The Body by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson ( and is a well known and loved author in the UK. Born and brought up in Des Moines, Iowa, Bryson has made England his home for most of his adult life. He came to prominence in the UK with the publication of Notes from a Small Island (1995), an affectionate but satirically withering exploration of Britain and the British.

His status as a populist frontman for science followed on from his 2003 book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. In this he attempted to communicate accessibly in a single package what’s securely known by science. The book was a huge success. He says of it that he roamed – “always at the very edge of my scant knowledge” – across many scientific questions from the Big Bang to the present day. “It was supposed to be a one-off exercise from someone who had always failed science in school,” he explains. “I was just so amazed that some human being had figured all these things out. Ask me now to work out how much the Earth weighs and I couldn’t do it, even with all the sophisticated measuring tools we have today. But someone did it in the 18th century. That, to me, is magical. So I wrote the book and prepared to move on to something else, which is what I normally do. But, in a very pleasant way, it just wouldn’t let me go and for some reason I’ve kept on being associated with science-related subjects ever since.”

So, 16 years later Bryson has treated us to a popular science account of the human body in a package of 454 pages. His curiosity has driven him to contact researchers from across the world in order to grasp the latest information on our warm, wobbly and fragile bag of guts and bones. Bryson’s style is of genuine wonder mixed with wry amusement. It’s a treat to be educated and entertained by this skilled and humane voice.

Here is just a small selction of the hundreds of striking facts and observations offered by Bryson:

‘You will die and fade away, but your genes will go on and on so long as you and your descendants continue to produce offspring. And it is surely astounding to reflect that not once in the three billion years since life began has your personal line of descent been broken’ (Page 7)

‘Our bodies are a universe of 37.2 trillion cells operating in more or less perfect concert..’ (Page 9)

‘Altogether your private load of microbes weighs roughly three pounds, about the same as your brain’ (Page 31)

‘The average adult touches his face sixteen times an hour’ (Page 36)

‘To your brain the world is just a stream of electrical impulses, like taps of Morse code. And out of this bare and neutral information it creates for you – quite literally creates – a vibrant three dimensional, sensually engaging universe. Your brain IS you. Everything else is just plumbing and scaffolding.’ (Page 50)

‘When you ‘see’ something, only about 10 per cent of the information comes from the optic nerve. Other parts of your brain have to deconstruct the signals – recognise faces, interpret movements, identify danger. In other words, the biggest part of seeing isn’t receiving the visual images, it’s making sense of them’ (Page 55)

‘All the richness of life is created inside your head. What you see is not what is, but what your brain tells you, and that’s not the same thing at all.’ (Page 56)

‘The ability to create and share complex sounds is one of the great wonders of human existence, and the characteristic more than any other that sets us apart from all other creatures that have ever lived. (Page 108)

‘Every hour your heart dispenses around 260 litres of blood. That’s 6, 240 litres in a day – more litres than you are likely to put in your car in a year’ (Page 114)

‘Within your modest frame are some 25, 000 miles of blood vessels’ (Page 126)

‘We are in the historically extraordinary position that far more people suffer from obesity that from hunger’ (Page 239)

‘…modern fruits have been selectively bred to be vastly more sugary than they once were. The fruits that Shakespeare ate were, for the most part, probably no sweeter than the modern carrot’ (Page 243)

‘Adults in the West produce about 200g of faeces a day – little under half a pound, about 180 pounds a year, 14,000 pounds in a life time. Stools consist in large part of dead bacteria, undigested fibre, sloughed off internal cells, and the reside of dead red blood cells. Every gram of faeces you produce contains 40 billion bacteria and 100 million archaea. Analysis of stool samples also finds many fungi, amoebas, bacteriophages, alveolates, ascomycetes, basidiomycetes….Stool samples taken 2 days apart can give strikingly different results. Even samples taken from two ends of the same stool can seem to come from 2 different people. (Page 257)

‘The problem with human childbirth is ‘cephalo-pelvic disproportion’. In simple terms, a baby’s head is too big for smooth passage through the birth canal, as any mother will freely attest. The average woman’s birth canal is about an inch narrower than the width of the average newborn’s head, making it the most painful inch in nature. To squeeze through this constricted space the baby must execute an almost absurdly challenging ninety -degree turn as it proceeds through the pelvis. If ever there was an event that challenges the concept of Intelligent Design, it is the act of childbirth. No woman, however devout, has ever in childbirth said, ‘Thank you Lord, for thinking this through for me’ (Page 299)

Bryson reveals how so much knowledge about the human body has been obtained in the very recent past. Much fresh information has overturned presumptions held in the past. With a huge bulky potato sack of information to convey, Bryson sometimes struggles to shape his book so that it all flows evenly. Sometimes the reader feels the author is trying to cram in every last scrap so as not to waste the research he has gleaned. I feel this can be forgiven, though, in view of the great achievement of this book. An excellent index and bibliography allow the reader to return to pick up on pieces of information. For example, there are over 30 specific page references to viruses in the index. Only in the last few days of January 2020 have we heard about the outbreak of Chinese coronavirus, and I was able to reach for Bryson’s information about viruses in the human body.

This book deserves a place in the bookcases of Clydesdale, and I commend it to you. Check if this richly informative book on the human body for the general reader is in stock at your local library.

454 pages in Doubleday

First published 2019

ISBN 978-0857522405

Bill Bryson – Avuncular, wise and humane

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