Book Review: ‘The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch’ by Lewis Dartnell

Thank you to both Netgalley and Random House UK for an advance reader copy in exchange for an honest review. 

If someone came up to me and said “Hi, here is an instruction manual to rebuild civilisation after collapse. You’re welcome!” guess how I’d react. There would be sarcasm and the little wizened skeptic that lives in my head would be having a field day. And I did approach this volume with an amount of skepticism. How can you boil down all of civilisation into one 250 page volume?

Being a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction I am no stranger to the thought experiment. The first ‘grown-up’ book I ever read was John Wyndham’s ‘Day of the Triffids’. My older sister was assigned this novel to read in high school and complained about a stupid novel in which stupid plants come to life and kill everyone. Not ideal for a thirteen year old girl, ideal for a eleven year old boy. Ever since then I have had a soft spot for apocalyptic fiction with stand-out favourites being ‘Earth Abides’, ‘The Walking Dead’ comics and the other works of Wyndham. So I have been part of this thought experiment for a while now.

And as my education has furthered into the sciences and gone into research, my environmentalism has increased and the knowledge of human activity with respect to the stability of the climate has caused these thought experiments to become more of a possible future reality. I believe it is within the realm of possibility that civilisation as we know it could collapse during my lifetime. The more I learn, the more I realise it would not take much at all to tip the scales into a decline in drastic decline in living standards.

It’s obvious that Lewis has thought extensively on this also. But he is infinitely more talented and had set himself the task to write an instruction manual to reboot civilisation. And despite approaching this work with complete skepticism, I come out the other side amazed and completely humbled by this work and it’s author. Lewis has achieved exactly what he has set out to do. This is a work that I would want in my hands in an apocalypse. The irony being that I have read this reviewer copy as an e-book, the most inaccessible method of transmission of data in a coming apocalypse. A part of me even feels that paper might not be robust enough nor last long enough to hold this wisdom.  I’d sleep better at night knowing that this was reproduced in stone buried in a sealed crypt somewhere far from any cities.

What Lewis offers isn’t a complete set of instructions (but some methods are described in great detail), but rather an overview of differing technologies such as agriculture, food preservation, basic and advanced chemistry, communications and more with specific methods and examples of the history of certain technologies and how to reboot these technologies from scratch. And Lewis admits that reproducing the historical progression of science and technology is not the most efficient reboot scenario, and that just having certain knowledge can hopefully leapfrog past certain stages and methods. He even suggests that several technologies that were adopted were inferior to abandoned competitors in hindsight and that a new civilisation should take advantage of this hindsight.

Lewis’ writing is succinct,accurate and informative. His ability to refine a concept down to one or two sentences that manages to convey exactly how a thing works and why it does what it does is astounding. This is what all educators and science communicators strive for and it seems like he as a great talent. When he was explaining concepts that I have previously learnt I was amazed at the clarity of which he would convey the ideas. How easily can you explain how refrigerators work using the laws if thermodynamics?

What Lewis presents is truly an astounding work that actually does have the potential to achieve what it set out to do. I’d recommend this book for not only any post-apocalyptic fan, but anyone interested in science, technology and any curious person who likes to know why things work. I am now an instant fan of Lewis’ and I look forward to the publication of this book in April 2014. I’ll at least be buying a paper copy.

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