The Knowledge

Tonight was another Skeptics in the Pub event, inviting Dr Lewis Dartnell (author of Life in the Universe: A Beginner’s Guide, My Tourist Guide to the Solar System) to talk about the his new book, The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch.

Maybe it was an asteroid impact, a nuclear war, or a viral pandemic. Whatever the cause, the world as we know it is over and humanity must start again. What would you need to know to not only survive in the immediate aftermath, but avert another Dark Ages and accelerate the rebooting of civilisation from scratch? The Knowledge is a grand thought experiment on the behind-the-scenes fundamentals of how our world works, and what drove the progression of civilisation over the centuries.

Lewis only had 45 minutes so had to skip a number of the chapters in his book but there was still enough food for thought, such as how long someone could feed themselves after an apocalyptic disaster if they had a whole supermarket to themselves. Apparently Lewis’ local establishment would keep him going for 55 years – or 63 if you include pet food.

I’ve also learnt how to start a fire using a smoke detector and some wire wool. I did ask if this should be a “don’t try this at home” activity but he disagreed and encouraged us to definitely give it a try.

That’s the grace period, as Lewis called it, where you’re having a grim time just staying alive. After that, at some point you need to make an effort to start again. To show how hard it would be to build anything at all, he referenced “I, Pencil”, an essay describing the many people that are needed in the manufacture of such a basic implement from its base constituents (wood, lacquer, graphite, iron, rubber, pumice, wax, glue).

Of course, the difficulty level of civilisation’s recovery depends on why it is in the state it is – ‘best’ scenario is a pandemic that wipes out vast numbers of people but leaves everything initially intact. Not so great would be the aftermath of global nuclear war but then the thought exercise probably gets less enjoyable when even growing food that’s safe to eat is a major challenge. 

As you can see, I splashed out £13 and picked up a signed copy to peruse.


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