If you were one of the few survivors of some sort of global apocalypse, what sort of knowledge would you need to rebuild a functioning society? Building an iphone isn’t exactly easy, and I think most of us would struggle with even more basic things like a lens (for science), a bike (for transportation), or a system of crop rotation that would keep sufficient nitrogen in the fields (essential for food), never mind something like a pottery kiln or steam engine.
The Knowledge has two goals. One, to teach future survivors how to rebuild a technologically advanced civilization, ideally advancing them as far as possible without creating things too difficult to repair or maintain (there’s no point in jets if you can’t repair jet engines). Two, to examine the fundamentals of science and technology that are very remote from most of us. To do so, Dartnell covers the basics of food, shelter, and water plus some more ambitious projects, explaining to the reader how to get an arc furnace going to work metals; recover antibiotics, X-rays, steam engines, and photography; and reproduce electricity and cement, trying to strike a balance between useful detail for the survivor and overwhelming a casual reader.
The book is interesting even given the low odds of an apocalypse (depending on time scale – just ask this documentary produced by Stephen Hawking), and it’s even better as a way to provoke a thought experiment on what you think should be passed on. Theory of atoms? Evolution? How to make cement or grow food? Chemistry? As a social scientist myself, something I wondered is the role of social invention in all this. Are there social technologies that should be passed on? The Knowledge mentions only physical tech, but what about how to design a democracy, the importance of trade, or a la Steven Pinker, how to restrain violence? Overall, though sometimes a bit heavy into the detail of engineering that I must confess I skimmed, the basics of the technologies that underpin our society have shaped the way we live, the way we talk, and the way we think. Dartnell does an excellent job highlighting all of these, from how we say o’clock to show we mean clock time, not solar time, to the advantages of golf cart batteries over car batteries. Read it to learn more about the basic technologies we use, but whether you read it or not it’s interesting to think about what you would want to pass on.