The Knowledge, by Lewis Dartnell (2014)

Ages 16 and up (slightly pessimistic viewpoint helpful)
KnowledgeLast year, my hands-down favourite was the science fiction title The Martian (now being made into a movie, by the way, as I predicted). This year, it’s a nonfiction title that is equally spellbinding. Dartnell is an astrobiologist and a science writer from the U.K. His writing is clear, accessible, and entertaining. The book is essentially a compendium of the very basics of science and technology, the stuff we will need to know to “reboot” civilization after an apocalypse such as nuclear war, asteroid collision, worldwide pandemic, or the like. He takes a roughly chronological approach, identifying where we will need to focus our attention once we’ve settled a new community (on the outskirts of a major city so supply runs are easy or organize but safe from urban-related dangers, and ideally near the ocean). We’ll need about 10,000 of us to really ensure the survival of humanity, with enough hands for labour and sufficient diversity for a healthy and speedy repopulation effort. Water and shelter are priorities – we move from building a well to water treatment, as well as sewage management. He discusses the immense value of wood, not just for construction, cooking, and heat, but for making charcoal that will come in handy for water treatment as well as soapmaking. Yes soap, because hygiene is key for a healthy population, especially one that is unlikely to have antibiotics and surgical skills. Which brings us to penicillin, and how to make a microscope so survivors can learn about microbes. Along the way, we learn several options for creating electricity, avoiding toxic pollution while using as our resources as efficiently as we can. Microbiology, physics, chemistry, medicine and biology, animal husbandry and agriculture (including how to test your soil’s composition with water), anatomy and pathology, internal combustion and how radio waves work, even how to tell time and location in a world without digital watches or GPS. At about 300 pages, the text can’t provide detailed instructions, but Dartnell gives you enough of an understanding that you can at least get started and begin to solve the problem. It is awesome reading, informative and entertaining as hell. The science is solid, and Dartnell adds a very useful and opinionated bibliography that runs several pages, as well as a well-developed index. Add this to your own shelf, and pick up a couple extra as gifts for people who love to learn. While I hope we never need to use this knowledge, it’s comforting to know where to find it. And it makes for awesome cocktail party topics!
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