I thought I wasn’t someone given to numbers. What always interested me was how we interpreted these numbers, statistics. After all, aren’t facts a matter of interpretation? Do they even exist unless we put meaning into them?
But I got deeply influenced by numbers and size, both big and small, ever since I started digging into Bill Bryson’s writings. I do not know how other readers read him. But with me, each fact told through a number/size was a revelation of its own kind. It often felt as if the truckloads of information Bill dug out through mind-numbing research made my mind hurtle towards one deeper realisation: we humans know so little about our own bodies! Well, almost nothing.
This post will fall miserably short if I get down to describing what I exactly mean by that. I would rather take you through a few of them that prompted this post.
Right at this moment, all the forces on this universe have somehow conjured up an unimaginable number of cells and all those have congregated at one place to make you look like what you are. Well, that number is 50 trillion cells. This does not include the cells lost during development. What’s even more interesting is (whether we know it or not), each of these cells “knows exactly what to do to preserve and nurture you from the moment of conception to your last breath”.
We talk so much about this thing called DNA—a nonreactive, chemically inert molecule. We can’t live without it. But DNA itself is unalive. Did you know we have as much as 20 million kilometres of it all bundled up inside us? If you somehow weave all this into a single strand, Bill says, it would be “enough to stretch from the Earth to the moon and back, not once or twice but again and again”!
So that means, those of us who will never make a trip to the moon, need not fret. We have it in us to make the trip anyway, just that we don’t know how to go about it.
About proteins: we think we know a lot about proteins and are even adept at producing synthetic ones. But “we have understood only 2% of the total 200,000 different types of protein labouring away inside us”!
Surprised? Don’t be. We know very little about human prehistory, anyway. But, here’s how little: The genetic variability that keeps this world thriving came from several billion humans, or “humanlike” creatures as Bill likes to put it, who lived since the dawn of time. So far, for all the scientific progress we brag about, we have understood our own prehistory based on the remains, “often exceedingly fragmentary, of perhaps 5,000 individuals”!
That does tell us there is so much more to know and there will be still a lot more we will never know.
That includes our skin cells too—they are all dead! “In fact, every inch of your surface is deceased. If you are an average-sized adult, you are lugging around over 2 kg of dead skin, of which several billion tiny fragments are sloughed off each day,” writes Bill.
That’s a tragedy, not because a huge part of the human body is so dead, but because despite the deadness of it, we humans have divided the world based on the colour of it, colonised many pockets of the world and even flagged off genocidal ceremonies.
It’s high time we loved this marvellous configuration we are housed in. It’s high time we respected it. It’s high time we stopped abusing it, humiliating it and discriminating others’ just because of the colour of it or the shape of it. It’s high time we stopped taking it for granted.
For it is no less a wonder than those millions of other worldly ones we can’t stop raving about!