Extraordinary stories about the heart, lungs, genitals … plus some anger and life advice all delivered in the inimitable Bryson style
The cartilage in your joints is smoother than glass, and has a friction coefficient five times less than ice. The more exercise we do the more our bones produce a hormone that boosts mood, fertility and memory – staving off frailty, depression and dementia. Taste receptors trigger insulin release, so that before we’ve even swallowed our bodies are preparing for a meal (there are even taste receptors in the testicles). We are made of seven billion billion billion atoms, the constituent elements of which would cost £96,546.79 on the open market (excluding VAT). A study of 60 people’s belly buttons found 2,368 species of bacteria, 1,458 of them “unknown to science”. Our ears can discern a volume range of a 1,000,000,000,000 factors of amplitude. Over a lifetime your heart performs the equivalent work to lifting a tonne weight 150 miles into the air. Through her nipples a breast-feeding mother’s body gauges the microbes in her baby’s saliva, to adjust the antibody content of her milk. If you laid all the DNA in your body end to end it would stretch 10bn miles, beyond the orbit of Pluto: “Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system,” Bill Bryson writes; “You are in the most literal sense cosmic.”
Bryson’s The Body is a directory of such wonders, a tour of the minuscule; it aims to do for the human body what his A Short History of Nearly Everything did for science. He has waded through a PhD’s worth of articles, interviewed a score of physicians and biologists, read a library of books, and had a great deal of fun along the way. There’s a formula at work – the prose motors gleefully along, a finely tuned engine running on jokes, factoids and biographical interludes.
His introduction, “How to Build a Human”, explores the mystery of life, why £96k worth of atomic matter self-organises into the miraculous and autonomous beings that we are (spoiler alert: no one really knows). After dispensing with the skin and hair (“no one ever died of baldness”), and the trillions of bacteria that share our bodies (“bacteria can swap genes between themselves, like Pokémon cards”), the brain, head, throat, heart, liver, skeleton, lungs, guts and genitals are given the Bryson treatment: wry, companionable, avuncular and always lucid. Despite his geniality, the pace is breakneck: six pages of the 454 span the history of cardiac surgery (a subject Thomas Morris’s The Matter of the Heart recently spent more than 400 pages on). In an express chapter on pain and nerves, migraine is allotted just one paragraph, as is the pain of cancer.
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