Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Knowledge - How to Rebuild the World from Scratch

I had seen and immediately purchased "The Knowledge - How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch" by Dr. Lewis Dartnell.  I was so impressed with it and deemed it such a valuable book that I requested an interview with him, which he kindly granted.

I shall write my own review of the book later, but wanted to first post the interview:

1.  Before we discuss the book you have a very interesting background.  You are only 32, you have a PhD, you are a published author, and you have a bit of a television and radio career as well.  Can you tell my audience about yourself and how you came about this unique position in your life so early?

Yeah, I like to keep myself occupied! But all of those activities are related and build on each other. I’m a research scientist at the University of Leicester, working in the field of astrobiology and the search for microbial life on Mars, but also really enjoying science writing and public outreach.

2.  Tell us about the book.

My new book, ‘The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch’ is a thought experiment on all the behind-the-scenes fundamentals that underpin our civilisation, and the prerequisites for it progressing over centuries of history. I take a post-apocalyptic world as the starting point, and ask what is the critical scientific and technological knowledge you’d want in order to rebuild our world from scratch, and how you might even accelerate that reboot second time around.

3.  The book is unique, but also very interesting and timely.  What prompted you to write it?

I certainly don’t think the world as we know it is about to collapse, although humanity does clearly face some grave challenges in the immediate future. But I have been fascinated for a long while by thinking about how you could rebuild civilisation if you ever needed to. This thought experiment could also be rephrased to the essentials you’d need to start from scratch if you accidentally fell through a time-warp to 10,000 BC, or perhaps crash-landed on an uninhabited Earth-like planet.

4.  Who should read the book?

Anyone who is curious about how the world around us actually works, and how it came to be created! I think there’s a growing feeling of disconnect between all of us in the modern, developed world and the basic processes and principles that support us; things we just take for granted nowadays.  As I say, The Knowledge isn’t really about the apocalypse at all - that scenario is just a way of holding up a mirror to our own society - and I hope that after reading the book people come away with an appreciation of how things work and a greater sense of satisfaction with all that humanity has achieved over the ages.

5.  Going over the book it is apparent you are not merely an academic or theoretician.  I presume you've had some hands on experience either in mechanics, a lab, or your dad teaching you how to change oil, etc?

You’re right there, my father was an aeronautical engineer and fixed jumbo jets for a living. But I’ve never been particularly good with my hands myself. During the research for The Knowledge, though, I made sure I got some direct, hands-on experience of a lot of the material so that I could write about it properly. For example, I made a steel tool for myself - a knife - working with hammer and anvil in a blacksmith’s forge and the author portrait was created by mixing together rudimentary silver chemistry and using a primitive single-lens camera.

6.  There is also a lot of history cited in the book, citing when different technologies were invented by different civilizations.  Did you have to research this or did you have this historical knowledge from the normal course of your studies?

Sure, alongside ensuring I got first-hand experience of many of the practical skills described I also made sure that I kept rooting possibilities I talked about right back to actual historical examples of similar circumstances. So we look at human ingenuity during the Second World War in keeping civilian automobiles running without gasoline or diesel, how POWs constructed rudimentary radios out of nothing more than scavenged junk, how Japan industrialised in a matter of decades, and the repercussions in Europe of the Black Death.  All of this came from my own library research and interviewing experts - my primary research in astrobiology is a little far removed from this area.

7.  The scope of the book is potentially huge, and I imagine you had to be quite selective as to what to put in the book, leaving a lot of things on the floor (for example I was curious how to make toothpaste, but it wasn't in the book).  Were there other items you would have liked to have cover, but couldn't because it would have made the book prohibitively lengthy?

Yes, absolutely, the trick for The Knowledge (and a constant source of anguish for me as a writer!) was in deciding what stuff to leave out rather than what could be included. The Knowledge is a popular science book, and so naturally it focusses on science and technology, and I do genuinely believe that the material included would be the most vital information for rebuilding a civilisation from the ground-up. Clearly for a stable, flourishing society you also need law and order, governance, trade, economics, mathematics, and so on, but you can’t also cover all of this in appropriate detail in a single book of 300 pages. The Knowledge also makes little mention of preserving art, literature and music in case of global catastrophe. The argument I made was that while the laws of physics and requirements for human survival are universal - it doesn’t matter where or when you are - the same is not true for art. Clearly art is important, and I find certain oil paintings and piano concertos as achingly beautiful as the next person, but civilisation won’t be held back 500 years without them, whereas knowledge of electricity or germs would make an enormous difference during recovery. Post-apocalyptic survivors will create their own artistic and literary expressions that will have significance to them.

8.  One things I found lacking in the book was the lack of precise measurements.  3 parts this, 2 parts that, boil at 100 Celsius, etc.  Failing myself abysmally at cooking the most rudimentary of meals, it would take some considerable trial and error even with the book to recreate some of these technologies.  Was there a reason such precision was left out?

This was primarily a stylistic decision, to be honest - reading a technical manual overloaded with lists of precise directions and accurate quantities would be agonisingly boring to actually read as a popular science book. And, of course, for most readers today thumbing through the book on their couch they’d never need to know such level of detail anyway. Having said that, knowing the ingredients for making gunpowder is 99% of the solution and it wouldn’t take much trial and error to hit upon the optimised ratio. You can only fit so much into a single book, and the guiding principle was always to provide the condensed kernels of the most crucial knowledge that would then expand under investigation. I’d never pretend that actually rebooting civilisation won’t be a long, hard slog, but I do think that the guidelines provided in The Knowledge would make an enormous difference during the recovery.

9.  Tell us about the other books you've published.

My first book is very much based on my primery academic research in astrobiolgy. It’s called ‘Life in the Universe: A Beginner’s Guide’ and presents an introduction to the current state-of-play in our search for life beyond the Earth, covering the basics in microbiology, biochemistry, geology, planetary sciences, and astronomy, and explaining the latest cutting-edge discoveries. My second book is an illustrated children’s book with Dorling Kindersley, called ‘My Tourist Guide to the Solar System’. Imagine in the future you could book a holiday with your parents, but rather than going to Florida or France you could go anywhere in space. Where are the tourist hot-spots on the other planets and moons, what are the unmissable sights and unique adventure activities, and which souvenirs must you remember to bring home?

10.  Though not related to the The Knowledge, because of your relative youth and abnormal accomplishments, do you have any advice or recommendations to the younger generations either in high school, college, or about to start their careers?

‘Abnormal’ - errr, thanks…! I spend a lot of time talking to school children and those just starting in their careers (part of my fellowship is in science outreach and public communication) and the advice I always give is to simply follow your heart. Pick your favourite subject to study at university and then try to step into a career in something you really care about. Of course it’ll be hard work, and you won’t always be happy or where you want to be, but if you enjoy what you do you’ll find it comes so much easier!

You can find more of Dr. Dartnell's work here and his website here.


Anonymous said...

baking soda tastes like crap but was used to brush your teeth long before toothpaste was invented for the masses

Kristopher B. said...

Errrmmmm ... why would anyone buy the Kindle version of this book?

Kind of hard to use a Kindle with no electricity ... just sayin' ...