Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything

The two previous books were intentionally easy reads as I was prepping to tackle this big boy and stick to my 1/week average. It is after all a summation of all important scientific knowledge known to mankind. Tectonic plates, astronomy, evolution, bacteria, the atom. All that and more.

I admit that when it comes to science I am an ignoramus. I consume a ton of politics, history and even psychology, but scientifically I’m the equivalent of the 11% of Americans that can’t even place their own country on the map.

Why don’t I care about science? I find people interesting, for one. I also don’t much care how scientists came to know something to be true, which is to say all of the computations required to arrive at a conclusion. I don’t know enough to value this work or have an opinion, so it is basically gibberish. Whether it is carbon dating or the theory of relativity, the end result is fascinating, the process less so. The other reason is pure vanity – thinking about the natural world makes me feel small.  I am but one organism among trillions that have existed on Earth over 4 billion years and our planet is potentially just one of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 in the universe. My body is an assemblage of atoms that will disperse and take other forms. The light I view from a star is actually 800 years old and my most important star, the sun, will eventually burn out entirely.  It’s enough to make anyone feel insignificant, which is probably why most religions imagine a world centered around the Earth and humans.

Still, when learning more it appears we are extraordinarily lucky. It is totally possible the big bang might not have produced matter or that gravity could have collapsed the universe. The Earth could be a few degrees further from the Sun, rendering it a frozen wasteland. The atmosphere might not have arisen and cosmic rays would enter Earth, burning my flesh (or whatever little bit of algae or mollusk that might become me). Bacteria, asteroids, cooling or heating of the Earth, massive volcanic eruptions, neanderthals bashing homo sapiens to death with clubs. All would mean no me.  If a piece of Earth hadn’t chunked off and reassembled as the moon the sun would be setting on me as I type this as a day would only be about 8 hours long.  It isn’t fate that I’m here, just luck. I’m extremely fortunate for that and I’m grateful. That extreme fortuity makes me feel less small in the scheme of things.

This book is fantastic if you mostly want a history of scientific thought, with just a bare bones explanation as to how scientists arrived at their conclusions. Bryson sprinkles in the stories of the scientists themselves, which are often hilarious, bizarre, sad (those who pursued theories for their entire life that were wrong or those who were never recognized in their time) and often inspiring. Nearly every new discovery was viciously opposed as status quo scientists dug their heels into existing paradigms for reasons of inertia, power, money or lack of imagination. This book is great as it is as much a story of the humans who have uncovered some of the universe’s secrets as it is a list of what they found. We owe them all, even those who failed, a tremendous debt.

 

 

 

Rick Hanson : Buddha’s Brain

In a great podcast by Philosophize This the host Stephen West describes Buddhism as less a religion than the greatest self-help book ever written. Siddhartha Gautama left a pampered rich life for poverty as he realized that, even when you have everything most people aspire to, you are still unhappy.  If money or adoration don’t bring happiness, what does? The OG Buddha left wealth to try to find an answer. He sat alone under a tree where he could observe how his own mind works while also using that same mind to reshape his thinking to generate inner happiness. This was in about 500 BC.

Fast forward to 2017 and in the richest nation in the history of the planet, 1 in 10 people are on anti-depressants. A few days ago the lead singer of Linkin Park, a celebrity who is supposed to be the apex of our culture, took his own life, as did his friend Chris Cornell a few months earlier. South Korea, one of the world’s top 50 nations in wealth, has the 10th highest suicide rate, while Somalia, the absolute worst, is not even in the top 100.

So what gives? If wealth, success or adoration don’t make you happy, what does? The Buddha arguably deduced this in 500 BC and came up with a cure.  Remarkably, as Buddha’s Brain outlines, modern neuroscience is allowing us to see how the brain works and it matches the Buddha.  To use a car analogy it’s like driving a car, thinking very hard about it, and then drawing up a perfect diagram of what’s under the hood. Crazy.

The main point made in the book is that our brain was not developed to create happiness – it was developed for survival. We are naturally fearful and anxious. The brain remembers negative events, but not positive ones. If we gave 100 great presentations and a single poor one, the bad one is remembered.  Our brain also plays out mini simulations almost constantly, some conscious, some not, even when we are asleep. These simulations are usually negative, imagining what others think about us or bad things that could occur but are unlikely. The phrase “bad dream” is common, but there’s no “good dream” equivalent. We do have nice dreams, but not as often and when we do, we tend to forget them quickly.

From an evolutionary standpoint all of the above makes sense. It stopped us from being eaten by lions or drinking from a toxic watering hole. It paid to be neurotic, anxious and afraid. Unlike animals though, who also possess a fearful “monkey mind,” we are also able to reflect on pain that we’ve suffered and have secondary reactions to it.

For example, if someone cuts off of in traffic the actual impact is insignificant. It delays you a few seconds. If they gave you the finger you’d probably be more angry, but that has no actual tangible impact whatsoever. It’s only our secondary reactions that cause us to stew and to suffer: anger, self-doubt, fear, worthlessness etc. The author refers to these as secondary darts and most of us are a tangled mess of pain from the accumulation of all these darts. Animals don’t have these. A dog doesn’t stew over the fact that the other dog cut him off. No wonder they always seem so happy.

The Buddha and this book offer a way out from evolutionary impulses that cause so much suffering. If we use that same brain and other evolutionary traits (empathy, for example, as our brains are wired to be empathetic since our children take very long to reach adulthood) we can rewire ourselves to relax, focus attention on what’s important and reduce the simulations and secondary ruminations that cause us pain.

When people think of Buddhism they think of meditation. Meditation is, in part, the method to achieving this. Meditation involves intense focus on (basically) nothing, which eliminates the simulations and the secondary darts from our minds. Without these we become mindful, which is just to say that our attention is free from anxiety and can be concentrated on what we find to be truly important.

The book explains all of this in scientific terms (i.e. brain scans, chemicals etc.) and through modern psychology. The great news is that this works! I’ve attended the local Buddhist center and meditated regularly for a period of time. It produced a calm feeling and a sense of purpose and concentration I’d never had. I was doing things that would actually make me happy in the long-term, like eating a carrot instead of a cookie, or going to bed on time instead of watching a TV show that could wait, and this didn’t require restraining myself from impulse. It was legitimately what I wanted to do. The bad news is that rolling back thousands of years of evolution is extremely hard work, requiring regular meditation (which is HARD) and constant attention to your own thoughts and actions.

I don’t have any big insights except to say that I hope I can become more mindful and get back to meditating regularly. It would benefit both myself and others around me. This type of Buddhist philosophy or practice is becoming more accepted in the West, particularly in medicine. It’s my hope that it gains more and more traction and others can benefit. Over time hopefully society sees a value in meditation, which is at odds with our consumerist culture as it produces no tangible result and doesn’t make for an interesting Instagram update.

When I think of the ideal end-state it’s Roger Federer. He always seems relaxed, entirely focused, doesn’t react angrily and is quick to praise others and be empathetic.  Watch this video of his acceptance speech at Wimbledon. If that’s not zen he’s doing a great imitation!

I’d highly recommend this book even if you have no intention of meditating or practicing mindfulness as it will at least allow you to understand how your brain works and what might make you happier over the long-term.