A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Part 5, Chapter 18 : Life Itself (The Bounding Main) | Summary



In this chapter Bryson illustrates how little science knows about the largest portion of the outer layer of Earth: the ocean. He starts by describing water, made from "one largish oxygen atom with two smaller hydrogen atoms attached," expressed in its chemical formula as H2O. Water behaves unlike any other liquid, yet it is one of the most abundant substances on the planet. Most of the available water on Earth is in the ocean (97%), the realm known as the hydrosphere. Of the 3% that is freshwater, most is in ice sheets; just .036% exists in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs.

The first organized scientific expedition in the ocean was in 1872 on the British ship HMS Challenger. The explorers succeeded in discovering 4,500 new species across 70,000 nautical miles and gave name to the field of oceanography. Deepwater exploration was initiated by Americans Charles William Beebe and Otis Barton in 1930. They created the first bathysphere, an exploration craft capable of descending to great depths, approximately 3,000 feet. However, they failed to produce any empirical, visible evidence of the creatures they encountered.

In 1960 Swiss scientist Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy lieutenant Don Walsh descended to the deepest realm any human had ever reached, 35,820 feet. They stayed there for only 20 minutes. At the lowest point of their descent, they spotted a flatfish swimming along the sandy bottom. Since then, more focus has been placed on the use of unmanned machines for deep ocean exploration, specifically one machine, Alvin. It has remained "America's premier [ocean] research vessel" despite, at this point, being almost 40 years old. Its findings include large organisms living around deep-sea vents near the Galápagos Islands and colonies of bacteria "pouring steadily" from the vents that exist without sun or oxygen.

Bryson points out how little scientists know about sea creatures such as blue whales and the mysterious giant squid. He adds, "We are remarkably ignorant of the dynamics that rule life in the sea." Human activity such as the dumping of radioactive waste and overfishing has had a considerably negative impact on numerous ocean species, such as sharks, cod, and lobsters. Schools of hundreds of thousands of cod used to swim along the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and along the eastern coast of the United States providing a bounty of fish throughout the world. In 1992 fishing for cod became illegal. There are still too few remaining to profitably or sustainably harvest.


Bryson emphasizes how incompletely science understands the ocean in part to emphasize why human activity has had such a negative impact on ocean life. Both the fishing industry and scientists have failed to understand the dynamics that govern different species, which has led to sharp declines of multiple species of fish. While a portion of the ignorance is due to the difficulties of ocean exploration, emphasized by Bryson's description of deep-sea explorations, humans also actively disregard the potential of their actions in the ocean. For instance, in 1957–58 an express goal of oceanographers was to study the depths of the ocean for the purpose of dumping radioactive waste. In another example of scientific ignorance, ocean biologists and zoologists barely understand the two largest animals on planet Earth, the great blue whale and the giant squid.

Despite being one of the largest biospheres on the planet, the ocean is highly sensitive to disturbances. Bryson suggests the lack of understanding of the ocean has resulted in damage to multiple oceanic species, such as the orange roughy that lives off the coast of Australia. Fishing practices, in particular, haven't markedly changed despite evidence of the disappearance of species.

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