The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, March 28, 2014

World-Building the Real World

Last week there was a brief flurry of interest in a 'NASA study' that predicted the collapse of civilization. The study turned out not to be by NASA and to be founded on eight equations. This sort of thing makes soothsaying look solid.

A global industrial civilization has never existed before, and while highly interdependent it seems to contain enough redundant links to make it resilient. A lot of horrible things could happen, but it would go on. Some civilizations do go on for thousands of years. China and Egypt spring to mind, but even Europeans could just about get away with claiming that the Roman Empire is still around, and they're living in it. That said, there are imaginable if unlikely events that could knock over civilization across a wide area or even the world without necessarily wiping everyone out. A limited nuclear war or an unstoppable plague or an asteroid impact or a big coronal mass ejection could kill billions and still leave millions of survivors struggling to cope.

The Knowledge Full Cover_lowres
Most of them wouldn't have a clue what to do. A precondition of an advanced industrial civilization is a very fine-grained division of labour. This makes astonishing achievements routine, but necessarily leaves everyone involved a little vague about the details of what everyone else does. The premise of Lewis Dartnell’s new book, The Knowledge, is that it’s a manual for the survivors of a disaster that wiped out 90% of humanity but left the infrastructure basically intact. What would they need to know in order to survive and start again?

Dartnell starts his thought experiment with ‘the grace period’ in which there are still useful supplies to be got from the cities, and goes on through rebooting agriculture, food and clothing, medicine, mining, manufacturing, transport, electricity, communications, chemistry … and so on, all the way to ‘the greatest invention’: science itself. At each step, he uses his attention-grabbing premise to make the mundane details of how to make everything from bread to soap to cement to steel interesting and interconnected. I didn’t know that a lathe is a sort of von Neumann machine, or that retrieving at least one long-threaded screw from the ruins is crucial. The conclusion is inspiring, the guide to further reading gives due recognition to post-apocalyptic SF, and the bibliography can keep you reading until the asteroid comes.

I can see this book becoming a manual for writers of post-apocalyptic SF and historical fiction, steampunk and the like, but far more important is its relevance to the rest of us in understanding how the world we live in actually works.

I was sent an advance proof for comment, and I’ve just received a fine hardback with my quote on the back: ‘This is the book we all wish we’d been given at school: the knowledge that makes everything else make sense.’ True to my word, that copy’s going to the nearest high school library. But I’ll buy the paperback and keep it in easy reach, and in a safe place.  



I hope he remembered to cover brewing and distilling.

So I should probably skip the ebook and get the hard copy on this one, huh?

If it all came crumbling down, I'd personally rather start something different than just rebuild what was. Still, the book does seem worth a read; I'll have to find a copy.

apophasis - that thought had occurred to me :-)

Todd - Dartnell actually does consider how different the post-catastrophe society would have to be.

Whether your vision of the future is a recreation of the glorious past or a new direction, you still have to somehow achieve it. If you think a monastic commune is the way forward from the worldly focus of the former empire, you have to find a location, build shelter, grow food, survive barbarian raids, and, if you want books, make the colours from local rocks and lichens (the latter brilliantly achieved by the maker of the Lindisfarne Gospel, in its way a genius-level feat of chemistry)

But why the different typeface?

ejh - Just an accident of the way I wrote it - usually I copy and paste my draft into the HTML box, this time I pasted into Compose and added the links.

"I didn’t know that a lathe is a sort of von Neumann machine, or that retrieving at least one long-threaded screw from the ruins is crucial."

It isn't crucial, it just helps (or how could they exist now?). The trick for making such screws was actually worked out by the man who designed and had made the tool for cutting the grooves in decent diffraction gratings, whose name I forget but I'm sure people can google, and curiously enough Leo Frankowski picked up on it and put it in one of his "Lord Conrad" novels (though he screwed up with his idea to simplify floor planking by using wider planks so you don't have to cut as many - the wider the planks, the wider the gaps between them have to be to allow for expansion and contraction with varying temperature and humidity, but people can trip over gaps that are too wide). The technique for making a long-threaded screw is simple and straightforward, though it takes a lot of work:-

- Roughly make a long-threaded screw in the form of a bolt by wrapping a wire or cord around a straight rod in a spiral, marking the gaps, and cutting it by hand where marked.

- Make a matching long nut in two C shaped halves by using the bolt to mark its profile, say with engineer's blue, and then similarly cut threading in the halves where marked.

- Put the bolt in the nut with the two halves loosely held together, say with wedges, and start winding the bolt back and forth just a few turns while dripping in a water suspension of coarse abrasive.

- Over several days (much longer, for a diffraction grating) tighten up the wedges and make the abrasive finer.

After all that, the screw profile will have evened itself out uniformly along the whole length, and you'll have finished. A lathe also needs straight line guides, which you can set up with flat plates made by a similar incremental process devised by Whitworth in the nineteenth century. Oh, and if you have a flat plate you can use it to straighten the rod you need by yet another similar incremental process.

Also curiously enough, in his The Isles of Unwisdom Robert Graves recorded a mediaeval superstition arising from a similar bootstrapping problem: smiths could improvise tools to make almost any tool they didn't yet have, but tongs always needed tongs to make them and so a belief arose that God gave the first tongs to the first smith, Tubal Cain. And no, I don't know the way around that problem. Time travel, maybe?

but tongs always needed tongs to make them

Green wood will work to make your first tongs

I am dubious about the basic premise that such a book is needed
My library contains dozens of books about making things
The world is full of people who make things - mostly for fun

I really don't see how you can lose that

Saying that that book sounds fun - I may get an ebook of it

Duncan Cairncross, I would have guessed that you could improvise tongs in some way like that too, but if the superstition based on needing tongs to make tongs was recorded accurately there could have been some problem with that sort of improvising that I don't know.

I've chased up those references I mentioned:-

- The person who worked out the trick for making screws good enough to make high quality diffraction gratings was Henry Augustus Rowland, and he describes his method here.

- Leo Frankowski describes making the screw for a lathe without having a lathe already in The Radiant Warrior thus (but without making it clear that the nut has to be long too):-

"I needed an engine lathe to accurately cut screws and to make good taps and dies. And an engine lathe needs accurate screws to feed the tool along the stock. I had to have a screw to make a screw!

"I laid the problem aside, hoping my subconscious would come up with something, and worked on the rest of the engine.


"But I still hadn't figured out how to make a good screw. Finally, I just drew up a simple engine lathe, even though I didn't see how we could possibly build one. By this time, we had pretty much duplicated the machinery from the brass works at Three Walls, complete with pigs in huge hamster cages turning the lathes, so I gave the drawings to Ilya and told him to make me one.

"Ilya was a good man at a forge, but he didn't have the machining experience of the Krakowski brothers. I gave this difficult project to him because the Krakowski brothers were reasonable enough to ask questions until they understood something, and I didn't have the answers to match their questions.

"Ilya, on the other hand, was never reasonable. His ego was such that he would never admit that there was anything that he didn't quite grasp. He was belligerent, intolerant, and bullheaded, but he wasn't stupid.

"The engine lathe would be the most complicated piece of equipment we owned, but I gave the project to him as casually as if I was asking for an axe head. I simply explained what it did and why, and asked to have it done as soon as possible. He stared at the drawings for a few moments and then said that if I wanted the silly thing, he'd build it.


"At one point I was walking through the plant and saw Ilya carefully wrapping a woman's bright red ribbon around a smooth brass rod, and carefully scribing on the brass where the top of the ribbon came to as he went along. I didn't say a word.

"Another time I saw him deliberately pouring fine sand on a set of running gears, while on another machine one of his assistants was running an iron nut back and forth on a long brass screw. The nut was in two halves and clamped back together, and it too was dusted with fine sand. The assistant said that he had been doing this boring work for two weeks, but I didn't want to get involved. If Ilya somehow did the job, great. If he fell on his ass, the humiliating experience might make him easier to live with.

"But Ilya did it. The engine lathe worked better than I had expected, and Ilya's ego was so monstrous that he wouldn't even accept praise for it. He pretended that he could do that sort of thing every day. So I put him in charge of making the steam-powered sawmills, and told him not to take so long this time."

P M Lawrence,
you could think of the tongs thing as being the same as the bloke who stole fire from the gods. Intrinsically unlikely but a nice story that exalts the objects origins.

This sounds like a good book, I'll have to get a copy.

I think I'll buy an ebook copy. Keep a copy in the cloud in case some disaster strikes, that way I'll always be able to get at it. Oh...

Grrr, that "NASA" study made me mad. I finally found the actual report, stared aghast at the 8 equations you mentioned and raged once again that some people are too easily seduced by Cool Math and forget that their simplistic equations are Stuff That Came Out Of Their Heads, not reality. Sorry. *heavy breathing slows*
Will definitely read the Dartnell book, thanks for the tip. I do hope it doesn't presuppose that there is only one, inevitable way of rebuilding "our world"?

I do hope it doesn't presuppose that there is only one, inevitable way of rebuilding "our world"?

I'm happy to assure you it doesn't.

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