The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch
by Lewis Dartnell http://www.amazon.com/The-Knowledge-...Lewis+Dartnell
Lewis Dartnell's "The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch" is a strange and interesting thought experiment. If most of the modern industrial world were to suddenly disappear due to, say, an asteroid hit, an ultra-virulent disease or nuclear war, what information would the survivors need to rebuild our technology?
Without a "reboot manual," Mr. Dartnell worries, there would be a dark age many centuries long while humans slowly rediscovered how to make everything from glass to antibiotics to carbon steel, if they ever did. Is "The Knowledge" really that reboot manual? Well, no. One couldn't hand this book to a group of "Mad Max"-style nuclear refugees and expect them to re-create Manhattan Island, or Manhattan, Kan., for that matter. But then, a catalog of the entire world's technological knowledge would be a lot to expect from a 340-page book. Nonetheless, "The Knowledge" is a fascinating look at the basic principles of the most important technologies undergirding modern society.
One horsepower An improvised carriage in the region of Kakheti, Georgia. Getty Images
By Lewis Dartnell
Penguin Press, 340 pages, $27.95
Some readers might have a hard time with the first few chapters, where Mr. Dartnell sets the apocalyptic scene and ponders the "best" way for the world to end (a viral pandemic, which would leave the most infrastructure behind). There are dark and depressing descriptions of dead utility grids, rotting cities, "Lord of the Flies" societal structures and weather patterns gone amok. But once past that, the book becomes brighter and more engaging. The exploration of how one technology meshes with another, combined with a light coating of technical minutiae, makes "The Knowledge" illuminating.
Most of us, for example, are likely unaware of the importance that calcium carbonate has in daily life. Also known as lime, calcium carbonate is the compound that makes up limestone and is used in agriculture to adjust the acidity of fields and make them more fertile. Furthermore, Mr. Dartnell explains, it is the chemical feedstock for a myriad of industrial products. If one heats lime in a kiln, calcium oxide, or quicklime, is produced. Add water to quicklime and you'll get slaked lime, useful for treating wastewater and, most important, making cement. Mix potash (made from wood ash) to the slaked lime and you'll obtain sodium hydroxide, or lye, which can be used to make soap.
To produce this stuff yourself, the book provides a basic recipe—"You can roast limestone in the center of a large wood fire in a pit"—as well as a more efficient approach: "The best low-tech option . . . is the mixed-feed shaft kiln: essentially a tall chimney stuffed with alternating layers of fuel and limestone. . . . A shallow pool of water is needed for slaking the quicklime, and you could use a salvaged bathtub. The trick is to keep adding quicklime and water so that the mixture hovers just below boiling." That's a bit light on particulars, certainly, but it provides as much detail on lime manufacturing as most pre-apocalyptic readers would care to know.
The same can be said of "The Knowledge's" explanations of cloth making, movable-type printing and mechanized transport. Refined petroleum, for example, is unlikely to be available after "the Fall," so Mr. Dartnell recommends wood gas instead. The gas produced by burning wood in the low-oxygen environment inside a sealed drum is rich in hydrogen and methane and can be used to power modified engines. In fact, Mr. Dartnell notes, wood-gas vehicles were used for civilian transport in Europe during World War II.
Perhaps the hardest achievements to re-create would be those of modern medicine. Still, some, such as antibiotics, could be re-established relatively quickly. Apparently, DIY penicillin is a snap. Just "fill Petri dishes with a beef-extract nutrient bed . . . , smear across Staphylococcus bacteria picked out of your nose," and then wait a week for the dishes to get moldy. The ones with the smallest crusts of mold are the ones containing Penicillium fungus.
Despite its dire beginning, "The Knowledge" is a fun read full of optimism about human ingenuity. And if I ever see mushroom clouds on the far horizon, this might be a good book to reach for.
—Mr. Gurstelle's "Defending Your Castle—Build Catapults, Crossbows, Moats, Bulletproof Shields, and More Defensive Devices to Fend Off the Invading Hordes" comes out in June. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/...?mg=reno64-wsj