A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Part 4, Chapter 15 : Dangerous Planet (Dangerous Beauty) | Summary



Bryson introduces the idea Yellowstone National Park is a giant volcanic caldera, the pit left behind after a volcanic explosion, and is also an active supervolcano, placed on top of an enormous hot spot or superplume. Superplumes are "vast bowls of unstable magma," and there are approximately 30 of them on Earth's surface. However, all of them, except the one underneath Yellowstone, are beneath oceanic crust. The volcano at Yellowstone first erupted 16.5 million years ago and has blown over 100 times since. If Yellowstone were to erupt again, the ash would have enormous consequences for the climate, the ecosystem, and human populations. Bryson points out another eruption is quite possible, as the Yellowstone supervolcano is active and overdue.

The author talks to Paul Doss, a National Parks geologist at Yellowstone who notes it is likely there would not be much warning before a volcanic eruption. The normal signs one would expect from a volcanic site that may soon erupt, such as changes in the pattern of geyser eruptions, already occur at Yellowstone National Park regularly. Thus, even without the threat of an impending explosion, it remains a potentially dangerous area of activity. In addition, the nearby Teton Range are overdue for an earthquake.

At the same time, the park has shown itself to have a surprising capacity for life. At Emerald Pool biologists Thomas and Louise Brock discovered the first extremophiles, bacteria that can survive temperatures of 100˚C. From these bacteria, scientist Kary B. Mullis discovered the polymerase chain reaction, which allowed scientists to produce lots of DNA from small amounts and would become the basis for genetic studies. Thus, while Yellowstone is a place with a tremendous amount of destructive potential, it also shows life can adapt to hostile environments in any place with liquid water and a source of chemical energy.


Once again Bryson includes a portion of a conversation he held with a scientist as part of his research for the book. By interviewing Yellowstone's Paul Doss, Bryson humanizes the science of geology and puts the possibility Yellowstone could erupt at any point into perspective. As Doss says, "Most of the time bad things don't happen."

Bryson ends the chapter with a description of the teeming amounts of life discovered living in "rank, acidic" and boiling waters. The discovery of the polymerase chain reaction became the foundation for genetic science and research. Thus, despite Yellowstone's potential for destructiveness, it has provided scientists with a greater understanding of life on Earth. It has also contributed much data for geological research. Bryson highlights such seeming contradictions throughout the book, but they are perhaps illustrated most vividly in this chapter.

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