My latest book, What A Wonderful World: One Man's Attempt to Explain the Big Stuff, is about everything... from finance to thermodynamics, sex to special relativity, human evolution to holography. In researching and writing it, I began to appreciate more and more what a wonderful world we live in - one far more incredible than anything we could possibly have invented. Here are just some of the bonkers things I learnt...
1. You are 1/3 mushroom
We share 1/3 of our DNA with fungi (As if my Christmas card list wasn't long enough!)
2. 99.9% of the photons in the Universe are the "afterglow" of the big bang
Only a mere 0.1% of the photons, or particles of light, in the Universe is in the light of stars and galaxies. If you want to see the afterglow of the big bang, tune your TV between the stations. About 1 per cent of the static on the screen (above) is from the big bang. Before it was intercepted by your TV aerial, it had been travelling for 13.82billion years across space and the last thing it touched was the fireball of the big bang.
3. For 1.4million years - 60,000 generations - there was no improvement in the design of stone hand axes
Palaeoanthropologists call this the '1.4million years of boredom'. In our world of constant technological change, it's hard to believe that for most of human evolution nothing much changed.
4. J. J. Thomson got the Nobel Prize for proving the electron is a particle. His son got the Nobel Prize for proving it isn't
It must have been fun for the rest of the Thomson family at get-togethers. "It is." "It isn't!" "It is!"
5. The bodies and brains of Cro-Magnons, our ancestors in Europe, were between five to 10% bigger than ours
One idea is that our ancestors needed to be smarter and stronger because they lived in a world where they had to hunt food and fight off sabre-tooth tigers. Civilisation has made us soft...
6. Today your body will build about 300billion cells
That's more than there are stars in our Milky Way galaxy (No wonder I feel exhausted doing nothing!)
7. Money enables trade to time travel
If I have a fish and I want to trade it with you for a hand axe, I have to do it quickly or my fish will go rotten. But, if I exchange my fish for money, I can do my trade at any time in the future. Thus money multiplied the opportunities for trade.
8. Babies are powered by rocket-fuel
The very same mixture of hydrogen and oxygen that boost the Space Shuttle into space is the source of all our energy.
9. Brains aren't all they're cracked up to be
The juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea looking for a rock to cling to. On finding one, it no longer needs its brain. So it... eats it
10. To understand a Collateralised Debt Obligation Squared - one of the toxic investments that sunk the world economy in 2008 - requires reading
There is a strong suspicion that this was deliberate so that investors would not realise they had bought dodgy financial instruments.
11. Humans are one of only three species known to experience a menopause
The others are killer whales and short-finned pilot whales!
12. The crucial advantage that humans had over Neanderthals was... sewing
No one has ever found a Neanderthal needle. It is thought that the sewing of baby clothes may have given human babies a crucial 1% survival advantage in the ice age winters and this may explain why humans outcompeted Neanderthals (Not so simple... 2.5% of DNA of modern humans living outside of Africa is believed to be Neanderthal)
13. You are 99.75% alien
Only 0.25% of the genes operating in your body belong to your cells. The rest are in microorganisms hitching a ride. You are born 100% you. You die 99.75% alien...
14. We may be living in a giant hologram
Incredibly, physics appears to be able to describe the Universe as if there is one dimension less than there is. Just as a 3D object can be depicted as 2D hologram, we may in some sense be a 3D projection of a 2D underlying fundamental reality
You can find out more about these 14 bonkers things and many others in What A Wonderful World: One Man's Attempt to Explain the Big Stuff by Marcus Chown, Faber & Faber