter of decades. Understand this: there is nothing that we can do to the earth that the earth cannot undo, given time.

And that is a comforting thought. We do sometimes get wrapped up in our own awesomeness and assume that our actions have infinite consequences when, in fact, they don’t. We beat our breasts about the ozone hole and the Amazon, the Northwest African Cheetah and the Sharp Snouted Day Frog. We read about garbage gyres in the sea, and irradiated wastes on the land and despair over what we have done to this world.

The truth is that the world will move on after humans, and the future will hardly know that we were here.

That’s where the book got depressing for me, though. You see, I can take or leave individuals. I think The People are, in general, dumber than a Texas schoolbook. But all in all, I like Humanity. In the two hundred thousand years or so that Homo sapiens has been wandering this world, we’ve done some really neat things. We’ve built globe-spanning civilizations, produced unparalleled art, music and architecture, and invented worlds of brilliant fiction. We’ve examined the universe at its largest and peered back in time to the moment it began. We have gazed into the heart of the atom to know how reality works at its smallest levels. We’ve danced and sang and lived. And even with the terrible things that we’ve done, both to each other and to our world, I still think we’re a species worth knowing. We’re a species that deserves better than oblivion.

But the universe doesn’t care about what we deserve.

So if you take anything away from the book, let it be this – our existence here as a species is temporary. There’s no reward for our goodness, nor punishment for our sins. But here and now, we are alive, and capable of amazing things. It is up to us to decide what those things will be, and how to spend the time remaining to us.

Let’s make it wondrous.

——————————————————————–
“Below the surface, the oxidizing metal parts of chemical alley will provide a place for Galveston oysters to attach. Silt and oyster shells will slowly bury them, and will then be buried themselves. Within a few million years, enough layers will amass to compress shells into limestone, which will bear an odd, intermittent rusty streak with sparkling traces of nickel, molybdenum, niobium, and chromium. Millions of years after that, someone or something might have the knowledge and tools to recognize the signal of stainless steel. Nothing, however, will remain to suggest that its original form once stood tall over a place called Texas, and breathed fire into the sky.”
– Alan Weisman, The World Without Us
——————————————————————–

Alan Weisman on Wikipedia
The World Without Us on Wikipedia
The World Without Us on Amazon.com
The World Without Us homepage

And if the sure and certain knowledge of your own eventual cessation has got you low, watch this. It might cheer you up a bit….

Leave a comment

Filed under Alan Weisman, biology, evolution, finitude, geology, science

Review 87: A Short History of Nearly Everything


A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

This book absolutely lives up to its title, except possibly the “short” part. The hardcover clocks in at 544 pages, including notes and index, which makes it quite luggable. I suppose, however, when compared to the geologic ages that preceded our brief existence on this earth, the book and the years it took to write it are indeed quite short. In those 544 pages, however, we explore everything, from the dawn of time up until the dawn of human history, from the infinitely tiny hearts of quarks to the infinitely huge scale of the universe. Biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, paleontology – whatever your science of choice is, it’s in this book. And even if you’re thinking, “Science really isn’t my thing,” I have good news for you – it will be when you’re finished.

One of the things that makes Bryson an excellent writer is simply his ability to make you enjoy reading his work, no matter what the topic is. He’s most well known for his travel books, such as Notes from a Big Country and A Walk in the Woods, as well as his books on the English language, such as Mother Tongue. When I first read him, he struck me as a more literate version of Dave Barry – a very intelligent guy with a fantastic sense of humor. No matter what he writes, you can’t help but enjoy it.

This book, then, must have been a massive challenge for him. He admits right in the beginning that, before he started this book, he pretty much had no idea what he was going to find out. He wasn’t a scientist or a naturalist, and had no idea how it was that we knew, for example, that the Earth had an iron core, or how we knew that the universe was expanding or why uranium was so easy to split up. How do we know that the continents drift across the face of the globe, or that we really are cousins to chimpanzees? He started from a state of ignorance, and spent three years removing himself from that state.

That, in and of itself, is admirable. There seems to be an unfortunate trend in thinking that science is too hard for the normal person to understand. In some cases people believe that if it is indeed too hard for the normal person to understand then, why, it must be impossible to understand. This is the “argument from ignorance” fallacy, and it’s something that’s easy to fall prey to. After all, no one likes to admit that they don’t know things, and if your pride is bigger than your conscience it might be all too easy to assume that if you can’t understand it then no one can. Thus the whole Intelligent Designer nonsense and the continuing battles…. in the TWENTY-FIRST GODSDAMNED CENTURY…. over whether or not evolution is the process by which we can explain the fantastic diversity of life on this planet.

Sorry about that. The neurochemical processes that allowed my distant ancestors to fight off predators (AKA the famous “fight or flight reflex”) tends to manifest itself these days as blasphemy and shouting. I’ll try and keep it down from now on.

If you’re like me, and you’ve been a dabbler in science for a long time, you’ll still learn something new. Not the least of what you will learn is what the Greatest Scientific Minds of our Time were like as people. Bryson does his best to bring out the humanity of people like Newton, Lowell, Einstein, Kelvin and everyone else. There’s a whole lot of fighting, lying, deceiving and backstabbing that brought us to where we are today, and if they had taught me that in science class when I was a kid, I probably would have gotten better grades.

In fact, one of the most interesting things about this book is that it’s not so much a book about science as it’s a book about scientists. By looking at the people who figured out how the universe works, we learned about why science works the way it does – and sometimes doesn’t – and get a real sense of how human understanding progresses. There are flashes of insight and stubborn refusals to see what is plainly true. There are lost geniuses and shameless opportunists, missed chances and serendipitous discoveries. Science, in short, is a human endeavor, with all the glamor and tarnish that comes with it. By emphasizing the humanity of the men and women who have driven science forward, Bryson is able to let us see our own place in the process.

What’s more, Bryson takes great care to point out the areas where we have failed, or at least not yet succeeded. Cells, for example, are baffling organic machines that outperform human-made devices by an outlandish margin. We don’t know as much as we think about pre-history – our fossil record is far more spotty than the Natural History Museum would have you believe, mainly because fossilization requires very specific conditions, not the least of which is a bit of good luck. There could be entire branches of the tree of life that we don’t know because they had the misfortune to occupy an environment that didn’t promote fossilization. We don’t even know how many species of life are on Earth right now – or how many we’ve lost.

The history of humanity is twisted and confusing, with no clear answers as to where we came from, how we arose and how we spread across the globe. There are so many mysteries to be solved, and so few people available to solve them.

If you’re not a science nerd, you’ll still enjoy the book. Remember – up until he wrote it, Bryson was one of you. His style is very readable, and he guides you very deftly from one topic to the next, illustrating a very important point: all science is connected. There is no discrete boundary between, say, chemistry and biology (no matter what the chemists and biologists might tell you), just a fuzzy blur where we pass from one to the other. The greatest advances in our knowledge of how the universe works have come from the most unlikely places, and sometimes knowing why atoms behave the way they do can help understand why the universe behaves the way it does.

Yes, learning is hard. But when you’re done, you are rewarded with a new sense of understanding and awe about how the universe works. And that wins over ignorance any day.

———————————————–
“We live on a planet that has a more or less infinite capacity to surprise. What reasoning person could possibly want it any other way?”
– Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
———————————————–

Bill Bryson on Wikipedia
A Short History of Nearly Everything on Wikipedia
A Short History of Nearly Everything on Amazon.com
Bill Bryson’s website

3 Comments

Filed under Bill Bryson, history, science