The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch

Posted: May 14, 2015 in Book reviews
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By Lewis Dartnell


It’s the end of the world; a giant meteor’s just slammed into the Pacific, nations are throwing nukes at one another, and that nasty cough everyone seems to have turns out to be a lot more serious than anyone thought, but it’s ok, people have survived, so civilisation will rise again, won’t it?

This is the intriguing premise behind The Knowledge, written by academic Lewis Dartnell. Surviving the apocalypse is easy, rebooting civilisation on the other hand will be a lot trickier, especially for modern humans who’ve become increasingly disconnected from the traditions and technology that led them to the 21st Century. Sure we can change a lightbulb, and install new apps on our smart phone, but would we be able to undertake large scale farming, to forge steel or build a hydroelectric power plant from scratch? Dartnell argues that, despite all our supposed cleverness, and despite all the technological marvels that will be left behind after the apocalypse, if we’re not careful humanity will slide back into the dark ages and it might be centuries before we even come close to another industrial revolution, let alone jet planes and computers.

In many ways the post-apocalyptic conceit is an excuse to examine the technology that underpins our modern day civilisation and how it developed, and it’s amazing to realise that much of what we think of as advanced is rather a compilation of centuries old technology combined together in new ways; take the ubiquitous car engine which, as Dartnell points out, doesn’t contain much that’s particularly new, for example crankshafts were being used by the Romans, and camshafts have been around almost as long.

As a crash course in the details behind farming, mechanics, electronics and chemistry there’s good stuff here, and I learned quite a few things I never knew before, most especially I learned that after the apocalypse I’d probably be screwed, because rebooting society sounds like really hard work! Just synthesising ink and making paper sounds tricky, let alone building your own printing press. So maybe I’ll just loot a Ferrari and take over an abandoned supermarket instead.

A lot of the most intriguing stuff is in the opening chapters specifically talking about various apocalypses and their initial aftermaths, It’s a bit of a slow read in places, and at times Dartnell’s explanations went a little over my head, but on the whole this is an interesting book that’s pretty much pitched spot on for the layperson and so I’ll be keeping this in my bookcase…just in case!

  1. Mim says:

    I have friends who can spin and I know how to knit, so I’d be sorted for woollies. After that, I’d be a bit rubbish, but then no-one is going to have to do it singlehandedly, I’m sure someone else can make batteries or something…

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