About the Book

Bill Bryson describes himself as a reluctant traveller, but even when he stays safely at home he can’t contain his curiosity about the world around him. A Short History of Nearly Everything is his quest to understand everything that has happened from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization – how we got from there, being nothing at all, to here, being us. The ultimate eye-opening journey through time and space, revealing the world in a way most of us have never seen it before.



About the Book

Title Page





I: Lost in the Cosmos

1. How to Build a Universe

2. Welcome to the Solar System

3. The Reverend Evans’s Universe

II: The Size of the Earth

4. The Measure of Things

5. The Stone-Breakers

6. Science Red in Tooth and Claw

7. Elemental Matters

III: A New Age Dawns

8. Einstein’s Universe

9. The Mighty Atom

10. Getting the Lead Out

11. Muster Mark’s Quarks

12. The Earth Moves

IV: Dangerous Planet

13. Bang!

14. The Fire Below

15. Dangerous Beauty

V: Life Itself

16. Lonely Planet

17. Into the Troposphere

18. The Bounding Main

19. The Rise of Life

20. Small World

21. Life Goes On

22. Goodbye to All That

23. The Richness of Being

24. Cells

25. Darwin’s Singular Notion

26. The Stuff of Life

VI: The Road to Us

27. Ice Time

28. The Mysterious Biped

29. The Restless Ape

30. Goodbye




About the Author

Also by Bill Bryson


To Meghan and Chris. Welcome.



The physicist Leo Szilard once announced to his friend Hans Bethe that he was thinking of keeping a diary: ‘I don’t intend to publish. I am merely going to record the facts for the information of God.’ ‘Don’t you think God knows the facts?’ Bethe asked. ‘Yes,’ said Szilard. ‘He knows the facts, but He does not know this version of the facts.’

Hans Christian von Baeyer, Taming the Atom



As I sit here, in early 2003, I have before me several pages of manuscript bearing majestically encouraging and tactful notes from Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History pointing out, inter alia, that Périgueux is not a wine-producing region, that it is inventive but a touch unorthodox of me to italicize taxonomic divisions above the level of genus and species, that I have persistently misspelled Olorgesailie (a place I visited only recently), and so on in similar vein through two chapters of text covering his area of expertise, early humans.

Goodness knows how many other inky embarrassments may lurk in these pages yet, but it is thanks to Dr Tattersall and all of those whom I am about to mention that there aren’t many hundreds more. I cannot begin to thank adequately those who helped me in the preparation of this book. I am especially indebted to the following, who were uniformly generous and kindly and showed the most heroic reserves of patience in answering one simple, endlessly repeated question: ‘I’m sorry, but can you explain that again?’

In England: David Caplin of Imperial College London; Richard Fortey, Len Ellis and Kathy Way of the Natural History Museum; Martin Raff of University College London; Rosalind Harding of the Institute of Biological Anthropology in Oxford; Dr Laurence Smaje, formerly of the Wellcome Institute; and Keith Blackmore of The Times.

In the United States: Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York; John Thorstensen, Mary K. Hudson and David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire; Dr William Abdu and Dr Bryan Marsh of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire; Ray Anderson and Brian Witzke of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa City; Mike Voorhies of the University of Nebraska and Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park near Orchard, Nebraska; Chuck Offenburger of Buena Vista University, Storm Lake, Iowa; Ken Rancourt, director of research, Mount Washington Observatory, Gorham, New Hampshire; Paul Doss, geologist of Yellowstone National Park, and his wife, Heidi, also of the National Park; Frank Asaro of the University of California at Berkeley; Oliver Payne and Lynn Addison of the National Geographic Society; James O. Farlow, Indiana-Purdue University; Roger L. Larson, professor of marine geophysics, University of Rhode Island; Jeff Guinn of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper; Jerry Kasten of Dallas, Texas; and the staff of the Iowa Historical Society in Des Moines.

In Australia: the Reverend Robert Evans of Hazelbrook, New South Wales; Dr Jill Cainey, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Alan Thorne and Victoria Bennett of the Australian National University in Canberra; Louise Burke and John Hawley of Canberra; Anne Milne of the Sydney Morning Herald; Ian Nowak, formerly of the Geological Society of Western Australia; Thomas H. Rich of Museum Victoria; Tim Flannery, director of the South Australian Museum in Adelaide; Natalie Papworth and Alan MacFadyen of the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, Hobart; and the very helpful staff of the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney.

And elsewhere: Sue Superville, information centre manager at the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington; and Dr Emma Mbua, Dr Koen Maes and Jillani Ngalla of the Kenya National Museum in Nairobi.

I am also deeply and variously indebted to Patrick Janson-Smith, Gerald Howard, Marianne Velmans, Alison Tulett, Gillian Somerscales, Larry Finlay, Steve Rubin, Jed Mattes, Carol Heaton, Charles Elliott, David Bryson, Felicity Bryson, Dan McLean, Nick Southern, Gerald Engelbretsen, Patrick Gallagher, Larry Ashmead, and the staff of the peerless and ever-cheery Howe Library in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Above all, and as always, my profoundest thanks to my dear, patient, incomparable wife, Cynthia.




Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.

To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and curiously obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, co-operative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally under appreciated state known as existence.

Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention, your atoms don’t actually care about you – indeed, don’t even know that you are there. They don’t even know that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive. (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.) Yet somehow for the period of your existence they will answer to a single rigid impulse: to keep you you.

The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting – fleeting indeed. Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes into view, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will close you down, then silently disassemble and go off to be other things. And that’s it for you.

Still, you may rejoice that it happens at all. Generally speaking in the universe it doesn’t, so far as we can tell. This is decidedly odd because the atoms that so liberally and congenially flock together to form living things on Earth are exactly the same atoms that decline to do it elsewhere. Whatever else it may be, at the level of chemistry life is fantastically mundane: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, a little calcium, a dash of sulphur, a light dusting of other very ordinary elements – nothing you wouldn’t find in any ordinary pharmacy – and that’s all you need. The only thing special about the atoms that make you is that they make you. That is, of course, the miracle of life.

Whether or not atoms make life in other corners of the universe, they make plenty else; indeed, they make everything else. Without them there would be no water or air or rocks, no stars and planets, no distant gassy clouds or swirling nebulae or any of the other things that make the universe so agreeably material. Atoms are so numerous and necessary that we easily overlook that they needn’t actually exist at all. There is no law that requires the universe to fill itself with small particles of matter or to produce light and gravity and the other properties on which our existence hinges. There needn’t actually be a universe at all. For a very long time there wasn’t. There were no atoms and no universe for them to float about in. There was nothing – nothing at all anywhere.

So thank goodness for atoms. But the fact that you have atoms and that they assemble in such a willing manner is only part of what got you here. To be here now, alive in the twenty-first century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune. Survival on Earth is a surprisingly tricky business. Of the billions and billions of species of living things that have existed since the dawn of time, most – 99.99 per cent, it has been suggested – are no longer around. Life on Earth, you see, is not only brief but dismayingly tenuous. It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.

The average species on Earth lasts for only about four million years, so if you wish to be around for billions of years, you must be as fickle as the atoms that made you. You must be prepared to change everything about yourself – shape, size, colour, species affiliation, everything – and to do so repeatedly. That’s much easier said than done, because the process of change is random. To get from ‘protoplasmal primordial atomic globule’ (as Gilbert and Sullivan put it) to sentient upright modern human has required you to mutate new traits over and over in a precisely timely manner for an exceedingly long while. So at various periods over the last 3.8 billion years you have abhorred oxygen and then doted on it, grown fins and limbs and jaunty sails, laid eggs, flicked the air with a forked tongue, been sleek, been furry, lived underground, lived in trees, been as big as a deer and as small as a mouse, and a million things more. The tiniest deviation from any of these evolutionary imperatives and you might now be licking algae from cave walls or lolling walrus-like on some stony shore or disgorging air through a blowhole in the top of your head before diving sixty feet for a mouthful of delicious sandworms.

Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favoured evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely – make that miraculously – fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stuck fast, untimely wounded or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result – eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly – in you.

This is a book about how it happened – in particular, how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also some of what happened in between and since. That’s rather a lot to cover, of course, which is why the book is called A Short History of Nearly Everything, even though it isn’t really. It couldn’t be. But with luck by the time we finish it may feel as if it is.

My own starting point, for what it is worth, was a school science book that I had when I was in fourth or fifth grade. The book was a standard-issue 1950s schoolbook – battered, unloved, grimly hefty – but near the front it had an illustration that just captivated me: a cutaway diagram showing the Earth’s interior as it would look if you cut into the planet with a large knife and carefully withdrew a wedge representing about a quarter of its bulk.

It’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when I had not seen such an illustration before, but evidently I had not for I clearly remember being transfixed. I suspect, in honesty, my initial interest was based on a private image of streams of unsuspecting eastbound motorists in the American plains states plunging over the edge of a sudden four-thousand-mile-high cliff running between Central America and the North Pole, but gradually my attention did turn in a more scholarly manner to the scientific import of the drawing and the realization that the Earth consisted of discrete layers, ending in the centre with a glowing sphere of iron and nickel, which was as hot as the surface of the Sun, according to the caption, and I remember thinking with real wonder: ‘How do they know that?’


I didn’t doubt the correctness of the information for an instant – I still tend to trust the pronouncements of scientists in the way I trust those of surgeons, plumbers, and other possessors of arcane and privileged information – but I couldn’t for the life of me conceive how any human mind could work out what spaces thousands of miles below us, that no eye had ever seen and no X-ray could penetrate, could look like and be made of. To me that was just a miracle. That has been my position with science ever since.

Excited, I took the book home that night and opened it before dinner – an action that I expect prompted my mother to feel my forehead and ask if I was all right – and, starting with the first page, I read.

And here’s the thing. It wasn’t exciting at all. It wasn’t actually altogether comprehensible. Above all, it didn’t answer any of the questions that the illustration stirred up in a normal enquiring mind: How did we end up with a Sun in the middle of our planet and how do they know how hot it is? And if it is burning away down there, why isn’t the ground under our feet hot to the touch? And why isn’t the rest of the interior melting – or is it? And when the core at last burns itself out, will some of the Earth slump into the void, leaving a giant sinkhole on the surface? And how do you know this? How did you figure it out?

But the author was strangely silent on such details – indeed, silent on everything but anticlines, synclines, axial faults and the like. It was as if he wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable. As the years passed, I began to suspect that this was not altogether a private impulse. There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.

I now know that there is a happy abundance of science writers who pen the most lucid and thrilling prose – Timothy Ferris, Richard Fortey and Tim Flannery are three that jump out from a single station of the alphabet (and that’s not even to mention the late but godlike Richard Feynman) – but, sadly, none of them wrote any textbook I ever used. All mine were written by men (it was always men) who held the interesting notion that everything became clear when expressed as a formula and the amusingly deluded belief that the children of America would appreciate having chapters end with a section of questions they could mull over in their own time. So I grew up convinced that science was supremely dull, but suspecting that it needn’t be, and not really thinking about it at all if I could help it. This, too, became my position for a long time.

Then, much later – about four or five years ago, I suppose – I was on a long flight across the Pacific, staring idly out the window at moonlit ocean, when it occurred to me with a certain uncomfortable forcefulness that I didn’t know the first thing about the only planet I was ever going to live on. I had no idea, for example, why the oceans were salty but the Great Lakes weren’t. Didn’t have the faintest idea. I didn’t know if the oceans were growing more salty with time or less, and whether ocean salinity levels was something I should be concerned about or not. (I am very pleased to tell you that until the late 1970s scientists didn’t know the answers to these questions either. They just didn’t talk about it very audibly.)

And ocean salinity, of course, represented only the merest sliver of my ignorance. I didn’t know what a proton was, or a protein, didn’t know a quark from a quasar, didn’t understand how geologists could look at a layer of rock on a canyon wall and tell you how old it was – didn’t know anything, really. I became gripped by a quiet, unwonted but insistent urge to know a little about these matters and to understand above all how people figured them out. That to me remained the greatest of all amazements – how scientists work things out. How does anybody know how much the Earth weighs or how old its rocks are or what really is way down there in the centre? How can they know how and when the universe started and what it was like when it did? How do they know what goes on inside an atom? And how, come to that – or perhaps above all, on reflection – can scientists so often seem to know nearly everything but then still not be able to predict an earthquake or even tell us whether we should take an umbrella with us to the races next Wednesday?

So I decided that I would devote a portion of my life – three years, as it now turns out – to reading books and journals and finding saintly, patient experts prepared to answer a lot of outstandingly dumb questions. The idea was to see if it isn’t possible to understand and appreciate – marvel at, enjoy even – the wonder and accomplishments of science at a level that isn’t too technical or demanding, but isn’t entirely superficial either.

That was my idea and my hope, and that is what the book that follows is intended to do. Anyway, we have a great deal of ground to cover and much less than 650,000 hours in which to do it, so let’s begin.






They’re all in the same plane. They’re all going around in the same direction … It’s perfect, you know. It’s gorgeous. It’s almost uncanny.

Astronomer Geoffrey Marcy describing the solar system



No matter how hard you try you will never be able to grasp just how tiny, how spatially unassuming, is a proton. It is just way too small.

A proton is an infinitesimal part of an atom, which is itself of course an insubstantial thing. Protons are so small that1 a little dib of ink like the dot on this ‘i’ can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them, or rather more than the number of seconds it takes to make half a million years. So protons are exceedingly microscopic, to say the very least.

Now imagine if you can (and of course you can’t) shrinking one of those protons down to a billionth of its normal size into a space so small that it would make a proton look enormous. Now pack into that tiny, tiny space2 about an ounce of matter. Excellent. You are ready to start a universe.

I’m assuming of course that you wish to build an inflationary universe. If you’d prefer instead to build a more old-fashioned, standard Big Bang universe, you’ll need additional materials. In fact, you will need to gather up everything there is – every last mote and particle of matter between here and the edge of creation – and squeeze it into a spot so infinitesimally compact that it has no dimensions at all. It is known as a singularity.

In either case, get ready for a really big bang. Naturally, you will wish to retire to a safe place to observe the spectacle. Unfortunately, there is nowhere to retire to because outside the singularity there is no where. When the universe begins to expand, it won’t be spreading out to fill a larger emptiness. The only space that exists is the space it creates as it goes.

It is natural but wrong to visualize the singularity as a kind of pregnant dot hanging in a dark, boundless void. But there is no space, no darkness. The singularity has no around around it. There is no space for it to occupy, no place for it to be. We can’t even ask how long it has been there – whether it has just lately popped into being, like a good idea, or whether it has been there for ever, quietly awaiting the right moment. Time doesn’t exist. There is no past for it to emerge from.

And so, from nothing, our universe begins.

In a single blinding pulse, a moment of glory much too swift and expansive for any form of words, the singularity assumes heavenly dimensions, space beyond conception. The first lively second (a second that many cosmologists will devote careers to shaving into ever-finer wafers) produces gravity and the other forces that govern physics. In less than a minute the universe is a million billion miles across and growing fast. There is a lot of heat now, 10 billion degrees of it, enough to begin the nuclear reactions that create the lighter elements – principally hydrogen and helium, with a dash (about one atom in a hundred million) of lithium. In three minutes, 98 per cent of all the matter there is or will ever be has been produced. We have a universe. It is a place of the most wondrous and gratifying possibility, and beautiful, too. And it was all done in about the time it takes to make a sandwich.

When this moment happened is a matter of some debate. Cosmologists have long argued over whether the moment of creation was ten billion years ago or twice that or something in between. The consensus seems to be heading for a figure of about 13.7 billion years3, but these things are notoriously difficult to measure, as we shall see further on. All that can really be said is that at some indeterminate point in the very distant past, for reasons unknown, there came the moment known to science as t = 04. We were on our way.

There is of course a great deal we don’t know, and much of what we think we know we haven’t known, or thought we’ve known, for long. Even the notion of the Big Bang is quite a recent one. The idea had been kicking around since the 1920s when Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest–scholar, first tentatively proposed it, but it didn’t really become an active notion in cosmology until the mid-1960s, when two young radio astronomers made an extraordinary and inadvertent discovery.

Their names were Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson. In 1964, they were trying to make use of a large communications antenna owned by Bell Laboratories at Holmdel, New Jersey, but they were troubled by a persistent background noise – a steady, steamy hiss that made any experimental work impossible. The noise was unrelenting and unfocused. It came from every point in the sky, day and night, through every season. For a year the young astronomers did everything they could think of to track down and eliminate the noise. They tested every electrical system. They rebuilt instruments, checked circuits, wiggled wires, dusted plugs. They climbed into the dish and placed duct tape over every seam and rivet. They climbed back into the dish with brooms and scrubbing brushes and carefully swept it clean5 of what they referred to in a later paper as ‘white dielectric material’, or what is known more commonly as bird shit. Nothing they tried worked.

Unknown to them, just 50 kilometres away at Princeton University a team of scientists led by Robert Dicke was working on how to find the very thing they were trying so diligently to get rid of. The Princeton researchers were pursuing an idea that had been suggested in the 1940s by the Russian-born astrophysicist George Gamow: that if you looked deep enough into space you should find some cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang. Gamow calculated that by the time it had crossed the vastness of the cosmos the radiation would reach Earth in the form of microwaves. In a more recent paper he had even suggested an instrument that might do the job6: the Bell antenna at Holmdel. Unfortunately, neither Penzias and Wilson, nor any of the Princeton team, had read Gamow’s paper.

The noise that Penzias and Wilson were hearing was, of course, the noise that Gamow had postulated. They had found the edge of the universe7, or at least the visible part of it, 90 billion trillion miles away. They were ‘seeing’ the first photons – the most ancient light in the universe – though time and distance had converted them to microwaves, just as Gamow had predicted. In his book The Inflationary Universe, Alan Guth provides an analogy that helps to put this finding in perspective. If you think of peering into the depths of the universe as like looking down from the hundredth floor of the Empire State Building (with the hundredth floor representing now and street level representing the moment of the Big Bang), at the time of Wilson and Penzias’s discovery the most distant galaxies anyone had ever detected were on about the sixtieth floor and the most distant things – quasars – were on about the twentieth. Penzias and Wilson’s finding pushed our acquaintance with the visible8 universe to within half an inch of the lobby floor.

Still unaware of what caused the noise, Wilson and Penzias phoned Dicke at Princeton and described their problem to him in the hope that he might suggest a solution. Dicke realized at once what the two young men had found. ‘Well, boys, we’ve just been scooped,’ he told his colleagues as he hung up the phone.

Soon afterwards the Astrophysical Journal published two articles: one by Penzias and Wilson describing their experience with the hiss, the other by Dicke’s team explaining its nature. Although Penzias and Wilson had not been looking for cosmic background radiation, didn’t know what it was when they had found it, and hadn’t described or interpreted its character in any paper, they received the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics. The Princeton researchers got only sympathy. According to Dennis Overbye in Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, neither Penzias nor Wilson altogether understood the significance of what they had found until they read about it in the New York Times.

Incidentally, disturbance from cosmic background radiation is something we have all experienced. Tune your television to any channel it doesn’t receive and about 1 per cent of the dancing static you see9 is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang. The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe.

Although everyone calls it the Big Bang, many books caution us not to think of it as an explosion in the conventional sense. It was, rather, a vast, sudden expansion on a whopping scale. So what caused it?

One notion is that perhaps the singularity was the relic of an earlier, collapsed universe – that ours is just one of an eternal cycle of expanding and collapsing universes, like the bladder on an oxygen machine. Others attribute the Big Bang to what they call ‘a false vacuum’ or ‘a scalar field’ or ‘vacuum energy’ – some quality or thing, at any rate, that introduced a measure of instability into the nothingness that was. It seems impossible that you could get something from nothing, but the fact that once there was nothing and now there is a universe is evident proof that you can. It may be that our universe is merely part of many larger universes, some in different dimensions, and that Big Bangs are going on all the time all over the place. Or it may be that space and time had some other forms altogether before the Big Bang – forms too alien for us to imagine – and that the Big Bang represents some sort of transition phase, where the universe went from a form we can’t understand to one we almost can. ‘These are very close to religious questions10,’ Dr Andrei Linde, a cosmologist at Stanford, told the New York Times in 2001.

The Big Bang theory isn’t about the bang itself but about what happened after the bang. Not long after, mind you. By doing a lot of maths and watching carefully what goes on in particle accelerators, scientists believe they can look back to 10−43 seconds after the moment of creation, when the universe was still so small that you would have needed a microscope to find it. We mustn’t swoon over every extraordinary number that comes before us, but it is perhaps worth latching onto one from time to time just to be reminded of their ungraspable and amazing breadth. Thus 10−43 is 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000001, or one ten million trillion trillion trillionths11 of a second.fn1

Most of what we know, or believe we know, about the early moments of the universe is thanks to an idea called inflation theory first propounded in 1979 by a junior particle physicist then at Stanford, now at MIT, named Alan Guth. He was thirty-two years old and, by his own admission, had never12 done anything much before. He would probably never have had his great theory except that he happened to attend a lecture on the Big Bang given by none other than Robert Dicke. The lecture inspired Guth to take an interest13 in cosmology, and in particular in the birth of the universe.

The eventual result was the inflation theory, which holds that a fraction of a moment after the dawn of creation, the universe underwent a sudden dramatic expansion. It inflated – in effect ran away with itself, doubling in size every 10−34 seconds14. The whole episode may have lasted no more than 10−30 seconds – that’s one million million million million millionths of a second – but it changed the universe from something you could hold in your hand to something at least 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times bigger15. Inflation theory explains the ripples and eddies that make our universe possible. Without it, there would be no clumps of matter and thus no stars, just drifting gas and ever-lasting darkness.

According to Guth’s theory, at one ten-millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, gravity emerged. After another ludicrously brief interval it was joined by electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces – the stuff of physics. These were joined an instant later by shoals of elementary particles – the stuff of stuff. From nothing at all, suddenly there were swarms of photons, protons, electrons, neutrons and much else – between 1079 and 1089 of each, according to the standard Big Bang theory.

Such quantities are of course ungraspable. It is enough to know that in a single cracking instant we were endowed with a universe that was vast – at least a hundred billion light years across, according to the theory, but possibly any size up to infinite – and perfectly arrayed for the creation of stars, galaxies and other complex systems16.

What is extraordinary from our point of view is how well it turned out for us. If the universe had formed just a tiny bit differently – if gravity were fractionally stronger or weaker, if the expansion had proceeded just a little more slowly or swiftly – then there might never have been stable elements to make you and me and the ground we stand on. Had gravity been a trifle stronger, the universe itself might have collapsed like a badly erected tent without precisely the right values to give it the necessary dimensions and density and component parts. Had it been weaker, however, nothing would have coalesced. The universe would have remained forever a dull, scattered void.

This is one reason why some experts believe that there may have been many other big bangs, perhaps trillions and trillions of them, spread through the mighty span of eternity, and that the reason we exist in this particular one is that this is one that we could exist in. As Edward P. Tryon of Columbia University once put it: ‘In answer to the question of why it happened, I offer the modest proposal that our Universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time.’ To which adds Guth: ‘Although the creation of a universe might be very unlikely, Tryon emphasized that no one had counted the failed attempts17.’

Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, believes that there are many universes, possibly an infinite number, each with different attributes, in different combinations, and that we simply live in one that combines things in the way that allows us to exist. He makes an analogy with a very large clothing store18: ‘If there is a large stock of clothing, you’re not surprised to find a suit that fits. If there are many universes, each governed by a differing set of numbers, there will be one where there is a particular set of numbers suitable to life. We are in that one.’

Rees maintains that six numbers in particular govern our universe, and that if any of these values were changed even very slightly things could not be as they are. For example, for the universe to exist as it does requires that hydrogen be converted to helium in a precise but comparatively stately manner – specifically, in a way that converts seven one-thousandths of its mass to energy. Lower that value very slightly – from 0.07 per cent to 0.06 per cent, say – and no transformation could take place: the universe would consist of hydrogen and nothing else. Raise the value very slightly – to 0.08 per cent – and bonding would be so wildly prolific that the hydrogen would long since have been exhausted. In either case, with the slightest tweaking of the numbers the universe19 as we know and need it would not be here.

I should say that everything is just right so far. In the long term, gravity may turn out to be a little too strong20; one day it may halt the expansion of the universe and bring it collapsing in upon itself, until it crushes itself down into another singularity, possibly to start the whole process over again. On the other hand, it may be too weak, in which case the universe will keep racing away for ever until everything is so far apart that there is no chance of material interactions, so that the universe becomes a place that is very roomy, but inert and dead. The third option is that gravity is perfectly pitched – ‘critical density’ is the cosmologists’ term for it – and that it will hold the universe together at just the right dimensions to allow things to go on indefinitely. Cosmologists, in their lighter moments, sometimes call this the ‘Goldilocks effect’ – that everything is just right. (For the record, these three possible universes are known respectively as closed, open and flat.)

Now, the question that has occurred to all of us at some point is: what would happen if you travelled out to the edge of the universe and, as it were, put your head through the curtains? Where would your head be if it were no longer in the universe? What would you find beyond? The answer, disappointingly, is that you can never get to the edge of the universe. That’s not because it would take too long to get there – though of course it would – but because even if you travelled outward and outward in a straight line, indefinitely and pugnaciously, you would never arrive at an outer boundary. Instead, you would come back to where you began (at which point, presumably, you would rather lose heart in the exercise and give up). The reason for this is that the universe bends, in a way we can’t adequately imagine, in conformance with Einstein’s theory of relativity (which we will get to in due course). For the moment it is enough to know that we are not adrift in some large, ever-expanding bubble. Rather, space curves, in a way that allows it to be boundless but finite. Space cannot even properly be said to be expanding because, as the physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg notes, ‘solar systems and galaxies are not expanding, and space itself is not expanding.’ Rather, the galaxies are rushing apart21. It is all something of a challenge to intuition. Or, as the biologist J. B. S. Haldane once famously observed: ‘The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.’

The analogy that is usually given for explaining the curvature of space is to try to imagine someone from a universe of flat surfaces, who had never seen a sphere, being brought to Earth. No matter how far he roamed across the planet’s surface, he would never find an edge. He might eventually return to the spot where he had started, and would of course be utterly confounded to explain how that had happened. Well, we are in the same position in space as our puzzled flatlander, only we are flummoxed by a higher dimension.

Just as there is no place where you can find the edge of the universe, so there is no place where you can stand at the centre and say: ‘This is where it all began. This is the centre-most point of it all.’ We are all at the centre of it all. Actually, we don’t know that for sure; we can’t prove it mathematically. Scientists just assume that we can’t really be the centre22 of the universe – think what that would imply – but that the phenomenon must be the same for all observers in all places. Still, we don’t actually know.

For us, the universe goes only as far as light has travelled in the billions of years since the universe was formed. This visible universe – the universe we know and can talk about23 – is a million million million million (that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) miles across. But according to most theories the universe at large – the meta-universe, as it is sometimes called – is vastly roomier still. According to Rees, the number of light years to the edge of this larger, unseen universe24 would be written not ‘with ten zeroes, not even with a hundred, but with millions’. In short, there’s more space than you can imagine already without going to the trouble of trying to envision some additional beyond.

For a long time the Big Bang theory had one gaping hole that troubled a lot of people – namely, that it couldn’t begin to explain how we got here. Although 98 per cent of all the matter that exists was created with the Big Bang, that matter consisted exclusively of light gases: the helium, hydrogen and lithium that we mentioned earlier. Not one particle of the heavy stuff so vital to our own being – carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and all the rest – emerged from the gaseous brew of creation. But – and here’s the troubling point – to forge these heavy elements, you need the kind of heat and energy thrown off by a Big Bang. Yet there has been only one Big Bang and it didn’t produce them. So where did they come from? Interestingly, the man who found the answer to that question was a cosmologist who heartily despised the Big Bang as a theory and coined the term Big Bang sarcastically, as a way of mocking it.

We’ll get to him shortly, but before we turn to the question of how we got here, it might be worth taking a few minutes to consider just where exactly ‘here’ is.

fn1 A word on scientific notation. Since very large numbers are cumbersome to write and nearly impossible to read, scientists use a shorthand involving powers (or multiples) of ten in which, for instance, 10,000,000,000 is written 1010 and 6,500,000 becomes 6.5 × 106. The principle is based very simply on multiples of ten: 10 × 10 (or 100) becomes 102; 10 × 10 × 10 (or 1,000) is 103; and so on, obviously and indefinitely. The little superscript number signifies the number of zeroes following the larger principal number. Negative notations provide essentially a mirror image, with the superscript number indicating the number of spaces to the right of the decimal point (so 10−4 means 0.0001). Though I salute the principle, it remains an amazement to me that anyone seeing ‘1.4 × 109 km3’ would see at once that that signifies 1.4 billion cubic kilometres, and no less a wonder that they would choose the former over the latter in print (especially in a book designed for the general reader, where the example was found). On the assumption that many readers are as unmathematical as I am, I will use notations sparingly, though they are occasionally unavoidable, not least in a chapter dealing with things on a cosmic scale.



Astronomers these days can do the most amazing things. If someone struck a match on the Moon, they could spot the flare. From the tiniest throbs and wobbles of distant stars1 they can infer the size and character and even potential habitability of planets much too remote to be seen – planets so distant that it would take us half a million years in a spaceship to get there. With their radio telescopes they can capture wisps of radiation so preposterously faint that the total amount of energy collected from outside the solar system by all of them together since collecting began (in 1951) is ‘less than the energy of a single snowflake striking the ground’2, in the words of Carl Sagan.

In short, there isn’t a great deal that goes on in the universe that astronomers can’t find when they have a mind to. Which is why it is all the more remarkable to reflect that until 1978 no-one had ever noticed that Pluto has a moon. In the summer of that year, a young astronomer named James Christy3 at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, was making a routine examination of photographic images of Pluto when he saw that there was something there – something blurry and uncertain but definitely other than Pluto. Consulting a colleague named Robert Harrington, he concluded that what he was looking at was a moon. And it wasn’t just any moon. Relative to the planet, it was the biggest moon in the solar system.

This was actually something of a blow to Pluto’s status as a planet, which had never been terribly robust anyway. Since previously the space occupied by the moon and the space occupied by Pluto were thought to be one and the same, it meant that Pluto was much smaller than anyone had supposed4 – smaller even than Mercury. Indeed, seven moons in the solar system, including our own, are larger.

Now, a natural question is why it took so long for anyone to find a moon in our own solar system. The answer is that it is partly a matter of where astronomers point their instruments and partly a matter of what their instruments are designed to detect and partly it’s just Pluto. Mostly it’s where they point their instruments. In the words of the astronomer Clark Chapman5: ‘Most people think that astronomers get out at night in observatories and scan the skies. That’s not true. Almost all the telescopes we have in the world are designed to peer at very tiny little pieces of the sky way off in the distance to see a quasar or hunt for black holes or look at a distant galaxy. The only real network of telescopes that scans the skies has been designed and built by the military.’

We have been spoiled by artists’ renderings into imagining a clarity of resolution that doesn’t exist in actual astronomy. Pluto in Christy’s photograph is faint and fuzzy – a piece of cosmic lint – and its moon is not the romantically backlit, crisply delineated companion orb you would get in a National Geographic painting, but rather just a tiny and extremely indistinct hint of additional fuzziness. Such was the fuzziness, in fact, that it took seven years for anyone to spot the moon again6 and thus independently confirm its existence.

One nice touch about Christy’s discovery was that it happened in Flagstaff, for it was there in 1930 that Pluto had been found in the first place. That seminal event in astronomy was largely to the credit of the astronomer Percival Lowell. Lowell, who came from one of the oldest and wealthiest Boston families (the one in the famous ditty about Boston being the home of the bean and the cod, where Lowells spoke only to Cabots, while Cabots spoke only to God), endowed the famous observatory that bears his name, but is most indelibly remembered for his belief that Mars was covered with canals built by industrious Martians for purposes of conveying water from polar regions to the dry but productive lands nearer the equator.

Lowell’s other abiding conviction was that there existed, somewhere out beyond Neptune, an undiscovered ninth planet, dubbed Planet X. Lowell based this belief on irregularities he detected in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, and devoted the last years of his life to trying to find the gassy giant he was certain was out there. Unfortunately, he died suddenly in 1916, at least partly exhausted by his quest, and the search fell into abeyance while Lowell’s heirs squabbled over his estate. However, in 1929, partly as a way of deflecting attention away from the Mars canal saga (which by now had become a serious embarrassment) the Lowell Observatory directors decided to resume the search and to that end hired a young man from Kansas named Clyde Tombaugh.

Tombaugh had no formal training as an astronomer, but he was diligent and he was astute, and after a year’s patient searching he somehow spotted Pluto7, a faint point of light in a glittery firmament. It was a miraculous find, and what made it all the more striking was that the observations on which Lowell had predicted the existence of a planet beyond Neptune proved to be comprehensively erroneous. Tombaugh could see at once that the new planet was nothing like the massive gasball Lowell had postulated – but any reservations he or anyone else had about the character of the new planet were soon swept aside in the delirium that attended almost any big news story in that easily excited age. This was the first American-discovered planet, and no-one was going to be distracted by the thought that it was really just a distant icy dot. It was named Pluto, at least partly because the first two letters made a monogram from Lowell’s initials. Lowell was posthumously hailed everywhere as a genius of the first order and Tombaugh was largely forgotten, except among planetary astronomers, who tend to revere him.

A few astronomers continue to think there may yet be a Planet X out there8 – a real whopper, perhaps as much as ten times the size of Jupiter, but so far out as to be invisible to us. (It would receive so little sunlight that it would have almost none to reflect.) The idea is that it wouldn’t be a conventional planet like Jupiter or Saturn – it’s much too far away for that; we’re talking perhaps 4.5 trillion miles – but more like a sun that never quite made it. Most star systems in the cosmos are binary (double-starred), which makes our solitary sun a slight oddity.

As for Pluto itself, nobody is quite sure how big it is, what it is made of, what kind of atmosphere it has, or even what it really is. A lot of astronomers believe it isn’t a planet at all, but merely the largest object so far found in a zone of galactic debris known as the Kuiper belt. The Kuiper belt was actually theorized by an astronomer named F. C. Leonard in 19309, but the name honours Gerard Kuiper, a Dutch native working in America, who expanded the idea. The Kuiper belt is the source of what are known as short-period comets – those that come past pretty regularly – of which the most famous is Halley’s comet. The more reclusive long-period comets (among them the recent visitors Hale–Bopp and Hyakutake) come from the much more distant Oort cloud, about which more presently.

It is certainly true that Pluto doesn’t act much like the other planets. Not only is it runty and obscure, it is so variable in its motions that no-one can tell you exactly where Pluto will be a century hence. Whereas the other planets orbit on more or less the same plane, Pluto’s orbital path is tipped (as it were) out of alignment at an angle of 17 degrees, like the brim of a hat tilted rakishly on someone’s head. Its orbit is so irregular that for substantial periods on each of its lonely circuits around the Sun it is closer to us than Neptune is. For most of the 1980s and 1990s, Neptune was in fact the solar system’s most far-flung planet. Only on 11 February 1999 did Pluto return to the outside lane10, there to remain for the next 228 years.

So if Pluto really is a planet, it is certainly an odd one. It is very tiny: just one quarter of 1 per cent as massive as Earth. If you set it down on top of the United States, it would cover not quite half the lower forty-eight states. This alone makes it extremely anomalous; it means that our planetary system consists of four rocky inner planets, four gassy outer giants, and a tiny, solitary iceball. Moreover, there is every reason to suppose that we may soon begin to find other, even larger icy spheres in the same portion of space. Then we will1112