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The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch First Edition Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 149 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1594205231
ISBN-10: 159420523X
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Dartnell, a UK Space Agency research fellow and award-winning science writer, specializes in the field of astrobiology, including how microorganisms could survive on Mars. It’s no wonder, then, that this renowned young scientist is fascinated by survival tactics, the underlying theme of this ambitious inquiry into how people might be able to rebuild the world as we know it if an apocalypse came to pass. As much as any writer could cover the history of technology in 300 pages, Dartnell presents a good case. His account quickly progresses from raising crops to ­making soap, shearing and spinning wool, mining coal, generating electricity, and building radios. Of course, since this is all speculation, it’s hard to predict what people would be able to scavenge and what will be left intact or who might be on earth besides yourself. Dartnell doesn’t address questions of governing this survivors’ society or how people would collaborate on rebuilding or how hopeless some will feel without Google and smartphones. Still, Dartnell’s vision is a great start in understanding what it took to build our world. --Laurie Borman


The Wall Street Journal:
The Knowledge is a fascinating look at the basic principles of the most important technologies undergirding modern society… 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.”

Boston Globe:
“[Dartnell’s] plans may anticipate the destruction of our world, but embedded in them is the hope that there might be a better way to live in the pre-apocalyptic world we inhabit right now.”

New York Post:
“A stimulating read, a grand thought experiment on re-engineering the food, housing, clothing, heat, clean water and every other building block of civilization.”

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; First Edition edition (April 17, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 159420523X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594205231
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (149 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #377,310 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By C. Richard VINE VOICE on March 22, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I always wondered what it would be like if all of a sudden we had some great disaster, and we'd have to reboot our civilization. This is way more complicated than it might first appear. I'm an engineer and though I know how to do a lot of things, I do not have the knowledge to make some very basic things that I would certainly like to have after such a disaster. At least not before I saw this book.

For example, could I make soap? If you think about it, soap would be really important in the dirty world we would find ourselves living in after the disaster. Fairly unsophisticated people made it for themselves for hundreds of years. Do you know the recipe? The ingredients might be fairly easy to find (assuming you know the list) with the possible exception of lye. Making that is a bit of a challenge - do you know how? Maybe going to a library that had paper books on science and engineering would help - if there was one around. Remember, the internet (and electricity) would be non-existent. If I had a copy of the book being reviewed here or had studied it very well before the disaster, I'd know how to make the lye needed. By the way, excess lye can result in some very harsh soap - that is another issue that has to be worked out by the soap maker. One more challenge in the brave new world perhaps.

There are numerous other basic things we take for granted that we'd have to figure out how to make after the disaster. Would you know what to do? I'm not so sure I would without having read this or a similar book(s), and I am an engineer. The book here provides us with the know how to make the basic items we would need in an initial reboot. It's nice to find a reference that tells us so much in so few pages.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I am not a "Prepper," but I am really enjoying this book. Initially, Dartnell's goal to explain nearly every major technological aspect of human existence -- agriculture, textile-making, and even producing electricity -- seemed *too* ambitious, I think he does a very nice job ... particularly given the book's length. (One would expect a book like this to be made up of several massive tomes, not a 200+ page paperback.) Granted, a few of the rebuilding processes are outlined in very limited terms: I was perhaps able to grasp his section on purifying water, for example, if only because of the numerous "survivor-style" television shows I have seen (such as "Survivorman" with Les Stroud). But for other things, such as growing crops, I think that Dartnell's truncated explanations are the way to go. Since growing conditions will vary so much from place to place, there is probably not much he could do otherwise; thus he provides the reader with the very basics. For agriculture, again, how to separate the wheat from the chaff, how to grind it into flour, etc. These are things that most members of our very specialized societies have forgotten how to do, either from leaving the tasks to machines, or to other people.

In a way, the book is sort of a wake-up call for the very "problem" of specialization -- a ton of people who each know how to do only a few very particular tasks, most of which (at least in industrialized societies) will not help them one whit in the face of even a temporary disaster, environmental or otherwise. Given how much I actually learned while reading this book, I was retrospectively shocked (or even ashamed) to realize just how much I did not know -- just how many things I use each day were/are the results of the labor and knowledge of others.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I had expected this book to be a gedankenexperiment to determine if the technology underlying modern society can be reduced to a set of principles short enough to fit in one book and simple enough to be understood by one reader. Obviously it would take far more pages and complexity to record every detail of every process and device, but it is conceivable that essential knowledge could be organized into a tree that an isolated group of non-specialists could expand via research and tinkering into a functioning modern infrastructure.

The actual book is something different, but I'm not quite sure what it is. For one thing, this is no thought experiment, the author clearly expects some kind of catastrophic depopulation and social collapse (he mentions nuclear war and global pandemic as possibilities--the author is rooting for pandemic, I think because it damages only humans) or to be part of an inadequately supplied and badly trained exploration party (another planet or time travel on earth).

The first part of the book consists of the author's vivid descriptions of the apocalypse (his peaceful alternatives do not get the same attention). These are drawn from science fiction movies, sometimes explicitly, and as best I can tell, resemble no actual events. Plenty of cities have been abandoned (Pripyat is a particularly apt example) without conforming to the lurid sequences in the book. New Orleans after Katrina is cited as "a complete disintegration of law and order" and "the rapid degeneration of the normal social order and the outbreak of anarchy;" which leads the author to predict Mad Max scenarios. But none of this actually happened. There was tremendous official incompetence, but thousands of stories of small-scale heroism and altruism for every crime.
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