BOOK REVIEW: The Knowledge

February 6, 2015

in Books

The Knowledge

The Knowledge

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch –
by Lewis Dartnell

Lewis Dartnell has written this book to describe how to rebuild the infrastructure of civilization from scratch. It is NOT a book on basic survival skills, but a roadmap on how science and technology was built and can be rebuilt.

He writes:

This is a survivors’ guidebook. Not one just concerned with keeping people alive in the weeks after the Fall — plenty of handbooks have been written on survival skills — but one that teaches how to orchestrate the rebuilding of a technologically advanced civilization.

– from page 2 of INTRODUCTION

He describes some of the knowledge and processes needed to “reboot” civilization by rebuilding technology and touches briefly on the basics of shelter, water, food, fuel, medicine and off-grid electric power. He suggests that with a good knowledge of the history of science and technology, it is possible to streamline that process and “leapfrog” some sections that were not needed to reach later points in the timeline. He goes into a little more depth in describing AGRICULTURE in Chapter 3 and FOOD AND CLOTHING in Chapter 4.

The most interesting part of the book begins with Chapter 5 on Substances. He describes the importance of using thermal energy beyond that of a simple fire in the processes of: smelting, forging, casting, glass working, making salt, burning lime, firing bricks and more. He describes the extraction of calcium carbonate from limestone and burning it in a hot kiln to create calcium oxide which is in turn combined with water to make hydrated lime (calcium hydroxide). These steps form a foundation for later chemical processes that involve making soap, ammonia, glue, gunpowder and plastics. The chapter continues to describe the chemistry of wood pyrolisis, which involves collecting vapor from baked wood to make methanol, acetone and tars or drive a combustion engine. The chapter is completed with a brief discussion of acids.

MATERIALS is the topic of Chapter 6 and it builds nicely on the previous discussion with sections on clay, lime mortars, metals and glass. Crude clay can be fired at high temperature to make ceramics which turn out to be very useful with both chemistry and later electronics, in both cases because it mostly stays not involved with process changes. Clay is a primary source for aluminum. Lime mortar led to cement which had a huge impact on building technology. Ceramics, cement and clay are instrumental in making high temperature kilns and furnaces. It is possible to melt salvaged aluminum, like soda cans, in a small furnace and using a sand casting process, produce simple parts to make a working metal lathe. The metal lathe can reproduce itself as well as make more complex metal working machines like the milling machine. This project is thoroughly documented in a small 7-book series called, “Build Your Own Metal Working Shop From Scrap” by David and Vincent Gingery. This is great example of Dartnell’s concept of accelerating development by leapfrogging.

The book continues with chapters on MEDICINE, POWER, TRANSPORT, COMMUNICATION, ADVANCED CHEMISTRY and one titled TIME AND PLACE which deals with timekeeping, clocks and navigation. The final chapter, THE GREATEST INVENTION, is about the scientific method and its application.

In order for this book to really accomplish what it suggests, it would need to be much larger. There are missing pieces that would be needed to complete the rebuilding of advanced technology. For instance: in order to recreate modern electronics, we need advanced lenses and optics, photographic emulsion chemistry (which is covered in this book), more on electrolysis and plating, modern electronics and more advanced knowledge. Maybe this is reason for Dartnell to consider a “part two” book. But this book is a great start and should be considered a must for any complete survival library or collection on the history of science and technology.

It is also extremely well annotated and referenced and from a knowledge management viewpoint is work the price of the book just for the knowledge map it provides to other sources. To be fair, there is some missing detail in some areas, but in most cases, it seems like the detail is available in the referenced material. A perfect example is the section on building your own metal shop. Dartnell cannot cover all the material in the small seven book series he references, but he does cover enough of the overall idea to make it clear what great potential is there and then references the source to make it available to the reader.

BLOG: Low-tech Magazine
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