Quotes & Commentary #68: Bryson

Quotes & Commentary #68: Bryson

“It’s remarkable that bad things don’t happen more often. According to one estimate reported by Ed Yong in the Atlantic, the number of viruses in birds and mammals that have the potential to leap the species barrier and infect us may be as high as 800,000. That is a lot of potential danger.”

—Bill Bryson

This past Christmas, my mother gave me Bill Bryson’s new book on the human body as a present. It was an excellent gift: I spent half my Christmas break totally absorbed in it. The book is fascinating for several reasons. For one, there is an awful lot that most of us do not know about our own bodies—which itself is funny to think about. But perhaps we are better off not knowing, since the book also highlights how many things could potentially go wrong in the intricate functioning of our mortal frames. The existence of life is a miracle in its own right; and the existence of highly complex life—such as us (or so we like to flatter ourselves)—is a miracle of exponential proportions. So many things have to go right in order for you and me to be here.

That means it is easy for things to go wrong. And a viral infection—when malicious genetic code hijacks our cells—is one way that this marvelous process can get disrupted. One of the best chapters in Bryson’s book is on diseases. When I read the chapter, not too long ago, it seemed to be mainly about things from the distant past that used to menace our species. Bryson discusses typhoid and typhus, smallpox and ebola, and of course the Spanish flu of 1918. Most of these illnesses strike us nowadays as historical curiosities, rendered obsolete by the invention of vaccines and effective antibiotics. But Bryson sounds a note of warning in the chapter that now seems quite prescient. He quotes Michael Kinch, a specialist on drug discovery of Washington University, as saying:

The fact is, we are really no better prepared for a bad outbreak than we were when Spanish flu killed tens of millions of people a hundred years ago. The reason we haven’t had another experience like that isn’t because we have been especially vigilant. It’s because we have been lucky.

I vividly remember reading that passage, and scoffing. Surely, I thought, we must be far better prepared than they were back in 1918, when medicine and technology were so comparatively primitive. I was wrong. Bryson deserves kudos for his writing, as this current crisis has completely borne out his warnings. We are in far more danger than we like to think, and we are basically not prepared for it.

One rather stunning fact—stunning because we so rarely think of it—is how many people normally die from the seasonal flu. In the United States alone, it is between 30-40,000 per year, and that number gets much bigger during particularly bad years. According to Bryson’s book, in the 2017-18 flu season, upwards of 80,000 people died of the flu. These numbers are stunning, especially considering the massive international response that is already underway to slow the spread of this new coronavirus, which has so far taken far fewer lives. Perhaps we should always be practising social distancing… 

The primary issue, at the moment, is essentially this: our society was not built to handle large-scale infectious diseases with fatality rates significantly higher than the seasonal flu. We do not have enough hospital beds, nurses, doctors, respirators, masks, or anything else. Our entire way of life—hanging out in bars, going to concerts, flying from country to country—is premised on being largely free from dangerous infectious diseases. We really did not know how lucky we were. Our situation was highly anomalous in human history, and it will take months before we can return to it.

What is most frustrating, for me, is the degree to which the situation is out of my hands. Everyone craves a sense of control. In a crisis, we want to know what we can do to protect ourselves, or to contribute to a common cause. Right now, these actions are rather humble: wash your hands, stay at home as much as possible, self-isolate if you show symptoms. This is all well and good; but we naturally want to know what is the scale of the danger and how long this immense disruption will last.

At this point, the information available is far from clear. The more articles I read, the more contradictory the information seems. Some are predicting infection rates of up to 80% of the population, while others predict 20%. Some predict that the disease will turn out to be less deadly than it seems, while others are predicting a complete global disruption lasting for months. It also seems unclear (to me, at least) whether children are effective vectors of the virus. Judging from the school closures, many believe yes; but I also have read that there is little available evidence.

Our best tool in fighting pandemics are vaccines. But unfortunately vaccines can take quite a long time to develop. It is not as easy as I (naively) thought. Many trials must be performed to ensure that the vaccine is effective and safe for the general population, and this takes time: months and months. If we cannot immunize ourselves artificially, then, the only possibility is to develop a herd-immunity the hard way: by getting the disease itself. This is a frightening prospect. That route would entail a great deal of suffering and death. But how long can we wait in our homes? In short, I am unclear how we are going to get out of this mess.

Meanwhile, I am fairly stuck in my little apartment in Madrid, one of the new epicenters of the virus. We have only had three days of isolation, and it is not so bad thus far. I began an exercise routine that I can do in my room, and my brother and I have been cooking a lot of hearty meals. But I really cannot see how everyone will be able to keep this up for the long-term, either economically or psychologically. Without extraordinary government measures, I do not think that people could stay in their homes much longer than one month without a great many people facing serious financial strain. Even in the best case scenario, the consequences for the economy seem quite grave. And this is putting aside the social pressure to resume normal life, which will increase from day to day.

At present, I swerve wildly from optimism to pessimism. What I want most of all is a return to normalcy. Never has my old life seemed so desirable! The strangest thing about this crisis is that it went from trivial to serious so quickly. Everyone seems to have been caught unawares. But even Bill Bryson—a popular writer with no specialized training—was able to see potential danger once he looked into the research. If only our experts had been as intelligent and as anxious as he.

Quotes & Commentary #7: Bill Bryson

Quotes & Commentary #7: Bill Bryson

We are astoundingly, sumptuously, radiantly ignorant of life beneath the seas.

—Bill Bryson

I originally wrote down this quote because it was an excellent illustration of Bryson’s excellent prose.

Style manuals often tell us to focus on nouns and verbs. Such is the advice of E.B. White in The Elements of Style, where he says that “it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give writings its toughness and color.” Stephen King, in On Writing, even advises writers to avoid adverbs altogether: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”

Bryson shows how effective adjectives and adverbs can be in the hands of a master. First, the chain of three-syllable words with “ly” endings gives the sentence a rolling rhythm, each adverb tumbling off the tongue. He has also chosen his adverbs well. Saying the word “sumptuous” makes me feel sumptuous; and the word “radiant” almost glows. The comedic twist is when he connects his chain of adverbs with the adjective “ignorant.” I understanding being astoundingly ignorant, but what does it mean to be sumptuously and radiantly ignorant?

I also like this sentence because it reminds me of my childhood. One of my first obsessions was with whales. As often as I could, I would go to the Museum of Natural History and stare in awe at the gargantuan blue whale hanging from the ceiling of the Hall of Ocean Life.

My favorite was always the sperm whale. These leviathans, the largest toothed predators on earth, dive thousands of feet down into the dark deep to do battle with giant squids. The display in the Museum of Natural History pictures this battle mid-scene, the whale’s jaw clamped around the squid’s tentacles, both of their massive forms emerging from the shadows.

Something about this scene fascinated me, and still does. I drew the diorama over and over again, until I had hundreds of copies. The sperm whale seemed heroic to me: it descended into the depths and fought a monster, just to have lunch. And if a creature as big and terrifying as the giant squid could be lurking down there, what else might?

This wonder was reignited when, several years later, I heard of “Bloop,” a powerful underwater sound detected in 1997. The sound is now believed to have been caused by an icequake, but originally it drew attention because its sonic profile was similar to a noise made by an animal. This was noteworthy because the sound was much too loud to be made by even a whale, which led to a lot of speculation on the internet about giant monsters. There’s a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to these unexplained, underwater sounds, which I’m sure has provided valuable ammunition to pseudo-scientists and conspiracy theorists.

To me, the ocean’s depths exert a primal fascination. We still know relatively little about the deep, and what we do know has been consistently surprising. With no sunlight, freezing temperatures, and immense pressure, life has still eked out an existence, taking on many bizarre forms in the process. Maybe “radiant” is the best way to describe our ignorance of a place so devoid of light.

The Upanishads

The Upanishads

The UpanishadsThe Upanishads by Anonymous
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I find it interesting how pervasive is the mystic idea of unity. From transcendentalists to scientists to Buddhists to Christians to Hindus, I hear this same thing emphasized repeatedly—everything is one. Physicists wax poetic about how our bodies are made of star-dust. Biologists and naturalists wonder at the unity of life on earth. Christians celebrate the infinite simplicity of God. Spinoza’s philosophy proclaims the oneness of all reality. Walt Whitman had this to say:

And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers… and the women my sisters and lovers

And here is Herman Hesse:

Slowly blossomed, slowly ripened in Siddhartha the realization, the knowledge, what wisdom actually was, what the goal of his long search was. It was nothing but a readiness of the soul, an ability, a secret art, to think every moment, while living his life, the thought of oneness, to be able to feel and inhale the oneness.

Opening yourself up to this realization is the corner-stone to many words of wisdom I’ve so far come across. When it is written in Ecclesiastes, “There is no new thing under the sun,” what else could this mean that reality is ever the same, that all change is superficial, that all is one?

Just so in The Upanishads, where it is written that “He who perceives all beings as the Self, how can there be delusion or grief for him, when he sees this oneness everywhere?”

This equating self with cosmos can also be found in Plato. In fact, the Socratic injunction to ‘know thyself’ takes on a different meaning in this context. Since, for Plato, the soul of a man is that which takes part in the realm of ideals, knowing this soul puts oneself in more intimate contact with this ultimate reality. So self-knowledge is the key to wisdom, and wisdom consists in the knowledge that all is one. To quote again from The Leaves of Grass, “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

The parallels with Plato are actually astounding. In both Plato’s works and The Upanishads, the soul is likened to a driver on a chariot. Both systems divide the self or soul in similar ways. Both have an idea of reincarnation. And in both systems one finds the idea that true enlightenment comes from detached introspection.

I suspect that the intellectual knowledge that the universe is, in a sense, one thing, is not really what wisdom is all about. That we are made of materials created by exploding stars may be factually correct; but the statement’s emotional power does not come from that fact, but by what the fact implies—that you’re troubles and anxieties pale in comparison to the miracle of being alive in the universe. And truly, it is a miracle. I think scientists, Christians, Hindus, Platonists, and Buddhists can all agree with that.

To quote Bill Bryson’s fantastic A Short History of Nearly Everything:

To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence.

But Wittgenstein might have said it best: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.”

View all my reviews