Lewis Dartnell: “The Knowledge” | Talks at Google


BORIS: Today with us
is Dr. Lewis Dartnell. His newest book is– could
I have a copy of the book please– “The Knowledge,
How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch.” So it’s like when I was
pitched by the publishers, hey, you should have Lewis come
and give a talk at Google. I was looking at what is
this, “The Knowledge?” There’s a lot of knowledge
and all that stuff. And then I read a description
which says– here, I’ll read it for you. So maybe it was an asteroid
impact, a nuclear war, or a viral pandemic. Whatever the cause, the world,
as we know it has ended. And you and the other
survivors must start again. What key knowledge
would you need to not only survive in
the immediate aftermath, but avert another dark ages
and accelerate the rebooting of civilization from scratch? Which I thought was an excellent
idea for a technology book, how to make the history
of technology more fun. Well, not fun really,
but it presents the history of technology
in a different way. And I think a lot of
people actually agree that the book is a great read. So just to quote
from “The Times,” “The Knowledge” is a “New
York Times” and “Sunday Times” best seller, and was also
awarded “The Times” New Thinking Book of the Year, or
from “The Wall Street Journal,” “The Knowledge” is
a fascinating look at the basic principles of the
most important technologies undergirding modern society. It’s a fun read full of optimism
about human ingenuity,” which is something that I liked. “Terrifically engrossing history
of science and technology,” “The Guardian.” “The ultimate
do-it-yourself guide to rebooting human
civilization,” “Nature.” So Dr. Lewis Dartnell is a UK
Space Agency research fellow at the University of Leicester. So this is a rocket
scientist here. He also holds an STFC,
Science in Society Fellowship, and alongside his
astrobiology research, writes regular science articles
in newspapers and magazines. He has appeared in TV shows
such as the BBC “Horizon,” “Wonders of the Universe,”
and documentaries on National Geographic,
Discovery, and History Channels. Please join me in welcoming
Lewis Dartnell to Google. LEWIS DARTNELL: Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Good afternoon everyone,
and thank you all very much for coming along to hear me. My name’s Lewis, as
you’ve just heard, and I’m a research fellow
based at the University of Leicester in the space
research center there. And my day job, what I do
when I’m not running off writing books is working
within astrobiology, which is a relatively new
field of science, all about extending what
we know about the origins and the survival limits
of life here on earth, and extending that to
the possibility of life on other planets– in
particular, our next door neighbor planet, Mars, where I
spend most of my time thinking, could terrestrial life tolerate
and survive the conditions on the surface of Mars? Or more importantly,
what tests could we design to put on a Mars Rover
and send to the Red Planet to try to detect
those signs of life, those so-called biosignatures. But something I’ve been
thinking about a lot more over the last two
or three years is on something completely
and utterly different. And let’s imagine that
this has actually happened. There’s been some kind of global
catastrophe, a doomsday event. And the vast majority
of humanity has died, and our civilization
has collapsed. But let’s say that some
people have survived. Let’s say that the room
we’re in here in Google has served as some kind
of hardened bunker, and we have survived the end
of the world as we know it. And we stumble outside
in an hour’s time and find ourselves in the
ruins of the civilization that came before us. Well, what now? What would you need to
know not just to survive in the immediate aftermath,
but to thrive in the long term? How could you go about
rebuilding a society for yourself, a
society from scratch? And what could
you do to actually accelerate the rebooting
of civilization, to recover all of the
science and technology that we have today? Could you navigate some
kind of shortcut route through that vast
interlinked network of scientific discoveries
and new technologies that they allow, and their new
scientific discoveries can make from applying new technology,
like the telescope and the microscope, to
find out new things? Could you navigate a shortcut
route through that network rather than meandering,
stumbling down blind alleys route that we took
the first time around? So could you
accelerate what took us perhaps 10,000
years the first time and squash that down to
perhaps a few generations or a few centuries
if you’re trying to recover from scratch
with hindsight, knowing what we know now? So in short, if we were to be
a community of survivors, what would be the one book
that you would want handed to you as a manual
for rebuilding the world from scratch,
to reboot civilization? And it should come
as no surprise. And that is the book
that I’ve tried to write called, “The Knowledge.” But I think I should
obviously come clean with you right at the beginning. I do not think the world
is actually about to end. I’m not coming from
the point of view of a survivalist or a prepper. I’m not talking
about survival skills or how you can skin badgers. I’ve come from the
scientific background. I’d be very
interested to explore, as a thought experiment, all of
the behind the scenes basics. What are the foundations to
support our modern world? What are the things
that we just take for granted in our everyday lives? How does all of that work? And importantly, how’d it
develop through history. What enables civilizations
to progress, and therefore, how could you try and accelerate
that process the second time around? And I think a very neat example
of the challenges that we would face trying to start
everything from scratch are presented in an essay
by Leonard Read called, “I, Pencil.” Now, the “I, Pencil” isn’t some
great new gadget coming out from Apple. It’s a story. It’s a narrative, told from
the point of view of a pencil, from this simplest
tool or implement that we’re ever likely
to interact with or use in our day-to-day lives. It turns out, there’s
not a single person on the planet that knows
how to make a pencil– no one person on the planet,
because of course, human knowledge is distributed
across the entire population from people that know how
to operate a timber mill, or mining metal ore
out of the ground, or refining the fuels that
we use to transport and move everything around. There’s no one person that
knows all the details of all of those parts. And it’s just the simplest
part of our everyday lives. So imagine multiplying
that amongst all the higher technology that we
rely upon today. And the thought experiment
that I’m talking about here, about how to go right
back from scratch and preserve the most
valuable knowledge that you could has been touched
upon through the years. There’s nothing truly
original or novel about what I’m talking about here. I’m sure many of you would all
know of things like the Global Village Construction Set,
or The Toaster Project, which is run by a guy
called Thomas Thwaites, who also lived in London. So I interviewed him
when I was researching for “The Knowledge.” And he tried to make a
toaster from scratch. And I don’t just mean buying
components and screwdriving them together. I mean going underground,
there is an iron mine, and coming out with
some rust colored rocks and trying to smelt them in
his back garden and a dustbin. And what he produced was this
grotesquely beautiful toaster at the end, which never worked. The first time he
plugged into the mains, it almost caught fire. A great big puff of magic
smoke came out the top. And it never worked. But that’s the point
of the project, to demonstrate just how hard
even the simple things we take for granted would be if
you had to make or do them yourself from scratch. And perhaps the earliest
example dates all the way back to the 1750s when the
very earliest encyclopedia writers, people
like Denis Diderot, were trying to make a
genuine effort to write down the sum total of human knowledge
that was known at that time. They tried to write the
total book, the book that contained everything. And Diderot, in fact,
explicitly considered his duty in compiling and
writing this encyclopedia was to serve as a
store of knowledge. If civilization
were to collapse, you would want to store
the most vital knowledge and protect it as a
seed, as a kernel, so you could then
rebuild again afterwards. Back in the 1750s, people
were much more aware of how even great civilizations
can collapse like Rome, and Greece, and Egypt. And perhaps we’re a little
bit more arrogant today at how vulnerable
civilizations can be. And so the major themes that
I researched and wrote about. These are [INAUDIBLE]
the chapters of the book. Talking about things
from agriculture and how so few of us today
have any real idea about how to walk out on muddy field with
a handful of seed and make food come back out of that field
before the winter draws in and you starve to
death, or talking about different
materials and substances. If you just reach
into your pocket now and pull out
all the things you might find in there
from coins, to gadgets, or different devices,
even basic stuff, like how do you get metal
to come out of rock, out of the ore? How many people really
know how to do that anymore and yet, think how vital
materials like metals really are? And doing the talk,
I’ll skip through some of these other
areas of medicine, and power, and communication. But actually, the chapter that
I found most satisfying, again, as a mini thought experiment
to research and write about was this penultimate
chapter, time and place. And again, the thought
experiment for this might be imagine you
wake up from a coma, or you stumble out
of a cryogenic pod, or you’ve fallen
through a time warp, and you find yourself
somewhere on the earth at some point in the future. But you have no idea where
you are or when you are. So what simple
observations can you make? How can you work
from first principles to calculate where on the planet
you are, what address you are, what latitude and
longitude you’re at. But also, when you are,
not just the time of day, not if it’s at lunch time. You can build a sundial
relatively easily. But what is the date? What day of the year is it? How could you reconstruct
the calendar from scratch or even work out
what year it might be 10,000 years in the
future from observing things around you? And again, these aren’t
frivolous exercises. Being able to work out
where you on the planet is the absolute essence, is the
prerequisite for navigation, and exploring the
oceans, and trading. And being able to track your
progress through the seasons and using the calendar is
an absolute prerequisite for agriculture,
and making sure you put your seeds in the
ground at the right time, and take them out at the
right time for harvest so you don’t starve to death. Boris, when do we run until? BORIS: Sorry? LEWIS DARTNELL: How
long is the talk? How long is this slot? BORIS: As much as you want. One hour. LEWIS DARTNELL: You don’t
really mean as long as you want, do you? [LAUGHTER] No, I’ve got about 45 minutes. I suddenly thought,
I probably should have checked that before
I launched myself in. But if we stay within
the kind of premise for thought experiments, this
post-apocalyptic world where most of the people
have suddenly died, but the stuff is
left lying around, you’d be afforded
a grace period. You wouldn’t have to work out
the very first morning when you wake up with a
hangover from the night before when the world,
as we know, has ended. You wouldn’t have to work
out agriculture for yourself immediately, because
you could scavenge and forage for what you need. And particularly
within food, today, we are exceedingly good at
preserving and stockpiling food. We create artificial winter. We exploit the gas laws to
make refrigerators and freezers to preserve food, and
particularly, the canning process. This food will remain
good for decades. So again, as a
thought experiment, I wanted to know,
if I was locked in an average supermarket,
how long could I survive for before I’d
either eaten all of the food or I’d gone off before I
could get around to eating it? And conveniently, the
average supermarket was the one just down
the road from where I live in North London. And I walked up and
down all the aisles, multiplying up all of
the food that was there, dividing it by the
amount you would need to eat per day to survive. And it turns out that
a single supermarket could keep you alive for
55 years, or 63 years, if you’re happy to eat all the
canned dog food and cat food, as well. There’s a vast reserve
of food lying around that you could keep
yourself going, you could coast upon,
dine out on the leftovers, whilst you work out
through trial and error how to do farming for yourself,
before that food runs out and it becomes a matter
of life and death. And obviously, beyond
food, drinking water is another absolute
requirement for a healthy life. So how can you apply
modern knowledge, modern understanding,
to know for a fact the water you’re
about to put your lips and drink is not
going to kill you? That doesn’t contain cholera,
or typhoid, or any other number of waterborne
diseases which have been the scourge of
humanity throughout history? And again, if you’re scavenging
through the abandoned supermarkets and
dead cities, you could get things
like kitchen bleach. And if you dilute kitchen bleach
enough– do not drink it neat. If you dilute kitchen
bleach enough, you can chemically
disinfect the water, and it’ll be safe to drink. You’re exploiting the
chemistry of chlorine in exactly the same way the
water coming out of the faucets is treated with
chlorine to disinfect and make it safe to drink. If you can’t find
any kitchen bleach, you can use swimming
pool chlorine. So sodium hypochlorite
or calcium hypochlorite will disinfect water for you. But actually, there’s
an even simpler way, a process called SODIS,
or solar disinfection, which has been touted by the
World Health Organization around the developing world
to break the disease cycle and stop hundreds of thousands
of people dying of diarrhea. And all you need to do is
fill an empty plastic bottle with water and
leave it in the sun. And because that
bottle is essentially constraining the water
to be very shallow, the ultraviolet rays
and the sunlight can shine straight through
and kill any pathogens that are in there. You can come back a day or
two later, drink that water, and know for a fact
that it’s safe to drink. Now, fire, as well, has
been an absolute foundation of society for millennia,
for thousands and thousands of years. But again, I suspect there’s
not many people in the room here, if you couldn’t
reach for a box of matches or for a lighter, could
you actually get a fire started for yourself? How many people know how
to rub sticks together to ignite a fire successfully? And we don’t just use fire
for cooking food, and killing germs, and keeping us warm. Civilization uses fire to take
the base stuff that we dig out of the ground and transform it
into the most useful substances and materials of history. We use fire to take
river mud, clay, and turn it into bricks
we use for building. We use fire to get metal
out of rock, out of the ore. And we use fire to drive
all of the crucial chemistry that our society depends
upon, like making artificial fertilizers that
feed over 2 billion people on the planet today. Our modern world is
as reliant on fire as a Stone Age family
huddled around the campfire. We’ve just hidden it behind
the scenes in our factories and power stations. But it’s still as critical. So how do you get a fire going? I’ve got a quick
video to show you, which we filmed for
the book coming out in hardback last year. And this is about how you
can use unusual combinations of everyday items to
start a fire if you can’t find matches or lighters. And this one is how we can use
a smoke detector or a fire alarm to start a fire, paradoxically. So the way that you start
a fire with a fire alarm, with a smoke detector,
is to pop off the back and take out the batteries
that you find inside. And specifically, the nine volt
batteries, which are special, because out of
the two terminals, the positive and next terminal,
both are at the same end. And if you also scavenge
from an abandoned supermarket or house some steel wool, you
can short circuit the battery through steel wool. Do not do this at home. But totally have a
go at this at home. And if you brush ever so
gently and then blow on it with any kindling, you can get
that metal to absolutely burst into flames. This isn’t trying newspaper
or kindling burning. That’s the metal itself
bursting into flames. And if you can crack the
trick– so obviously, what we’re exploiting
here is the principle of electrical resistance. You’re passing a current
through a very thin wire with very high resistance, so it
gets hot and burst into flames. If you can crack the trick of
getting a thin wire very hot and not burst into
flames, you’ve just invented the light bulb. It’s exactly what
Edison solved to exploit exactly the same principle. And so electricity,
as well, as it’s been a foundation of
our modern society. And what I try to do
throughout the book, throughout “The
Knowledge,” was to keep basing the things I’m
talking about on real world examples, not
arm-waving speculation, but occasions in history
where people have solved challenges and problems
in particular ways. And what we’re looking
at here is a city called Gorazde, which during
the mid-1990s in the Bosnian Serbian War, this city was
surrounded by the Army, and isolated, cut off
from rest of the world. And although NATO was able to
get food and medication dropped to them, they were cut off
of the electrical grid. They were thrown back
into the Middle Ages in the sense of this
component to our modern world. And so what the inhabitants
of Gorazde were able to do was scavenge and forage from
rubbish, junk just lying around their city. And doing junkyard
wars, but for real, they made these water
wheels, which they dunked into the river in
the fast-flowing stream tethered to the bridge here. And the crucial component
right in the middle of each of these water wheels, the thing
that converts that rotation into electricity, is an
alternator, a component you can scavenge
under the bonnet, under the hood of any
car or abandoned truck you find lying around,
and just jury rig stuff together to keep your
civilized lifestyle going. I think it’s an incredible
example of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of
just everyday people under challenging circumstances. This is the kind of
skills you’d want to try and apply to rebuilding
society again from scratch yourself after an apocalypse. But sooner or later, this grace
period will draw to an end. Things will run out, or
decay, or deteriorate, or you’ll just have used them
up without making them yourself. And particularly
with agriculture, the most important
plant in history have been these,
the cereal crops, and in particular, the first
three– wheat, rice, and maize, which have supported all of the
civilizations of Europe, Asia, and the Americas. And the dependence of humanity
throughout civilization, our dependence on
these cereal crops, it means that throughout
history, humanity has survived by
eating grass, just like our cows and our sheep. The cereal crops evolved as
fast-growing species of grass. They make an ideal plant
to eat in that sense. But we had a problem. The kernel of wheat is a
fabulous nugget of nutrition. But it’s hard and indigestible. So we need to break
down that grain to release nutrients to
be absorbed by our bodies. And the main inventions
through history that have helped with this
have been the Roman water wheel and the medieval windmill. These are obviously
ways of harnessing natural power sources,
hydropower and wind power. But the crucial components
of both of these is this pair of cylindrical
slabs, the millstones which turn over each other and
grind that grain into flour. This is a relic of Stone
Age technology right in the heart of the complex
mechanisms of the windmill here. And we take that
flour, and we cook it. We bake bread. And the heat of the fire
that we use for cooking makes the food tastes
nice, but more importantly, helps to break down that
nutrition so that we can absorb it into our bodies. So in a very real
sense, the millstone is like a technological
extension of our own molar teeth. And the oven we use for
baking bread, or the pot we use for boiling rice is
like an external predigestive system. Humanity doesn’t
have the benefit of four stomachs like a cow. We’re biologically
disadvantaged in that sense. So we’ve had to adopt technology
to enable us to live off fast-growing species of grass. Now again, I suspect
not many people would know where to go to pick
up some seed corn or some wheat that you can put in the
ground and grow and harvest. And so this is
where you would go. This is the Svalbard
Global Seed Vault. This is the front door. These are blast proof doors. This place could genuinely
survive a nuclear exchange. And the fact that it’s built
into the side of a mountain, away from the Arctic
Circle, means the permafrost of the mountain around it, that
even if the grid goes down, this thing would remain
naturally refrigerated for hundreds, if not
thousands of years. You would hope that
when you got here, someone had left the door key
under the mat at the front so you could open those doors. But this is designed to be
like a biological safe file, a genetic library of all of
the major crops we grow today. And this is exactly
where you want to go to get wheat, or
rice, or any other cereal crops or other crops that
you would need to reboot agriculture for yourself. If you don’t know
where Svalbard is, I’ve very helpfully
for you, provided the latitude and longitude
coordinates that you’d go to. And if you don’t know your
latitude and longitude coordinates, if you don’t know
what your address is right here, and therefore, what
direction to start heading in, turn to that time and
place chapter in the book. And I explain to you
from first principles, using stuff around you,
how you can determine exactly where you
are, and therefore, how to navigate to there. So as far as
possible, everything within “The Knowledge,”
everything within the book, interlinks to everything else. I don’t assume any prior
or external knowledge. I contain as far
as I can everything you’ll need in this one manual. I’ve skipped through
substances quite quickly. But in terms of software
design and technology, you’ll be familiar with
similar diagrams like this. They’re chains of
dependencies of to make this, you need that, which needs
this, which needs that, and how they link together to
build capability over time. And these are all
that the main things that you need to run a society,
and that we’ve relied upon and depended upon
through history. And the nodes, the hub of
the chemical capability of the substances
tree are things like lime and soda, which you
may not have even ever heard of, but they are the most
fundamentally important things that you rely upon day upon
day in our everyday lives without realizing. And I explain how to
make lime for yourself or soda for yourself and how
to use soda to make everything from paper, to soap, to glass,
how you start with glass, and then you can now grind
lenses to make lenses, to make telescopes
and microscopes, and use microscopes to discover
germs to stop you getting sick. So all of this,
links in together. There are ingredients and
ingredients and recipes in the book as to how to
do all that basic chemistry for yourself. And within transport,
what you would really hope that your post-apocalyptic
society, that you could stop the regression before you reach
a state like this where you can no longer run mechanization. You’ve lost engines
and machinery. And this is more important
than just jumping in your car and nipping down the road. We use machinery and
internal combustion engine for doing everything
in the world around us, and releasing the effort
of our own muscles. So the question is, how can you
run machinery without access to crude oil, and the
diesel, and gasoline that are refined from it? I’ve got another video that
I’m going to load up briefly. So this is the point on the TED
stage last week where I almost set fire to my own head. So I’m not going to
do that indoors again. I’m going to show you the video. So what we’ve got is a
gasifier stove, it’s called. And I made this one myself
out of some old junk tin cans. And there’s a big outer can,
and a smaller can inside it, and holes at the bottom of both. So when you put some
newspaper and just a small handful of twigs in
the inner can and light it, it draws air up through
the bottom of that fire to keep it nice and intense,
just like any barbecue. But what is unique about
this gasifier stove is that there is a second row
of holes right at the top. So as the wood breaks down
and the heat of that fire undergoes pyrolysis, it releases
lots of gases, and vapors, and smoke, which is
itself combustible. And you then reintroduce
oxygen into that hot gas mix, and combust everything
at that point. So when this is
up and running, it is smokeless, and
exceedingly efficient. And just to show you how
effective one of these really primitive, simple
gasifier stoves can be, this is me in a garage
in London demonstrating. And if you just
watch, I’ve genuinely put only a tiny handful of
little bits of twig in there. There’s very little fuel that
I’m loading this up with. And in seconds, I’m going
to light this gas fire stove using a lighter. But I hope that I’ve
convinced you at this point that I could’ve used a
smoke detector if I’d really wanted to to get the gasifier
stove up and running. And it smokes a little bit
as it first gets going. But if you watch,
as I put the flue on top, which again, is just
made from small tin cans, within about four
seconds, the smoke disappears and is replaced
by this 4 foot jet of flame coming out at the top. So this is the airflow
coming up through that fire, and the second row of
air holes combusting all of those producer gases,
the gases that are given off by the wood as it
breaks down the, that would otherwise
have just flown away and then blow in the wind. These kind of things are
also called rocket stoves for perhaps obvious reasons. If I take off the flue,
you can see how effective this is at releasing
all of the energy that’s been locked up in the wood. And we’ve zoomed
in now to the top. You can see these jets
of flame coming in from that upper
row of air holes, where those producer gases are
combusted when you mix oxygen with them again. And this is exactly
the kind of technology, the appropriate technology,
or intermediate technology that has been touted around the
developing world by development agencies, because you can make
this kind of stuff yourself. It doesn’t require
any high tech. The fact that it’s
smokeless means it’s much, much
healthier for cooking with in closed,
cramped conditions. And the fact that
it’s very efficient means it makes the most
effective use of the firewood the family can collect. But what you can do is scale up
a gasifier stove from something the size of a soup can,
like this, to something the size of a trash can,
strap it to the back of a car. And you can run a car
using wood as fuel rather than oil, or
gasoline, or diesel. This is the gasifier
on the back. And so the wood is
breaking down on the heat, releasing those
producer gases, which are piped over the roof of
the car, down into the engine, with a final ultimate
mix with oxygen and explode usefully
to drive this car. Now, I’ll admit
to you, this does look like some kind of crazy
steampunk post-apocalyptic Mad Max contraption. But it works. And this isn’t just some
kind of fringe hobby. During the Second World War and
all of the oil shortages back then, there were over
a million gasifier powered cars, wood powered
cars across Europe. This is exactly the kind
of intermediate technology you could stop the further
regression of your society and start pulling yourself
back up by your own bootstraps. If we turn to materials,
I’ve already shown you the substances tree and how
you extract things like metal from the rock, from
ore, and how we’ve done that through history. But that’s only going to
be half of the problem. You’ve also got
to make something useful out of that metal. You’ve got to transform a
lump of metal into a tool. And what I was also
very, very keen to do when I was researching
for the two or three years of “The
Knowledge” project, I didn’t want to just
sit down in libraries and learn from books or
by interviewing people. I wanted to get some firsthand,
hands-on experience doing stuff for myself so I could then
write about it with experience. So I spent a day in a
traditional 16th century blacksmith, an iron forge. And when you think about it, the
kind of craft of the blacksmith is really simple. You take a big pile of fuel,
either charcoal or coke, set fire to it, and
force air through it with a set of bellows so
it gets really, really hot. You take your lump of metal
you want to start working on, shove it on a hot place until
it gets very hot and then soft, and then hit it with
another lump of metal which is still cold, and
therefore, still very hard. You use iron to work on iron. So I felt very smug with
myself after spending a day bashing the hell out of this
bit of metal, this lump of iron on a hammer and anvil
and made for myself a tool, made a knife, which
you can come up and have a look at afterwards if you’d like. And the very first thing
I did when I got back home was march straight
into the kitchen and use the knife that
I’d made with my own hands to cut a loaf, cut some
cheese, and make myself a post-apocalyptic grilled
cheese from scratch. I was absurdly smug with myself. But if you look more closely,
either on the picture here or by coming up and having a
look at the actual artifact, I notice that there’s
a ruinous crack where the handle meets the blade. I’d never had the guts to go
back and try my knife again. So I’ve actually done quite a
bad job of making this tool, making this knife from scratch. But the important thing
is I know what went wrong. I know how to go back and
have another try, another go, and improve. And so as a
microcosm, this knife represents how we have advanced
and progressed through history, through this reiterative
cycle of trial and error, and applying your rationality
and critical thinking to work out why
something has failed, and therefore, improve upon
it next time to bug hunt and fix those issues. Within communication, the
kind of gateway technology, the thing you’d want to
leapfrog immediately back to would be something like
the printing press, because before the
printing press, if you wanted to
copy a document, if you wanted to
share your ideas, the only way of doing that would
be having a room full of people copying things out by hand. This is enormously
time consuming, and laborious, and expensive. And that means that
only rich people get to choose what ideas
are allowed to spread. But with the invention
of the printing press, knowledge itself,
human understanding becomes democratized. Anyone can share any ideas
they want with everyone else. And that accelerates
not just technology and scientific discussion,
but political ideologies and philosophies. It accelerates many areas of
your society at the same time. And this is exactly, again,
the kind of technology you want to leapfrog
as quickly as possible to help rebooting
your civilization. Now, another thing I was very,
very smug about when I realized I could pull this off
was that within the pages of “The Knowledge,”
I explain how to make your own
paper from scratch. I explain how to
make your own ink. And I explain how to construct
a rudimentary printing press. So it’s almost as if, within
the pages of “The Knowledge,” it contains the
genetic instructions for its own reproduction. Tongue in cheek, of course,
only one copy of this manual would need to survive
the apocalypse. And it tells people how
to reproduce it and then hand out copies to
everyone that survived and might need to know. And just as a proof
of principle, here’s a few pages of the
book– the page about how to build a
printing press printed on a rudimentary printing
press, on handmade paper. This is the proof of
the concept there. That’s going to fall over. The very final thing that
I was going to mention was in advanced chemistry. And I’ve shown to you
the capabilities tree of simple chemistry and
making things like soda, and lime, or nitrates. But sooner or later,
as our civilization encountered during our
history, you reach a threshold. You cannot extract the things
you need out of a natural environment quickly enough
to support your population. So you have to, at
that point, invent ways of making
artificial substances, making artificial soda like we
worked out in the early 1800s, or making artificial
nitrates like we worked out in the early 1900s to make
artificial fertilizer, and explosives, and gunpowder. And that single chemical
reaction of the Haber process makes this foul-smelling
compound, ammonia, which is responsible for feeding
1/3 of the world’s population today. It’s that single
chemical step on which I talk about in the
advanced chemistry chapter. But I also talk about
the curious chemistry, the light-responsive
chemistry of silver. And what I’m about to show you
is the most narcissistic slide I’ve got in the entire
stack, because I wanted even the author’s mug
shot on the back of the book to remain true to the
premise of the knowledge. I wanted to make a photo
from scratch by myself. So I went down to
Lacock Abbey in England where photography was invented. The very first
photographic negative was created in the
1830s and 1840s. And I worked with
a historian there to mix together the
very simple chemistry, douse it onto a plate
of glass, load that into a primitive single lens
camera, and took this portrait. And believe me, this
took all day to get. Now, this isn’t a snapshot. That’s a 16 second exposure. And I would challenge
any one of you to sit absolutely dead
still, not allow your head to twitch or move
in the slightest, or your facial muscles to
relax at all for 16 seconds to get a picture,
because if you don’t, if you move in the slightest,
your entire head blurs into this ghostly apparition. So that’s why you
can’t smile naturally in these simple
photographs, and you have to hold this almost
sneery, to be fair, but kind of neutral, passive pose. And what you can’t
see is that behind me, there’s a raw [? tie-in ?]
stand with a skull clamp locked into the back of my head to
hold it absolutely still. So I put it to you that the
reason all of our earliest photographs that have
had warring gentleman and Victorian ladies, the
reason they looks of joyless isn’t because they
didn’t know how to have a good time back then. It’s because they’ve had
to be sat and cannot smile, and someone’s jammed a
skull clamp into the back of the head. The way that we view history,
the way that we can see back into time is distorted
by the technology that was available at that moment
to capture that moment and allow us to see it. It’s a distortion of the
technology that we had. If any of this has been
of any interest to you, there’s a book that
you can get for $5. But enormous amount of material
is up on the book’s website, on the-knowledge.org. There’s lists of the best books. You can read the best
post-apocalyptic sci-fi, books like “The Earth Abides,
or like “Robinson Crusoe” or “The Martian,” which talk
about starting from scratch and recovering through
the stages of capability. There’s all the videos that
I’ve shown you short clips of. You can watch the whole four
minute video of how to start fires with different
combinations of things you can scavenge around the house,
including how you can start a fire with a bottle of
water, which also is a quite [INAUDIBLE] [? that’s cool. ?]
And there’s also this article all about Miley Cyrus. And this is another
thought experiment. Imagine you had a time machine. You had a DeLorean. And you’re going to go back
400 years into the past. What single
scientific instrument would you take with you that
could demonstrate or prove beyond doubt
something fundamental, some profound truth about
the world or the cosmos that people just did
not believe back then? And what I would bundle into
the boot and my DeLorean before going back
to the 1500s would be Miley Cyrus, or at least
Miley and her wrecking ball. And I’d find a nice,
tall cathedral, set up Miley nice
and comfortable like she seems to be
in the picture here– she’s having a whale of a time–
give her a jolly good shove, and let her swing back and
forth on this pendulum. And if you watched Miley
during the course of the day, you’d notice that she swung back
and forth, that pendulum seemed to twist over the ground. Now, there’s no wind blowing. There’s no force causing
that pendulum to move. So the only conclusion
you can come to is it’s the entire
earth itself turning under Miley as she swings. You can use nothing
more than Miley to prove that the earth
is a big ball of rock, and it turns on its own axis. The reason the sun seems
to arch across the sky isn’t because there’s some fiery
god in a chariot dragging it around. It’s because we’re
stood on a sphere. And even better than
that, if Miley happens to have a wrist watch on as
you kidnap her and bundle her into the boot of your DeLorean
to take her back to the 1500s, you can use nothing
more than a wrist watch to prove beyond a
shadow of a doubt that it is the earth that orbits
the sun, and not vice versa. You can demonstrate the
heliocentric universe using Miley Cyrus. Imagine all of the trouble
and strife that you could save Copernicus and Galileo,
and all threats of being burned at the
stake, if only they’d had Miley back in the 1500s. So thanks so much,
guys, for listening so attentively and warmly. We do still have maybe 10
minutes of time for questions. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] BORIS: Time for questions. We will use the
microphone please. AUDIENCE: First, I want
to say that this book is one of the best books
I’ve read in years. I absolutely loved it. LEWIS DARTNELL: You
are a very kind person. Thank you for saying
that in the microphone. AUDIENCE: Right. So I have two questions. The first one is
one of the things that I loved about
it is, as you said, it ties everything together. And I found it just an
absolutely fascinating way to look at education
in a way that would make things more relevant. And I was wondering if you had
any thoughts about how maybe you could apply this
book in schools or things like that to maybe get
people interested in things they wouldn’t otherwise
be interested in. Like chemistry for me, it
was a fabulous introduction to chemistry. And then the second
thing I was wondering is do you feel like there’s
stuff you had to leave out or you forgot? And what would you
include if you had another book or more space to– LEWIS DARTNELL:
“The Knowledge 2.0.” AUDIENCE: Yeah. LEWIS DARTNELL: I suppose a
follow-on book would kind of break the premise
of the first one. You need this, but
also this one now. But your first part
about education is a really good point,
and it’s something I’m very keen to try
and get off the ground. This is my very last day of
a month long tour of Canada and the US, touring the book. And I started off in Toronto
in University of Waterloo in Kitchener. And we’re working
there to try and build a syllabus for undergraduates
or graduate studies basically on this, on
what are the fundamentals of civilization, and how would
you recover that capability? How do things link together? But I think you’re right. I think it be just as
applicable, and interesting, and appropriate to
much younger children, get it into secondary schools,
if not even primary schools, just to open people’s eyes
to the world around us and how things work, and
how it all links together, and what we take for granted. So if anyone here at Google has
got any contacts or any ways you might be able
to help with that, please do ping me an email
or come up and say hello afterwards. As for your second point
about what I missed out, I’m a scientist writing
a popular science book that will go on that
shelf in the bookshop. So I’ve focused on
science and technology. And clearly, there’s
more to building a stable society or a
technologically-advanced civilization than
just knowing stuff. You need to have
good leadership. And there’s all of the
sociological factors, and a strong economy as
necessary for building steam engines, and factories,
as coal and the knowledge of the gas laws. So all of that is
quietly left out, because it’s a hard
thing to discuss the universals of
in the way that you can discuss the universals
of science or technology. You may notice that the
entirety of mathematics is slipped into
a single footnote at the bottom of the
page, where I basically just cover my ass for not
having talked about mathematics. And that was actually
an editorial decision. I had an entire chapter
planned out and half written about the most crucial
mathematics you need, because clearly you need
math to build bridges and then not have
things fall down on you. And there’s good reasons
why geometry and algebra were developed by ancient
Egypt and Islamic cultures. But at the end of
the day, it’s just you can’t write about
math in the same you can write about chemistry,
or technology, or biology. And I didn’t want to have
basically a math textbook shoved in there where
I’m telling people about the basics of
geometry and algebra. It wouldn’t be fun to write,
and it wouldn’t be fun to read. So I cheated, and just
didn’t do any of it. AUDIENCE: A slightly
different thought experiment. You and 999 other people are
going on to a colony ship into deep sleep. You’re going to land on what
you know is a Goldilocks plan. It has a comparable
composition to earth. You get to bring
whatever materials you want to provide a grace
period, and you get a book. How different are those
materials and that book from this one and the
materials you mentioned, and what similarities
do they have? LEWIS DARTNELL: Yeah,
that is a great question, and I explain very early in the
introduction to “The Knowledge” that although I’ve picked
the thought experiment to be a post-apocalyptic
world, this is equally applicable to falling through
a time warp to 10,000 BC and wanting to make
yourself the emperor and know everything you would
need to know to accelerate history, or crash landing
on a Goldilocks planet, on a [INAUDIBLE] world. And you would go through pretty
much exactly the same steps. And I’ve tried to
make the knowledge to not peg itself to any one
particular kind of apocalypse or any particular
state, but to be general in what it discusses. And I had some very
interesting conversations with two NASA
researchers yesterday on exactly that question. If we are sending ships
to Mars to build a colony, what is the mutually
supporting set of tools you send
with them so they become self-sustaining
and self-supporting? And how might mining
ore on Mars and trying to smelt the metals you need
be different doing it on Mars compared to Earth? And what are the similarities? What are the differences? And I’m running through
that thought experiment as well, as far as I can. AUDIENCE: One thing I
don’t see in the indexes on the topic of
the bootstrapping of mechanical precision,
how to build a surface plate from scratch,
and things from that. Is that elsewhere? LEWIS DARTNELL: I touch
upon why it’s important and why the Industrial
Revolution wasn’t just about knowing
about burning coal and about making pistons, but
being able to make pistons with the precision, enough
so it doesn’t keep jamming and catching it. And I also talk about the
lathe and why the lathe is one of these– like “The
Knowledge,” which can reproduce itself, the lathe is a
machine which can also reproduce– you can make
all the components for lathe using just one lathe. And in fact, even
better than that, you can start making a lathe and
use your half-finished lathe to make all the rest of
the components you need. And there’s an exquisite example
of that pulling yourself up by your bootstraps by a series
of books by Dave Gingery. And he started with nothing
more than some sand, some clay, and some old Coke cans or other
soda drink, some aluminum. And he made a back garden
furnace with a bucket and the clay in it, and
some kind of charcoal he chocked in to melt
the cans, and then start pouring them to
sand to cast to start making components of a lathe. And once you’ve got a lathe,
you can make a milling machine and many other machine tools. So he built an
entire machine shop using some old tin cans
and some pile of clay and a pile of sand. And if you wanted to, you
can buy his series of books and do that process yourself. If you go to the
book’s website, I’ve listed the entire
bibliography of that book, and every single
reference is hyperlinked. So you can go to either the
free PDF, or the website, or download it from Amazon
if you wanted to follow up. AUDIENCE: So I had
another question. So we are storing more and more
information electronically. At the moment, if we
run out of electricity, nobody can recover it from
a hard drive or a SSD drive. And our next best
medium is paper, which is very easy to destroy. And so how do we
preserve this storage? Do we print it? We haven’t invented anything
better than printing paper. LEWIS DARTNELL: Yeah. So I talk about exactly that and
the kind of digital black hole in an article I wrote for
“The Guardian” newspaper two or three weeks
ago about what might be the optimum,
the best storage medium. And although you can get
an incredibly high density of information into electronic
storage, like a hard disk, or USB dongle, or whatever,
if you pick up USB dongle, it’s basically closed
to you, unless you’ve got the computer, which
is running to read it off, whereas something like a book is
very open access in that sense. All you need to be
able to do is read, and you can pick up the
book and you have access to the instrument inside it. And actually, acid free paper
is a pretty good storage medium. It does last pretty well. But I guess if you really
want to take this seriously, you would get some enormous
granite slabs and laser engrave them with everything
you need to know, or at least enough information
that you could bootstrap yourself to the next level
to then read a much denser store of information, and then
maybe use that to bootstrap yourself to the next level. And what I’m basically
describing here is Asimov’s
foundation series, but on a post-apocalyptic world. AUDIENCE: So I have
one question, as well. So what if the survivors
are actually in China, and they don’t speak English? LEWIS DARTNELL:
We’re translating it. BORIS: OK. LEWIS DARTNELL: For
your flippant answer. [LAUGHTER] AUDIENCE: Hi. Thanks for this. So of course, the
post-apocalyptic world is a big topic in
fiction across all media. I’m curious if, a, you think
there’s any examples out there where you think, wow, they
do a really good job with this. And also, b, whether you think
anyone, as far as you know, is using your book
as a resource to try to do a good job of
figuring out this world. LEWIS DARTNELL: I don’t know
about the second question. I get a bunch of emails
a day from people that have read the book, and
found it very interesting and saying how they were trying
out some of the experiments, and things in their
back garden, or building a gasifier stove with their
kids before a camping trip. I don’t know if anyone’s
trying to rebuild their own society on a
desert island using the book. So I think most post-apocalyptic
films do a bad job. And it’s mostly lone
heroes running around in leather, which is perhaps, a
little bit too tight and doing the Mad Max vibe. And clearly, that’s
for dramatic tension. It’s more exciting to look at
people running around shooting each other for film than a
peaceful community trying to build a windmill out
of recycled car parts. And books are always
much more nuanced in approaching complex issues. And again, if you
go under Prepare, that tab on the
website under Read, there’s a list of
the best books which have approached these ideas. So things like “Robinson
Crusoe,” or “Swiss Family Robinson” deal with this. There’s a more recent
book by Andy Weir called “The Martian,” which
is basically a Robinson Crusoe meets MacGyver marooned
on Mars and has to work at how to not die and
start bootstrapping himself up before the rescue mission. That is an incredibly good book. I did very much
enjoy “The Martian.” There’s a much earlier
book by Jules Verne called “The Mysterious
Island,” which does a really good job of describing
the actual information and detail you
would need in a way that “Swiss Family
Robinson” brushed over. And it goes through how to
make different materials and the substances for yourself. So have a read at that, as well. AUDIENCE: One quick
question for you. If you did find yourself in
this post-apocalyptic world, and let’s say you were
back home in the UK, or maybe you were in North
America, while there’s still some transportation
that you could use, where would you go to settle
down and start a new world? LEWIS DARTNELL: I’m
not sure there’s any particular place
on the planet that would be ideally suited
compared to anywhere else. Obviously, don’t start trying
to rebuild civilization just outside Las Vegas in
the middle of a desert. Don’t start trying to rebuild
society inside the Arctic Circle. Make things easy for
yourself and go somewhere within the temperate
zone of the planet where you’ve got reliable
rainfall, fertile soil, a river nearby, for all of
the same historical reasons that the early
civilizations began in exactly those environments. But the one bit of
advice I would give you is get out of the cities
as quickly as you can, not least for– and I
don’t ever say the zed word in the entire book. But if a lot of people
have died in the cities, they become quite unpleasant. They smell bad, but they also
become a huge disease risk to you. But in the longer term,
when you think about it, a city is an absurdly
artificial bubble. And imagine trying to live in
a high rise apartment block without electricity running
the elevator and all. You have to schlep up 20
floors or flights of stairs to get to your apartment. And every time you
want a drink of water, you have to lift up using your
own muscles with a long rope, a bucket to get water to you. And without water
pressure in the pipes delivering that water
or gas pressure, you can’t really
live in a modern city without the life support
system that civilization provides for that city. So get out of the city. Find yourself a
nice, rural spot, with an old,
traditional house where there are fire places that
you can burn bits of tree in to keep yourself warm, and
a nice plot of fertile soil that you can start
rebuilding, and the beginnings of farming in. BORIS: Please join
me in thanking Lewis. [APPLAUSE]

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