|PAUL ROGERT/ICON IMAGES/CORBIS
I typically save reviews of books for a year-end roundup, but every once in a while I happen upon a book so compelling that I review or excerpt it on the spot. So it is with A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, which many of you probably read 10 years ago when it became an instant bestseller in paperback.
A Short History, for those of you who have not read it, unlocks the mysteries of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity and many other keys to what makes the universe and our little old primordial selves tick. Bryson manages the neat trick of being profound and funny at the same time in decoding everything from quantum mechanics to the genetics of the fruit fly.
Herewith an except that, it should go without saying, is deeply profound:
"In the early 1680s, about the time that Edmond Halley and his friends Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke were settling down in a London coffee house and embarking on a casual wager that would result eventually in Isaac Newton's Principia . . . a rather less desirable milestone was being passed on the island of Mauritius, far out in the Indian Ocean some eight hundred miles off the east coast of Madagascar.
"There, some forgotten sailor or sailor's pet was harrying to death the last of the dodos, the famously flightless bird whose dim but trusting nature and lack of leggy zip made it a rather irresistable target for bored young tars on shore leave. Millions of years of peaceful isolation had not prepared it for the erratic and deeply unnerving behavior of human beings.
" . . . From beginning to end our acquaintance with animate dodos lasted just seventy years. That is a breathtakingly scanty period -- though it must be said that by this point in our history we did have thousands of years of practice behind us in the matter or irreversible eliminations. No one knows quite how destructive human beings are, but it is a fact that over the last fifty thousand years or so wherever we have gone animals have tended to vanish, in often astonishingly large numbers."
Bryson notes that the "background rate" on Earth throughout biological history has been one species lost for every four years on average. According to one calculation, human-caused extinction may be running as much as 120,000 times that level.