The Body: A Guide for Occupants
(Doubleday, 464 PP, £25)
Tablet bookshop price £22.50 • Tel 020 7799 4064
Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Everything achieved the near impossible of integrating the diverse disciplines of cosmology, physics, geology, biology and others into an Olympian overview of the history of the universe and life from the Big Bang till yesterday.
Now he turns his attention to the most complex and fascinating phenomenon in that universe – ourselves. The central conundrum here is that, while subjectively we are more intimately acquainted with our body than anything else, we have little direct knowledge of the functioning of the cells and tissues and organs that sustain it. “Every second of every day, the body undertakes a literally unimaginable number of tasks,” he writes, “without requiring an instant of our attention.”
The effortlessness with which the body carries out those tasks can too readily conceal the profundities involved, here illuminated by Bryson’s hallmark, the striking metaphor. “In the second or so since you started reading this sentence,” he notes, “your body has made a million red blood cells” – which, we later learn, are propelled through a network of arteries and veins that would stretch two and a half times around the earth. As for the energetics of the heart: “Imagine squeezing a pump the size of a grapefruit with enough force to propel fluid four feet up a tube – now do that every second unceasingly for decades and wonder why you don’t feel tired.”