Wednesday 16 October 2019

The Body: Bill Bryson's compendium of bodily fun facts wins you over in the end

Non-Fiction The Body Bill Bryson Doubleday, hardback, 464 pages, €14.99

Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson

Steven Poole

Everyone lives inside a future human carcass, but few of us understand much about how it works. Enter the lovably genial Bill Bryson, who applies the method used in his bestselling 2003 popular-science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything: he travels around asking doctors and medical researchers how the meat and chemicals of homo sapiens all hang together, and relays his findings with a smooth and raconteurish authority. The result is a comforting compendium of fascinating facts, a little like a grown-up version of some Usborne Amazing Book of the Body.

Did you know, for example, that in a day of breathing, you will probably inhale "at least one molecule from the breaths of every person who has ever lived"? Or that chemotherapy drugs for cancer are derived from the mustard gas used in World War I? Or that science has determined that, while scratching an itch on your back delivers the most long-lasting relief, scratching your ankle is the most pleasurable place?

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Well, perhaps you did; but Bryson assumes an impressive level of readerly ignorance. "It may be slightly surprising to think it," he writes, "but our skin is our largest organ." This has long been a cliché in the genre of "surprising physiological fact". While the diaphragm, we are told, is "one of the least appreciated muscles in the body", though it certainly isn't by singers, saxophonists or Pilates teachers. It is not clear at all, indeed, by what system he ranks bodily parts with his favoured superlatives.

"The heart is the most misperceived of our organs," he announces, but is it really? And later, "the eye is a thing of wonder, needless to say," Bryson says needlessly, while hearing is "another seriously underrated miracle" (by whom?); and thinking is a "miraculous talent" (even if, one might add, not much exercised). The reader eventually aches to hear of some facet of the human body that is thoroughly boring and predictable.

The Body by Bill Bryson
The Body by Bill Bryson

The sources Bryson cites tend to be other popular compendia of facts about the body, magazine articles, or interviews with scientists, rather than scientific papers themselves, and the challenge for a generalist in synthesising so much information is knowing when he is being fed a pet line rather than reporting on a robust consensus.

The book, however, really comes alive, when Bryson allows medical specialists to speak about their work with geeky exuberance, as when a surgeon extols the qualities of cartilage: "It is many times smoother than glass: it has a friction coefficient five times less than ice... And you grow it yourself. It's a living thing. None of this has been equalled in engineering or science." Now, that is pretty amazing.

Bryson is respectably careful, too, to point out how much we still don't know about ourselves: for instance, why allergies exist, why we get hiccups or yawn. One thing we do know is that a new age of pandemic infectious disease is coming because of our incontinent use of antibiotics. As Bryson points out, nearly three quarters of the antibiotics given to people in the US "are for conditions that cannot be cured with antibiotics", while 80pc of all antibiotics in the US are actually given to farm animals.

His best chapter is the one about the least well-understood human organ. "The brain exists in silence and darkness, like a dungeoned prisoner," he points out. "It has no pain receptors, literally no feelings. It has never felt warm sunshine or a soft breeze. To your brain, the world is just a stream of electrical impulses, like taps of Morse code."

And did you know that 10,000 years ago, the average human brain suddenly shrank by the size of a tennis ball? This baffling development is, Bryson comments, "as if we agreed to reduce our brains by treaty". If something similar has happened again more recently, that would explain a lot.

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