Julia Cleghorn Reviews The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch

Review by Julia Cleghorn

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch
By Lewis Dartnell

Author’s Homepage: http://lewisdartnell.com
Author’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/lewis_dartnell

Whether you think about it much or not, the diabolical ‘end of the world’ scenario is never too far from our movie screens. We’ve seen it all play out before; life is bustling along as usual when suddenly the population is struck down by a deadly disease, or a giant asteroid is on a direct collision path with Earth. Cars are banked up in the streets; the world’s biggest monuments are systemically struck down; life as we know it is over, apart from the hero of the movie of course.

Along that theoretical line comes a book by accomplished scientist and writer Dr Lewis Dartnell. But this isn’t a book of how it is going to happen; it’s about what happens next. The dust has settled, you’ve come out of hiding, and, along with a bunch of survivors, you have to reboot civilisation. So what do you do? Well, The Knowledge – How to Build Our World is deemed as the ultimate handbook for surviving and prospering in a post-apocalyptic world.

Part textbook, part step-by-step guide, part theoretical musing and part history lesson; The Knowledge compiles an inordinate amount of information in a reasonably short and straightforward style. Dartnell starts small, with the necessities of short-term survival, and then follows with the ins and outs of everything from agriculture and clothing, to electricity, medicine and communication.

The information comes thick and fast. From finding out how to make soap, ink and glass, and how to know what month it is without a calendar; to the explanations of simple techniques like rotating crops to keep the agricultural land productive; and the surprisingly fundamental nature of substances like limestone and ash that contribute to everything from maintaining hygiene to smelting metals. The book is detailed and humbling, as you are handed the knowledge that is required to live a basic life on Earth, to which you are shockingly unaware.

The disaster scenario works well in setting up the book. But, without a lot of exploration into the alternate ways our world might be re-created, from what we know now, I saw it more as a good excuse for compiling such elemental information. At times I even forgot there was a scenario, I enjoyed sitting back and learning about the nuts and bolts of life on Earth. It never lasted long though, as Dartnell routinely provides direct instruction to the reader on what do to, when. In which case I was transported back to my imaginary post-apocalyptic world where I heroically lead the redevelopment of civilisation. And I was ok with that.

What Dartnell did really well was include extensive footnotes throughout. Clearly while researching, he stumbled across a plethora of fascinating information that couldn’t possibly be left out. So, to ensure the writing stayed sequential and straightforward, every few pages contains at least one footnoted tid-bit of information; the orange colour of carrots is artificial, the word salary comes from a time when allowances were paid to buy salt, the reason why the UK don’t use the metric system is that Napoleon didn’t invite them to his metric system party – to name just a few. These facts might not help you to rebuild your life post ‘fall’, but it will invoke a deep-seated ‘huh’ and give you hours of material to thrill the most dull of dinner parties.

Curious minds will be fed for hours with this book. But while fascinating, it might sit on your bedside table for years, and frankly, that wouldn’t be all that bad. I think it pays to read the book at your absolute leisure, so you can really take in and understand everything, then go out into the world and see it in action. The Knowledge really makes you appreciate the intelligence of this race, and how far we have come, and far much work there is ahead for those post-apocalyptic survivors.


Julia Cleghorn

Julia is a passionate science communicator and loves inspiring audiences through the wonders of science. During her postgraduate studies, she travelled around Australia with the 2007 Shell Questacon Science Circus, performing science shows to students in remote areas. She then moved to Brisbane to work for Network Ten’s kids science show Scope, where she wrote scripts, presented on-air, and produced the show for three years. Julia eventually moved back to her beloved hometown of Melbourne, where she is now working as a freelance science writer, mainly for the CSIRO.

[Image Credit: Author supplied]



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