The intrepid explorer and popular travel writer journeys inward—literally—to explore our mortal coil.
A narrative by Bryson (The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain, 2016, etc.) rarely involves the unfolding of a grand thesis; instead, it’s a congeries of anecdotes, skillfully strung, always a pleasure to read but seldom earthshakingly significant. So it is here. The author does some on-the-ground digging, talking to scientists and physicians, while plowing through libraries of literature to get at the story of how our bodies work. Early on, he pokes at the old bromide that the human body is an assemblage of a few dollars’ worth of assorted chemicals and minerals. Not so, he writes: We’re made up of 59 elements, including carbon and oxygen. But, he adds, “who would have thought that we would be incomplete without some molybdenum inside us, or vanadium, manganese, tin, and copper?” Bryson employs the example of an “obliging Benedict Cumberbatch,” of medium height and build and good health, to venture that the real cost of a human is “a very precise $151,578.46,” a figure that turns out to wiggle and wobble as we layer on additional costs. As ever, the author collects lovely oddments and presents them as so many glittering marbles: The largest protein in the body is titin, whose “chemical name is 189,819 letters long, which would make it the longest word in the English language except that dictionaries don’t recognize chemical names.” The heart, which, Bryson notes, doesn’t really look like a valentine, does only one thing: It beats, “slightly more than once every second, about 100,000 times a day, up to 2.5 billion times in a lifetime.” Along the way, the author considers whether the old surgical practice of bleeding was really a good thing to do (it wasn’t), how "cytokine storms” work, and what the winning combination is for a long life—one factor is wealth: “Someone who is otherwise identical to you but poor…can expect to die between ten and fifteen years sooner.”
A pleasing, entertaining sojourn into the realm of what makes us tick.