Our bodies are the best technology we’ve ever taken for granted, according to Bill Bryson’s 20th book, “The Body: A Guide for Occupants” ($30, Doubleday), which will be released Oct. 15. Having already covered topics such as nature, homes and linguistics, Bryson takes on life, death and everything in between. He spoke with contributor Stephanie Kanowitz about his reasons for writing the book and what he learned. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Where did the impetus for this book come from?
A: I’d always been fascinated by the human body — and my own in particular, because it’s kind of a miracle to me that after all these years of not looking after it terribly well, it’s still looking after me.
Q: Given all we’ve learned through medicine, much about us remains, as you say, “a universe of mystery.” Why is the human body so difficult to understand?
A: Because it’s so complex. We’re all made up of the very same elements that you would find in a pile of dirt. In a pile of dirt, all those things — copper and aluminum and oxygen and helium, all the little atomic elements — they just lie there; they don’t do anything. And yet somehow, here on Earth, some of them have come together to make life. We really barely understand a single cell, and in the human body, you’re talking about 39 trillion of them.
Q: You bust some commonly held myths by explaining that vitamin C has little effect on colds and that we use much more than 10 percent of our brains. What did you find most surprising?
A: The single most astounding thing I found was that if you took all your DNA and formed it into a single fine strand, it would stretch to Pluto. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a fact that blew me away more than that — that there’s enough of me or you or anyone else to stretch to Pluto. There’s 10 billion miles of DNA inside you. That just seems unbelievable. The surprise is not that there’s so much to understand about the body but that we understand as much as we do.
Q: Despite the complexity, most of the time, so much goes right.
A: The really extraordinary thing is there’s nothing in charge. There’s no sort of command center in your body. Everything that happens within you is just chemical reactions that are going on at the cellular level and just little molecules banging together and responding in a programmed way that’s chaotic and seemingly random. And yet, of course, the result is not just life but life that works incredibly well for the most part and works incredibly well for most of us for decades.
Q: Which body part or function did you find most fascinating?
A: The brain is the most extraordinary thing in the universe, and, again, all the more extraordinary when you think back that it’s made of 75 percent to 80 percent water, and the rest is just mostly fats and proteins. Yet look what it can do. Imagine getting all the premier scientists in the world together and giving them all the components that are in your brain, like giving them a couple liters of water and some fats and proteins, and asking them to make something that functions. They couldn’t make anything at all. Your mom made your brain in nine months without even thinking about it.
Q: “Dying is the last thing your body wants,” you wrote, but it does it, anyway. How have your thoughts about death been affected by writing this book?
A: I think you can go through a lot of your life pretending that you’re going to live forever and not think about it. But once you get to my time of life, once you get into your 60s, it’s pretty evident that you’re counting the years — so all the more reason to look after yourself. I would never have guessed that I would be this happy when I was old. There are certain satisfactions in getting old and feeling that you’ve done your job. You’ve produced your children, and if they’re getting on all right in the world, there’s this feeling of satisfaction with that. And the pressure is off in terms of life ambitions and all of that. I don’t know if it’s a psychological thing, if it’s a way of your body giving you a kind of payoff for all the hard work you’ve done to get to that point.
Q: Have you made any lifestyle changes as a result of the research?
A: I keep meaning to, but I’m in the middle of doing the book promotion tour, which means traveling. That means eating at all the wrong times and having airplane meals — and also you kind of feel at the end of a long day like you’re entitled to a drink. It’s very hard to be terribly virtuous, but I promise you as soon as I get all of this over with, I’m going to be absolutely a saint.
Bill Bryson will talk about the gore and glory of the human body at 7 p.m. Oct. 15 at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St NW, Washington; $40 for one ticket and one book or $50 for two tickets and one book.