The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch by Lewis Dartnell

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Paperback review by Annabel

A large part of the novel Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (which I reviewed here) was set twenty years after a global flu pandemic had wiped out 99% of the world’s population. Although there was drama typical of dystopian post-apocalyptic tales, there was a forward-looking positivity about this novel as the less warlike folk got on with getting things going again.

In any post-disaster scenario, real or imagined, you can only survive for so long by scavenging. Once food and fuel reserves are gone, you could quickly revert back being a Stone Age hunter-gatherer unless you learn how to farm, generate local power, harness the power of the forge and so on.

Lewis Dartnell’s book, The Knowledge, aims to be a one-book reboot manual to point you in the right direction to regain these gateway technologies.

In the first sections, Dartnell discusses some scenarios and the consequences of losing all the technology and accoutrements of modern living that we take for granted. Everything starts to decay and ‘the survivors have nothing more than a grace period’. Dartnell reminds us that, ‘human knowledge is collective, distributed across the population’. Skilled technicians are often only skilled at the detailed parts of their jobs. Technology is like the tip of an iceberg.

But the most valuable resource to gather before it is lost is knowledge. Books may have been destroyed by unchecked fires ripping through cities and towns, turned to illegible mush by the pulse of flood waters, or may simply have rotted on the shelves from the humidity and rain blowing in through broken windows. Although far more extensive, our civilisation’s paper-based writings are less permanent than the clay tablets, rough papyrus rolls of parchment of earlier cultures.

You always think that books will survive – not necessarily, it appears. Never will you need a library more than post-disaster.

In subsequent chapters, the author considers key technologies individually. Looking at agriculture, he explains about the value of heritage varieties of seeds which breed true, why crop rotation is necessary, whether you can process human manure (‘crap to crop’!) and how you can build a ploughshare.

One of the most fascinating chapters for me was on medicine and diseases, ‘understanding basic sanitation and hygiene will do more than any other single piece of information to save your life in the immediate aftermath’. This primarily means hand-washing – with home-made soap. In a previous chapter, Dartnell taught us how to make soap from basic principles.

Some chemicals are really essential to a recovering society. Lime, or calcium carbonate, is one; used in agriculture, sanitation, smelting, glass-making, construction and more. Pyrolising wood is also another essential to learn – to get turpentine, creosote, wood alcohols etc. Dartnell takes us through the science in a simple way to explain how they were first produced and could be again, together with original illustrations from historic texts.

Possibly the most scientific chapter in the book is also the most contentious – that on advanced chemistry. It looks at making nitrates. They are important fertilisers, essential for photography, as feedstock chemicals for other processes, but they are also the basis of many an explosive – which you would only use for mining, never for more dastardly purposes. Dartnell argues thus:

In any case, scientific knowledge is neutral: it is the purpose to which it is applied that is either good or evil.

However, as he also makes clear, it took the industrial revolution and the scaling up of smaller processes to make the quantities needed in the 1800s and beyond. It will take years to get to this stage of production of any of these chemicals post-disaster.

The physical and mathematical considerations of knowing where and when you are in a world that has lost its electronics makes for an interesting diversion, before Dartnell’s ‘finale’. This is a new renaissance in science – the industrial revolution mark II, achieved through applying scientific method that will allow a new technological age to be ushered in. This philosophical closing may be a little dry compared with the hands-on fun of previous chapters, but it’s no less important.

The book is completed by references, notes and further reading, listing the pertinent books and papers to search for to get the detail of everything introduced in The Knowledge.

It’s this combination of popular science book and survival manual that makes this book a winner. Many who would never normally read the former will happily dive into the latter and find it fascinating. The potted history of science and its enabling technologies couched in the language of Scrapheap Challenge and James May’s solo programmes will appeal to others, helping us to all find our inner engineer. It’s reassuring that with the help of this book, you could reinvent the wheel if you needed to. The Knowledge has earned its permanent place on my bookshelf just in case…

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books. She would enjoy getting to grips with bucket chemistry, but sincerely hopes she’ll never to need to.

Lewis Dartnell, The Knowledge (Bodley Head: London, 2014), Vintage paperback 2015. 978-0099575832, 352 pp., paperback.

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