A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Part 5, Chapter 24 : Life Itself (Cells) | Summary

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Summary

Bryson begins the chapter by describing the properties of cells. Cells are extremely complex, controlling all of the operations that make life possible. They come in numerous shapes and sizes, constantly dying and regenerating; however, Bryson informs readers biologists only "understand a little of how cells do the things they do."

He then turns to the history of the discovery of the cell. British scientist Robert Hooke was the first person to discover a cell, aided by his advanced microscopes. He published his discoveries in the book Microphagia in 1665. Just 10 years later Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch draper (cloth merchant) and self-taught scientist, was able to invent an even more powerful microscope. In 1676 he discovered protozoa, single-celled organisms that can move and transform food into energy. Then, in 1683, he discovered bacteria. In 1831 Scottish botanist Robert Brown was the first person to see the nucleus of a cell, and German scientist Theodor Schwann realized all life was cellular based in 1839.

Bryson next describes the inner workings of a cell, describing it as a having "activity everywhere and a ceaseless thrum of electrical energy." The cell is made up of many parts including a membrane, a nucleus, cytoplasm, numerous proteins, and mitochondria, among other components that allow cells to process the blood and oxygen and allow them to do their work. These parts work as follows:

  • The membrane is an outer casing.
  • The nucleus holds genetic information.
  • Cytoplasm is the "busy space" between the membrane and nucleus.
  • Proteins determine the cell's health and function.
  • Mitochondria take up oxygen and food and convert them into energy.

Ultimately cells die in a process called apoptosis. If they fail to expire at their prescribed time, they can possibly become cancer cells.

Cells constantly send and monitor messages, carried by hormones, from the parts of the body. They also communicate with one another. All the actions are "reflexive chemical reactions" that allow living things to survive.

Analysis

This chapter provides a fairly straightforward description of the history of the discovery of the cell and how cells work. It is necessary for understanding the chapters to follow on evolution, DNA, and how humans appeared on the planet.

Bryson emphasizes the ability of seemingly disparate cells to work together based simply on "elemental rules of attraction and repulsion." He quotes a statement by Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve that "the molecular world must necessarily remain entirely beyond the powers of the imagination owing to the incredible speed with which things happen." At the same time, he provides a vivid sense of the motion and action that occur every second within a cell. He describes the actions of cells as "like bullets," for example, and cells as a "hazardous place." His similar description of the functions of various cellular components, such as mitochondria and proteins, serve to provide a picture of the action occurring on a microscopic scale within the body. He also explains how cancer forms, mainly through "bad luck in every possible sense of the term." His style serves to make the behavior of cells seem both understandable and remarkable.

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