My So-called Life: A short history of everything else

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Bill Bryson's popular science book,
A Short History of Nearly Everything, recently won the Aventis prize, which honours the best in science writing. However, while it is certainly a galloping, charming and informative read, there are many omissions and errors, some of which I hope to correct here today.

Bill Bryson's popular science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, recently won the Aventis prize, which honours the best in science writing. However, while it is certainly a galloping, charming and informative read, there are many omissions and errors, some of which I hope to correct here today.

What comes down rarely goes up again, judging by the pile of stuff - books, odd slippers, old letters, swimming-goggles, trunks still wrapped in towels - that sits like a small mountain at the bottom of our stairs, and which we have been blithely leaping over for several years in the hope of what exactly? That the pile will one day build up sufficient positive charge to march itself upstairs and put itself away?

Anyway, this rule holds in most instances, except when it comes to long car journeys with small children, in which case what has gone down will almost certainly come up, abundantly and with vigour and to the permanent detriment of your car's interior fragrance, such that no one can ever travel in it again without gagging and then saying: "You know what, I think I'll take the bus." A child's ability to do this to a car may account for the evolution of The Magic Tree, which grows abundantly down the garage and in mini-cabs, and so does not need to be sung about by Sting.

Homo habilis ("handy man") was named by Louis Leakey and colleagues in 1964 and was so called because, while primitive in nature and more chimpanzee than human, it was one of the first hominoids to use tools, albeit very simple ones. "Homo habilis is believed to have emerged out of the mists two million years ago," writes Bryson, "and then to have vanished mysteriously about a million years ago." However, one prime specimen still survives and can be seen most nights from 4.30pm sprawling on our sofa, scratching his armpits, smelling his own feet, and readily demonstrating his mastery over such simple tools as The Bottle Opener, The Remote Control and The Opening Flap on the box of Celebrations: a sparkling selection of the biggest names in chocolate in miniature. The language skills of Homo habilis are, indeed, very basic - no more than grunts. Did you remember to get the car taxed? "Eh." Have you eaten all the Celebrations? "Eh." Melinda Messenger is coming round later and she really wants to shag you senseless while not getting in the way of the football. She'll just lie down very quietly on the rug "...eh?"

Homo habilis major may be accompanied by Homo habilis minor, whose language skills are similarly basic. Have you done your homework? "Eh." Could you take your swimming stuff upstairs? "Eh." I'd like to give you £1,000 to spend on whatever you like while insisting you stay up till midnight eating cake and chips. "...eh?"

Homo habilis major and Homo habilis minor can, on occasion, be capable of more sophisticated communication skills, most notably when it comes to passing wind, which not only has to be announced - "here comes a good one" - but then rated for volume, duration and odour. Anyone who has lived with a Homo habilis may well feel they have nothing left to learn about highly combustible gases and big bangs.

What is a black hole, really? A black hole, really, is the bottom third of the laundry basket which seems to have permanently trapped many items, most of which you can no longer remember owning, it's been so long since you've dared go down there. The black hole, which swirls with anti-matter of a distinctly germ-laden and most unsavoury nature, can certainly be observed directly, it's just that no one in their right mind would want to.

Einstein's Special and General Theory of Relatives says that the probability of your relatives visiting when you are least expecting them and you really want to be alone is extremely high, if not inevitable. Einstein's Special and General Theory of Relatives also says it's a mistake to let Homo habilis minor do anything but grunt at your mother or father as he might very well say to his grandmother, in all Homo habilis, tiny-brained innocence: "Why is your face so cracked?" while adding, to his grandfather: "When are you doing to be dead, do you think?" Einstein's Special and General Theory of Relatives further states that your chances of being mentioned in either will diminishes according to how often such remarks are made.

Newton's three laws of motion state, very baldly, that a thing moves in the direction in which it is pushed; that it will keep moving in a straight line until some other force acts to slow or deflect it; and that every action has an opposite reaction. These laws, however, are only partly true. You may, for example, urge Homo habilis minor to kiss his grandmother, perhaps even propelling him forward with a gentle shove between the shoulder blades with a swinging baseball bat. However, on faced with his grandmother's cheek, Homo habilis minor may very well veer off in an entirely different direction through a force entirely of his own and then, jumping over the pile of stuff, race upstairs and hide under the bed.

That said, every action does have an opposite reaction, as anyone who has ever tried to hang on to a six-year-old long enough to apply suncream well knows.

The Ross Law of Bread seems, inexplicably, to have been omitted from Bryson's book altogether. Put at its most simple, this states that the more crumbly the bread, the harder the butter. This can be expressed as the equation CB+HB=TWT (where TWT equals Total Waste of Time, as all you have is a plate of bready lumps which are no good to anybody). Bread from a health-food shop is particularly susceptible to this law, and may even start to crumble at the sight of the advancing butter. In this instance, it is CB+HB=TWT(2).

Surface tension is created when you are not allowed to switch over to Terms of Endearment on the other side or go anywhere near The Opening Flap on the box of Celebrations for fear you will take more than your share. Surface tension can sometimes not be about surface at all, and can lead to a trial separation and then divorce.

Homo habilis (major), a last note: he is not that handy, as recently demonstrated by his attempt to hang an Ikea ready-made blind which promptly fell off. It has yet to be re-hung, providing further proof, if it were needed, that what comes down rarely goes up again (see first point above).

d.ross@independent.co.uk

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