Bryson had produced eight travel books and three about the English language before diversifying to pen "A Short History of Nearly Everything", published in 2003. With this, the best-selling author with a well-stamped passport but minimal background in science produced what went on to be the biggest-selling non-fiction book of the decade in the UK, winning the Royal Society's Aventis Prize for science books in 2004 and the Descartes Prize, the European Union's highest literary award, in 2005.

"A Short History of Nearly Everything" traces the history of Earth, humankind and the universe from the Big Bang to the present day, and Bryson's trademark mixture of personable familiarity and pleasant wit succeeded in opening up this specialist world to Everyman in a way that was equally accessible and revealing. His travel books include "The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America", "Down Under" about that quirky place Australia, "A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail", "Bill Bryson's African Diary" and "Notes from a Small Island", which in a national poll was voted the book that best represents Britain, where the American has chosen to live for much of his adult life.

He has also written a biography of the shadowy Shakespeare, a couple of history books in "At Home: A Short History of Private Life" and "One Summer: America, 1927", and a memoir about his own childhood following his birth in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1951 titled "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid".

Now, like a skilled surgeon, or a vivisectionist, Bryson has produced a second staunchly scientific book, "The Body. A Guide for Occupants", carving up the corpus into its various components: the skin and hair, brain, head, mouth and throat, heart and blood, skeleton, nerves and pain, lungs and breathing, guts, immune system, the nether regions, etcetera.

Four years in the making, the book draws on dozens of experts and contains almost 30 pages listing the sources Bryson used and a 12-page bibliography of some 220 books that provided valuable research. He explains: "We spend our whole lives in one body and yet most of us have practically no idea how it works and what goes on inside it. The idea of the book is simply to try to understand the extraordinary contraption that is us. What I learned is that we are infinitely more complex and wondrous, and often more mysterious, than I had ever suspected. There really is no story more amazing than the story of us."

We pass our experience within this warm wobble of flesh and yet take it almost for granted, Bryson says. How many among us know roughly where the spleen is or what it does? Or the difference between tendons and ligaments? Or what our lymph nodes are up to? How many times a day do you suppose you blink? Well, it's 14,000, so many that your eyes are shut for a total of 23 minutes every waking day.

Your lungs, smoothed out, would cover a tennis court, and the airways within them would stretch from London to Moscow. The length of all your blood vessels would take you two and a half times around the Earth. Fifty-nine elements are needed to construct a human being. Six of them – carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, calciumand phosphorous – account for 99.1 percent of what makes us.

The body, Bryson tells us, is "a universe of mystery". A very large part of what happens on and within it happens for reasons that we don't know – very often, no doubt, because there are no reasons, he says. For instance, in describing the workings of the eye, the cornea "as with almost every part of the body, it is a wonder of complexity". Tears come in three varieties: basal (for lubrication), reflex (against irritation such as smoke or onions) and emotional – we are the only creatures that cry from feeling, as far as we can tell, though why we do so is another of life's many puzzles.

Bryson gives us the history of fingerprints, antiseptic surgery, the development of insulin, penicillin and intrauterine devices, and of open-heart surgery, lobotomies and kidney transplants. He weaves in stories of the astonishing characters who have been figuring out humans.

For instance, in the 1930s John H. Gibson sought to oxygenate blood to make open-heart surgery possible. "To test the capacity of blood vessels deep within the body to dilate or constrict, Gibbon stuck a thermometer up his rectum, swallowed a stomach tube. And then had icy water poured down it to determine its effect on his internal body temperature."

There are myriad examples of medicine gone wrong. United States Founding Father and esteemed surgeon Benjamin Rush, during a yellow fever epidemic, "bled hundreds of victims and was convinced that he had saved a great many when in fact all he did was fail to kill them all. Part of the problem", Bryson explains, "was that he believed that the body contains about twice as much blood as it actually does and that one can remove up to 80% of that notional amount without ill effect".

The reader is carried from outside to inside from up to down and from miraculous operational efficiencies to malignant mayhem when things go awry. Cancer, as one expert opines, "is the price we pay for evolution. If our cells couldn't mutate, we would never get cancer, but we also couldn't evolve". There are more than 200 cancers, and age is usually a major factor, with an 80-year-old 1000 times as likely as a teenager to get it.

The brain holds "200 exabytes of information, roughly equal to the entire digital content of today's world". The heart beats some 3.5 billion times in a lifetime. The bones are "stronger than reinforced concrete, yet light enough to allow us to sprint". The lungs process 4000 gallons of air a day.

"You are pretty seriously perforated with two to five million hair follicles and perhaps twice that number of sweat glands." And you are "exquisitely fine-tuned" with nerve receptors to detect movement of 0.00001 millimetres.

You grow 25 feet (7.66 metres) of hair in a lifetime. You host 40,000 species of microbes and when you kiss you transfer some 1 billion bacteria to your beloved, an action thought to be helpful in sampling the partner's histocompatability genes involved in immune response.

In a lifetime you eat 60 tonnes of food, extracting the nutritional necessities and then producing seven tonnes of you-know-what. We produce enough flatulence that before laparoscopic insertion of carbon dioxide became the norm, patients undergoing anal surgery sometimes literally exploded.

And so on and so on. Men, apparently, don't think about sex every seven seconds but about 19 times a day, about the same rate as thinking about food. Sex acts average about nine minutes ("in Britain at least") and men burn 100 calories during such an encounter, women 70. Older people have an increased risk of heart attack for three hours after coitus, though the risk "was similarly raised for shovelling snow, and sex is more fun than shovelling snow".

Thus the brainy Bryson balancing act, presenting the finer points of flesh and bones but in a readable and diverting manner for the layman. And, at 386 pages with illustrations, the book doesn't cost an arm and a leg.


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