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Right in the beginning, can I just be honest and say that Bill Bryson makes reading every single thing so easy? Be it the trials and tribulations of hiking the Appalachian Trail or journeying Down under (the horrors, if one does a study, are unimaginable, but yet you want to), Bryson’s words want to make you pick up his book and not put it down till you finish the last page. In his latest bestseller, he takes a break from writing about travel and turns his attention to the human body. May I add, that a biology lesson has never been so interesting.
Did you know that for science to build a human body, ‘using the obliging Benedict Cumberbatch as a template, would be a very precise £96,546.79’? VAT extra, of course. Swabs from 60 American test subjects found ‘2,368 species of bacteria, 1,458 of which were unknown to science’ in their belly buttons! Your brain just requires‘400 calories of energy a day—about the same as you get in a blueberry muffin’. Your hearing only requires ‘three tiny bones, some wisps of muscle and ligament, a delicate membrane and nerve cells’ to give you a complete panoply of auditory experiences (expensive headphones, yes, I’m looking at you while typing this). Were you aware that ‘taste receptors evolved for two deeply practical reasons: to help us find energy-rich foods and to avoid dangerous ones’? however, they aren’t always up to fulfilling their roles, just ask best-selling author Nicholas evans about the mushroom incident of 2008. Your DNA, a metre of which is packed in every cell, is such ‘that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single fine strand it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto’. Bryson aptly describes the feeling in a sentence: ‘You are in the most literal sense cosmic’. And this is just scraping the surface. The hardbound book is divided into 23 chapters, each picking up a particular part of the human body or functions and diseases associated; and he interweaves his words in his usual storytelling fashion, with rich anecdotes. The Body is Bryson’s fascination with the working of human bodies as A Short History of Nearly Everything displayed his passion for science.
Personally, this one particular paragraph stood out early on. A professor and surgeon named Ben Ollivere peeled a millimetre of skin from the arm of a cadaver and told Bryson that ‘that’s where all your skin colour is. That’s all that race is—a sliver of epidermis’. It struck a chord. Race is an explosive subject. It’s unbelievable how over centuries (and still prevalent to this day) it has acted as a detriment when in fact, it’s only a reaction to sunlight. There were similar moments throughout the book when I got angry, mirroring Bryson. But sometimes, I marvelled reading about human achievements, and at times I was in awe, a prime example reading the chapter on walking. As Bryson states, ‘no one knows why we walk’ among all other primates.
The human body is simply marvellous. Reading this gave me a new-found respect for my own body, and the need to take care, eat healthily and move more. Not to end this on a negative note, but while decomposition in a closed coffin takes five to 40 years; if you’re cremated, your ashes will weigh only two kilogrammes. And with that, you’re gone. So, let’s enjoy the time we have; I intend to. After all, you only live once.
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