Science Book a Day Interviews Lewis Dartnell


Special thanks to Lewis Dartnell for answering 7 questions about his recently featured book – The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch

I graduated from Oxford University with a First Class degree in Biology and completed my PhD at University College London in 2007. I am currently a UK Space Agency research Fellow at the University of Leicester, working in the field of astrobiology and the search for microbial life on Mars. I also hold a STFC Science in Society Fellowship and am very active in delivering live events at schools and science festivals, working as a scientific consultant for the media, and have appeared in numerous TV documentaries and radio shows. – From Lewis’ Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for The Knowledge?

I started researching and writing The Knowledge out of pure curiosity. I’m sure that every one of us has thought about how they’d fare in a post-apocalyptic world – either daydreaming during a boring meeting or arguing with friends in the pub about who has the most useful skills and so would be on your post-apocalyptic survival team. There are plenty of sci-fi novels, films and computer games that play with this trope (see Book’s Homepage), as well as survival guides written on bushcraft skills and so on. But what I’d never come across was a book that explained how civilisation itself worked, and how you might rebuild one from scratch if you ever had to – moving beyond bushcraft skills to the knowledge needed to progress society.

#2 – You really focus your book on particular aspects of surviving the world ending. What led you to refine the scope of your book in this way?

At the end of the day, The Knowledge is a thought experiment about how you might reconstruct civilisation from the ground-up, and as with any book you need to be very clear on the question that you are addressing; the parameters of the exercise. So to provide the cleanest question to answer, I pick out one possibility of a virulent viral plague rapidly wiping out much of humanity but leaving all the _stuff untouched. In this way, I’m able to explore how long different aspects of our modern world would persist before they degrade – food on supermarkets shelves, petrol in service stations, highways and skyscrapers, and so on. But all of the guidelines for rebooting civilisation that I explore are just as relevant for recovering after a nuclear war, or asteroid strike, or whatever. It’s just that the survivors would have a much harder time of it, and wouldn’t be provided with a ‘grace period’ by the resources left behind.

#3 – Replete with facts and details. How did you try to balance between writing an interesting narrative and teaching the reader how to survive?

This was a real trick, you’re right. There are plenty of survival or bushcraft guides out there, and so I was never attempting to rewrite something you could already get. But in the broad brush strokes of the knowledge in chemistry and mechanisms and medicine, etc, that you would need to recover society I aways try to give enough information to be meaningful, but without getting bogged down in details and boring the reader. Within each chapter, the first things I describe are always given with enough detail and instructions that you could genuinely do them for yourselves in your kitchen or back garden if you wanted – how to make soap, or glass, or a rudimentary radio, for example. And then as the chapter progresses and we move forward in time with the reboot, and zoom out in scope, more complex issues are explained in a little less detail. Of course, the book isn’t actually written as a handbook for a post-apocalyptic survivor (that’s just the narrative conceit), but for anybody alive today who wants to find out a bit more about how the world around us actually works. What I hope that people take away from reading the book is just a deeper sense of satisfaction in understanding a little of how the fundamental things work, and perhaps better appreciate all that we take for granted in our modern, cosseted lives.

#4 – You talk about people who are already planning what to do at the end of the world ‘preppers’. Have you received any feedback about your book from them?

Some people have reviewed the book and seemingly not really got the conceit behind it all  – _obviously_ The Knowledge doesn’t contain all of the information you would actually need to rebuild civilisation. But I tried to make it clear in the Introduction that of course the book isn’t really about the apocalypse at all; it just uses the notion of the possible collapse of civilisation as a way of exploring all the behind-the-scenes fundamentals that support our everyday lives – the stuff that we just take for granted today. And right from the very outset, I wanted the book to be just the beginning of a wider project, and The Knowledge website  contains a discussion board where anyone can suggest what _you_ consider to the most crucial information and tools to try and preserve above all else, and debate ideas with each other. All of the preppers and survivalists I’ve spoken to have been really interesting conversations, and if we’ve disagreed then I still learn an enormous amount in the process!

#5 – With so much information packed into the book, how much did you have to leave out?

Enormous amounts! The Knowledge is a popular science book so necessarily focusses on the science and technology behind civilisation, but of course economics, governance, and social theory, for example, are just as important. Of course you only fit so much into a single 300-page book, and if you did want to preserve all the knowledge that would be helpful for recreating civilisation you’d need an entire library of books, at least. But I do genuinely believe that if you had only one book as a DIY guide for reconstructing civilisation then The Knowledge has the necessary combination of breadth and detail on the entire diversity of know-how that underlies our world to substantially accelerate a reboot. And anything that I did have to leave out of the book is up on the website – so do have an explore through all of the articles, videos, and How-To guides there!

#6 – I thought they book would work great as a tv show. Has anyone flagged this possibility?

Hmmmm, well I can’t say too much right now, but watch this space…

#7 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

I am working on a new book project, yes, and am enjoying researching for it as much as The Knowledge. But my main focus right now is in my science research within astrobiology and the search for signs of primitive life on Mars.

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