THE KNOWLEDGE book (website here) is a thought experiment that uses a hypothetical apocalypse from a global pandemic to explore behind the scenes of everything that we take for granted in our modern lives. Say the worst-case does happen and the world as we know it collapses. You're now part of a community of post-apocalyptic survivors.

  • What would you most want to know how to make and do for yourself?

  • How could you be ingenious to keep yourself alive and healthy in the immediate aftermath?

  • What would be most useful to scavenge for?

  • And in the longer term, how could you avoid another Dark Ages and take shortcuts through the web of science and technology to reboot civilisation again as quickly as possible..?

But I'd also love to hear your thoughts! What single possession or object would you prize most dearly? What would you consider to be the most vital knowledge or understanding to try and preserve in case of a cataclysm? What steps do you think could be taken to reboot civilisation as quickly as possible?

AMA. I'll be here all day, self-isolating in London... Cheers!

More about me on my homepage.

My proof


Comments: 453 • Responses: 79  • Date: 

within_reach289 karma

What area of science are you a Prof in? And what's your day job?

lewis_dartnell142 karma

I'm a biologist by background (Oxford), and am now an astrobiology researcher - looking into the possibility of life on other planers... My day job focusses on Mars, and if hardy bacteria could survive near the surface, and how to detect their 'biosignatures'

Logan_No_Fingers36 karma

On that side (Mars), what are the chances that by the time we find bacteria on Mars we can be sure it hasn't been put there by 20 years of uncontrolled & unregulated probes going to Mars?

IE 20 years on, you'd have to assume 4 or 5 countries & 10 private companies will have slammed probes, etc down on Mars multiple times.

Is there like a genome track record or something where we could go "OK, this is 100% not of earth"?

Equally, if something was on the Mars Rover, in 20 years will its DNA (?) still be the same? I'd assume it evolves pretty fast? So It'd look Alienish, but not be.

lewis_dartnell59 karma

These are all great questions, and exactly what astrobiologist (as well as space agencies like NASA, ESA, Roscosmos) spend a lot of time thinking about. Space-faring nations are signed-up to laws surrounding Planetary Protection, which is designed to prevent, or at least restrict as much as reasonably possible, the contamination of Mars from Earth.

But here's a possible future that might be really frustrating. Say we discover unambiguous signs of bacteria on Mars with one of our rovers, and bring some samples back to Earth to study much more closely. We then realise that that martian life is really similar to terrestrial life - perhaps even suspiciously similar. It uses DNA, and protein enzymes, and lipid bilayers. It's build effectively exactly the way that we are. Does that mean that there's only one way to make life out of organic chemistry. Or perhaps have we found our own contamination. And perhaps not even contamination from one of our probes, but cross-contamination from 'panspermia' over three billion years ago during the Late Heavy Bombardment, when all the inner planets were effectively sneezing in each other's faces...

magic0000810 karma

What's your opinion on the tardigrade spill in light of the laws on Planetary Protection?

lewis_dartnell23 karma

On the SpaceIL lander on the Moon? I was loosely involved in that mission (and indeed, a micro-copy of The Knowledge is now on the lunar surface...) but not in the decision to send tardigrades. Personally, I think that was ill-considered, but at the very least it was 'only' onto the Moon, which has no chance of ever having hosted life. We need to be a great deal less reckless with landers to Mars...

luminescent3 karma

Have you read Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series of novels? The ecological protection of Mars (including preservation from earth microbes) is a major theme that is explored.

lewis_dartnell7 karma

I've read the first, and am looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy. He also wrote a fascinating book along these sorts of lines called The Years of Rice and Salt

Melti7187 karma

Can I just say this is the coolest job description I can imagine out there and I'm jealous AF because I didn't take this path in life. Rock on

lewis_dartnell14 karma

Well, it keep me off the streets and out of trouble... There is plenty of info about astrobiology online, or, egotistically, in this book

sock20141 karma

Any opinions on Dr. Gil Levin's work?

lewis_dartnell2 karma

yeah, the results from those life-detection experiments on the Viking landers are confusing, to say the least. The current consensus is that the labelled release experiment didn't detect the waste gases from martian metabolism, but organics being broken down by the extremely oxidising chemistry of the martian soil -- it's like the martian dirt is laced with bleach

buddamus56 karma

If only 1 nation survived, what culture would be the best to build a better world?

lewis_dartnell132 karma

That is a really good question. I do wonder if eastern cultures might be far better off than westerners. Having a stronger, community spirit I think would be better for rebuilding as a society than a more individualistic, profit-focussed mindset

whythecynic68 karma

As someone who grew up in such an "Eastern" culture, it's just as individualistic and profit-centered. Financial success at any cost is a common worldview.

Which is why, somewhat ironically, I think you're right. Competition between groups of survivors will drive the rebuilding process, while the individualism-repressing aspects will work great to ensure compliance and suppress dissent within the group itself.

Basically, we'd be setting the stage for and gambling on an enlightened dictator, who have been the patrons of progress for much of humanity anyway.

lewis_dartnell28 karma

I think you're right, in a post-apocalyptic scenario, it will be competition as much as cooperation that will drive the recovery process - just as it was in our own historical trajectory!

poopsicle889 karma

I would think nomads would be most successful at first in an apocalyptic scenario

Already used to being on the move and hunting for resources and making most of living off the land.

lewis_dartnell7 karma

You're right, there are plenty of people in the world today who already don't live in what you or I might call 'civilisation'. They already have all the survival skills they need for their culture, and probably won't blink if the rest of us disappeared tomorrow...

TheBigGrizzly45 karma

How do we prevent an apocalypse in the first place?

lewis_dartnell89 karma

It depends exactly which form of existential hazard you mean. Clearly we're currently facing a global pandemic, and the methods to prevent this becoming too disastrous are all over the news at the moment. But there are other hazards that, although improbably, could also collapse global civilisation. Geophysical hazards, like a supervolcano eruption (such as the one underlying Yellowstone Park) wouldn't leave us with many options and it's not the sort of thing you could prevent. An asteroid impact could be deflected, if detected early enough.

And then there's the really stupid stuff we do to ourselves. Nuclear war, environmental collapse, etc...

peteski197928 karma

The way 2020 has been so far Yellowstone or an asteroid wouldn't surprise me.

lewis_dartnell42 karma

Don't tempt fate....

Void_00002 karma

Actually I've heard that there's been an increase in geological activity around Yellowstone, so there's that... (probably just people being paranoid, but you never know)

lewis_dartnell2 karma

Well that'd be just our luck the way 2020 is currently playing out...

Void_00002 karma

Few asteroids got close to earth recently, at least we didn't get hit with that!

lewis_dartnell2 karma

We've identified and are now tracking all of the large NEAs (near-Earth asteroids), yeah. What's more concerning is the unknown unknowns of the comets. A comet could be nudged out of its orbit in the far outer solar system and start falling in towards the Earth - unlike an asteroid, we wouldn't have seen it before and get perhaps only a few months warning.

froubear7 karma

Would you say environmental collapse is more likely than a supervolcano eruption

lewis_dartnell21 karma

Well, we are witnessing the beginnings of devastating climate change and ecological destruction and so know that this is clearly possible. I don't believe it will collapse our current civilisation, however. A super-volcano eruption would be globally devastating, but there is a very very low probability of that occurring in our lifetimes

spicyferretballs71 karma

By not calling a pandemic "a democrat hoax"

lewis_dartnell63 karma

Yup, that certainly is concerning... And I fear has greatly delayed an effective response to coronavirus to keep people safe

Casehead8 karma

It has greatly confused the vulnerable minds out there. People are refusing to cooperate with social distancing because they think that it’s all a big lie by the “other”. It’s insane.

lewis_dartnell7 karma

Well, the issue of 'fake news' is certainly concerning. But I think more what's been happening with the coronavirus outbreak is that most people who catch it are largely asymptotic - they don't feel ill at all and don't see why they should isolate away

CorpZ34735 karma

Out of all the authors that stroll through here, I actually have read your book. I decided to read it in highschool. I found it very fascinating. Where did you happen to learn everything you talk about in the book? You talk about a lot of things I feel most people wouldnt consider doing during an apocalypse.

lewis_dartnell32 karma

Thank you - appreciated! I'm a scientist, and was fascinated by this question of how you could go right back to basics and make and do everything for yourself, if you ever needed to. So clearly a lot of research came from reading a whole lot of books (the bibliography is available here - and many of these are free downloads) and interviewing lots of experts in different fields.

But I also wanted to get a lot of hands-on experience myself, and so tried making lots of things from scratch. There's more info on some of these on the book's website if you're interested:

CorpZ3478 karma

Awesome! Thank you so much! I've always been fascinated by that kind of stuff too. I always try and find books that have only a few humans in it, and they have to rebuild civilization. I will definitely have to check out those other books. It sounds like they are worth the read. As was your book.

lewis_dartnell9 karma

Ah, well, then you would love most of the books on this list that I curated, of the best novels on post-apocalyptic worlds or rebuilding from scratch: BEST POST-APOCALYPTIC BOOKS

Cubcake132 karma

We likely will not emerge from this with only economic bruising. Assuming this virus eventually clears up, what major things do you think will be completely different long term possibly forever?

lewis_dartnell80 karma

Well, I'd like to think that there will be meaningful social changes that come out of this pandemic. Issues like zero-hour contracts, lack of paid sick leave, lack of national health services, etc are all come to the fore at the moment, and hopefully this will be the jolt to improve these situations.

It's also worth pointing out that there was a silver lining to the Bubonic Plaque (not that Covid-19 will be as devastating). In Britain, and the rest of Europe to a certain extent, the surviving labourers found that they had much more leverage and the feudal system loosened.

digitalis30326 karma

A second silver lining was HIV resistance/immunity. Granted, it took 500 years to be worth anything, but hey, it's not nothing!

For those who didn't already know... Bubonic plague is strongly suspected to have selected for a mutation that keeps HIV from being able to get into Helper T cells

lewis_dartnell7 karma

yes, there is that as well! Interesting perspective on that here

spewnybard5 karma

The thing is, they had more leverage because a lot of labourers were dead. The people Covid-19 is hitting the hardest are the elderly and those who are immunocompromised, not healthy young people. So unless there's a mutation, we won't be seeing the same outcome for labourers. (imo: we may instead see a spike in automation, leading to less available jobs)

lewis_dartnell4 karma

In this case, young and fit labourers are not the highest risk category for mortality, no. But we are all none-the-less needing to isolate in order to slow the rapid spread of the disease, avoid overwhelming healthcare capacity, and so protecting the elderly and immunocompromised. This crisis has deeply underscored what is currently wrong about many labour practices and lack of social health care (zero-hour contracts, no paid sick leave, etc, etc)

yahhhguy22 karma

Are there any experimental or theoretical areas of science that focus on how to impart knowledge without actually earning it (a la the Matrix “I know Kung fu”)? Or even just areas we could potentially radically improve or expand education, perhaps through controversial methods?

I often think about how we are born essentially the same as any animal in nature, and it takes culture and education to become less ignorant.

This is a fascinating topic, thanks for doing the AMA.

lewis_dartnell76 karma

Do you mean like downloading directly into your brain from a computer connection..? I don't see that being possible for the foreseeable future.

But in a sense, that's exactly what books already do for you. You can absorb through your eyes the knowledge accumulated by someone 1,000 miles away, or 1,000 years in the past, without you ever meeting them... That thought blows my mind

nopethis18 karma

So what is "Step 1"

As in, apocalypse or not, what is something that everyone should probably do now.

And while we still have access to the internet (if that goes, shits gonna get real) what knowledge would you recommend learning first?

lewis_dartnell31 karma

Even assuming an apocalypse never happens, I think all of us would do well to appreciate a little more where everything we take for granted in our lives actually comes from. How is it made? Where does it come from? I think we've become increasingly removed from the technology we use on a day-to-day basis, and that most of us are feeling a bit dissatisfied by that. I think that's why we've been seeing a huge surge in craft skills and maker fairs, etc.

But let's say we've spotted an asteroid on a collision course for Earth, and we have 6 months to preserve the most useful information in a bunker. The sort of stuff I think would be most useful would be:

  • the basics of farming and making food come out of the ground

  • metal-working and smelting metals from ores

  • extracting basic substances from the natural world for making useful stuff like soap.

That's what I'd be downloading How To videos from YouTube on...

digitalis30317 karma

Some other things that immediately come to my mind:

-How to make concrete/cement and other large scale industrial products.

-How to make pharmaceutical products like antibiotics (since that is so knowledge-intensive.

-Circuit design and electricity. Which leads to....

-Basic science. That stuff could get lost pretty easily if we didn't actively preserve it.

lewis_dartnell13 karma

Yep, I would 100% agree with each of those, and do explain the basics of how to make them in the book. The interesting thing about concrete is that it was first invented by the ancient Romans. They used volcanic ash as one of the ingredients, and it gave them the incredible strategic advantage of being able to build harbours wherever they needed - cement sets even when underwater. This technology was lost to history during the Dark Ages after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and needed to be rediscovered. Just imagine how things might have played out if a Roman historian had written something like The Knowledge in 450 AD...

Hahentamashii3 karma

The way I like to underscore how bad the dark ages were is we "f*cking lost concrete!"

lewis_dartnell3 karma

Sure, but the medieval cathedrals were better for it...

AlternativeQuo15 karma

I already, right now, want to know how to make use of the extremely limited space I have to grow food as I fear the threat to the global food supply chain. I live in the UK and have a matchbox garden but I do have a conservatory. Could I actually grow anything that would help sustain me and my husband, or will I yield two chillies and one tomato three months from now?

Most vital knowledge - pain relief. One of my big anxieties right now is running out of ibuprofen.

lewis_dartnell15 karma

Using simple small-scale methods, 5 acres of land is enough to support a group of up to ten people: wheat for bread, barley for beer, a diverse range of fruit and veg, as well as cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens for meat, milk, eggs and other products. But even for just the two of you, I think you would struggle to grown enough sustenance within only a conservatory, without resorting to pretty high-tech solutions like hydroponics and grow lights. I live in a small flat in west London without any garden space -- I'm not looking good...

In terms of pain relief, within the boundaries of this thought experiment I do explain in The Knowledge how to extract pain-relief (analgesics) from poppies. But without modern pharmaceutical methods any drugs are very hit and miss

dedicated-pedestrian3 karma

Salicylic acid, the main ingredient of aspirin, is also able to be derived from multiple plants, notably the willow tree! However, the processing used today invented by Bayer (which serves to reduce stomach upset when taken orally) wouldn't be easily replicable.

That said, Hippocrates and the Egyptians made do with plain old willow bark, so we can suck it up, eh?

lewis_dartnell3 karma

Sure, many of the medications we use today are derived from phytochemicals - natural planet compounds. And antibiotics, of course, mainly as fungal secondary products. The advances made in medicine through the twentieth century were mostly in working out how to mass produce these useful compounds, and then use them safely (ie. in terms of consistent dose). Penicillium grows as mouldy bread, but you won't beat septicaemia by licking it...

Sofapilot12 karma

As a fun question to provoke debate - given the different government responses around the world, can we infer that democracy is not the best political system to deal with such situations?

lewis_dartnell30 karma

Salty... But yes, I'd be inclined to agree with that. More autocratic political systems are certainly able to impose tough, unpalatable courses of actions on their populace, and not worry about the short-term (or even longer-term) unpopularity that drives a lot of decisions in Democracies. But, looking at South Korea, which has a presidential republic, they've been able to achieve a very robust and effective response far quicker than western Democracies in Europe or North America

THASF11 karma

I would love to be self-isolating right now, but I work a transportation sector job that requires my physical presence, and I’m basically essential staff for an essential service. I keep watching my employers engage in a dizzying array of half-measures, one after another. First, they wanted everyone to wear nitrile gloves in public spaces. Then, they had them starting to spray disinfectant everywhere, almost pointlessly. It’s no use. It’s an airborne virus. Most people will pick it up from droplets or aerosols, not touching fomites. The moment a decontaminated room is occupied by infected people again, it’s instantly contaminated.

My father used to be into live steam as a hobby, building model steam engines. Modern technology has many important building blocks. If we don’t have access to precision casting or CNC mills, we would need to relearn more primitive methods of metalworking. Blacksmithing, filing, fitting, and machining and welding parts by hand. Tools like the file, hand drill, wheeling machine, and so on, would become extremely valuable. A recent post-apocalypse after a pandemic would be a paradise full of scrap metal and tons of valuable resources. Think of all the abandoned cars. That’s one of the reasons why I never really thought very much of most post-apocalypse stories; the survivors often leave tons of very valuable materials untouched, and there are always ruins and wasted land everywhere, even if there is plenty of untapped labor available to clear the rubble and start over. When I reached the Institute in Fallout 4, my first reaction was “Are you kidding me? If you have all this, then why haven’t you scrapped all those steel structures on the surface and built prefab shelters for people to live in?”

An understanding of biology and medicines is important, but also primitive medicines like herbal medicines, substances that can be used as antiseptics and stimulants, et cetera. Herbalism is often inferior in terms of effectiveness to modern synthetic drugs, but hey, you have to take what you can get. Metalworking, basic agriculture and crop rotation, the creation and use of various basic hand tools, etc.

I think one of the most troubling things about modern society is how far we’ve gotten from primitive tech. We’re reliant on tech that doesn’t really engage our hand-eye coordination or muscle memory. Skills with programming CNC mills don’t always translate into hand-metalworking skills, and many techniques and disciplines requiring hand tools are becoming a dying art, replaced by automation and sophisticated machinery. The most successful groups in any post-apocalypse will be those who have embraced a form of mild primitivism, because they will be most familiar with primitive tech. Horse-drawn carriages, shoeing horses, drawing plows, et cetera.

What’s your opinion on our loss of understanding of primitive tech?

lewis_dartnell7 karma

Thank you very much for making that sacrifice and continuing to keep things running at the moment - genuinely and heart-felt thanks!

But yes, I agree with all of that. Most of us have no idea at all how the even the simplest devices we use on a day-to-day basis actually work, or would have the slightest hope of trying to repair them.

I do really like this idea of scavenging and repurposing the scrap you would find in a post-apocalyptic scenario. I play around with this idea in Chapter 1 of The Knowledge -- such as how a washing machine can be converted into a wind turbine, or how a gulf buggy offers really useful 'deep cycle' batteries for building an off-grid electrical network for yourself...

DigiMagic11 karma

Say due to some catastrophe we devolve to stone age, but we have your book (or similar ones) and we know how to read. How long would it take us to launch a rocket to rescue Elon Musk (or Matt Damon) who got stranded on Mars during the catastrophe?

lewis_dartnell16 karma

That's pretty much exactly the thought experiment I'm trying to answer in The Knowledge -- how much could you accelerate history a second time around, if only you've been given a map to the most important scientific discoveries and technologies to try to leap-frog between... It took us around 5,000 years to get from the Bronze Age to Mars rovers, and I wonder if we could get that down to just a few centuries if only you had a Manual for Civilisation that told you all the most useful stuff!

CptnBlackTurban1 karma

Hey Professor, great stuff! I often think at times what I would do or prepared for when society collapses. Living and having my whole family in NYC I talk to them about buying a farm somewhere in NJ or PA by a river to be self sufficient. I shortly lived in a country where infrastructure was very bad. It's an eye opener when you realize how no running water is infinitely worse than no electricity. Theoretically, I would try to raise chicken if set up.

Why I'm replying to this comment is I would like to think that recreating society could happen quicker during the "2nd go-round" but probably won't (and who's to say that this time is the 2nd go round? Maybe 3rd, 4th...). I don't think it's a lack of knowledge that prevents humans from excelling. There's high level knowledge out there today and we're not in a rush to download and absorb it. Why would being in a "worse situation" become a catalyst all of a sudden? It's like when you're about to fall asleep and plan on the many improvements to your life you will do the next day but wake up and go straight to that unhealthy breakfast. We're coded to be slowly developing life forms. My theory is that it's *not a lack of cutting edge knowledge that's the issue it's how quickly can we spread it: when can new technology be produced where it's accessible to the masses and not only available to those at the top. I see this as the universal barometer of progress.

Living in a major city: if the worse were to happen; are we all sitting ducks? Back to my country house by the river idea: if I'm not set up for it before it hits the fan how likely can I set up for it after "it" happens? I imagine all of the bridges and tunnels will be barricaded and unless if you have a secret boat or helicopter the initial set up will be the harder task than managing it.


lewis_dartnell7 karma

Yeah, I feel exactly the same in my tiny flat in west London...

I see your point about the rate of progress often not being limited by access to information, but other social or cultural factors, and I think there's a lot in that. There're really interesting discussions, for example, on why the Industrial Revolution happened in Britain in the early 18th century, and not somewhere else or some other time. Britain had access to a lot of coal, and that certainly helped in the later industrial revolution, but wasn't what began it in the first place. It was much more down to the socio-economic conditions in Britain that meant that labour was expensive but capital and raw materials were cheap, and so there was a strong economic incentive to replace human craftspeople with machines

ravenpotter310 karma

What would be the best way to preserve and document the memes of the internet so the future generations can see them if a apocalypse happens? Do you think we should try to make an effort to preserve and document them?

lewis_dartnell9 karma

I think right now you should begin documenting the most influential video memes and animated gifs by recreating them as flip books made out of parchment...

More seriously, it's not just scientific understand and technological inventions that would be important to record and preserve for posterity, but art and culture and literary and music as well. There'd be no joy in a post-apocalyptic world without music and stories. And yes, I think memes and humour have a place in there as well

luminescent8 karma

Do modern garbage dumps represent useful concentrations of metals for a hypothetical future post-apocalyptic recovery of civilizations, or are they simply unpleasant sources of groundwater contamination? Do you think it would be viable to start a second industrial revolution from scratch given the current status of raw materials? I'm assuming that most of the earth's most convenient surface ores (such as Greenland's cryolite) have already been fully exploited.

lewis_dartnell10 karma

Yes, absolutely! And in fact, Japan is already considering 'landfill-mining' its dumps to extract all the previous metals that got thrown out with electronics, smart phones, etc. It's been estimated that some dumps in Japan have more gold in them than natural mother lodes...

In a post-apocalyptic scenario, you'd find that aluminium is the most useful metal to scavenge. It's very hard to smelt in the first place (which is why aluminium was used in history so much later than copper, tin, lead, iron, etc) but once you've got the pure metal it's very corrosion-resistant. And it's also got a nice, low melting point. You can melt and then cast aluminium using even a primitive forge.

luminescent1 karma

Thanks, I've always wondered about that! Unrelated additional question:

Do you think that there are regions on Mars that have yet to be explored by rovers where we are significantly more likely to find evidence of life? Is there any reason to expect a mission to polar regions that could drill ice, and would that be an interesting destination from the point of view of an astrobiologist? I don't really know how long ice persists in those areas on Mars and whether it is likely to have formed a lengthy record similar to Antarctic ice on Earth, but I'm surprised it doesn't seem to have been considered.

lewis_dartnell2 karma

Definitely -- we've only been able to explore a handful of single points on Mars with our landers and rovers - imagine trying to explore all of Earth from only a few landing sites...

The main considerations for selecting a landing site for a mission to Mars to look for signs of life are ancient terrain (the environment of a warmer, wetter Mars collapsed a long time ago) and a place where we can see signs of ancient liquid water

Zacian8 karma

Do you know how sexy you look? (I resisted not asking this, but during apocalyptical times I guess we're more open to saying what comes to mind.)

A real question: What's an unpopular science opinion you have? Something you believe in, though not everyone would agree on.

lewis_dartnell12 karma

Thank you, I think...?

Ok, well since you asked, here goes... My new book, ORIGINS, is all about how features of planet Earth have directed the course of human history. Clearly nowadays we're screwing things up pretty badly with CO2 emissions and climate change. And in fact, it seems pretty certain that we've already warmed the entire planet so much that we have cancelled the next ice age. But you could argue that perhaps, in the long-term view of things, that would be good for humanity -- having 4 mile-thick sheets of ice grinding across the northern hemisphere and much of the rest of the world turning into cold, dry, wastelands, would be a very difficult thing for our cities and civilisation to adapt to. I'm not saying that global warming is a good thing, of course, but there is that other angle in the long-term...

lunarul3 karma

It's nice there won't be another ice age, but will we still be around to be happy about it?

lewis_dartnell3 karma

This was an Unpopular Opinion for the very long-term. None of us will be alive for the next ice age

lunarul1 karma

I don't get it then. You said:

having 4 mile-thick sheets of ice grinding across the northern hemisphere and much of the rest of the world turning into cold, dry, wastelands, would be a very difficult thing for our cities and civilisation to adapt to

The angle was that another ice age would be bad for human civilization, so at least we've got that going for us. But if we're not going to be around anyway, what's the advantage of cancelling the next ice age? It's not bad for the rest of the planet, definitely not as bad as runaway greenhouse effect.

lewis_dartnell2 karma

People often don't just think about themselves, but their children or descendants. Human civilisation has been around for ~5,000 years, and we would hope that it'll continue for the next 5,000 years too. These are long time scales to be considering

Harryboi126 karma

I have read numerous theories that the world would rebuild itself after an apocalypse and thrive in the absence of humanity. So do you think our survival prove to be a chance for us to grow further or just another path for us to return to the same toxic cycle?

lewis_dartnell11 karma

I think you're right - if humanity ever were to suffer an apocalypse (i.e. a mass depopulation event) then Nature would probably benefit and very rapidly 'rewild' our artificial environments like cities. The World Without Us ( or The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks? ( are both fascinating books on exactly this question. That's, of course, unless the nature of the apocalypse was a catastrophic nuclear war, in which case everything gets slammed hard. '

But if we ever did hit the reset button, I'd like to think that we wouldn't make the same mistakes all over again...

Klanne6 karma

have you any more plans to work with how to make everything? id be interested to see if they can make a radio from homemade parts some day

lewis_dartnell5 karma

Yes, I am a huge fan of Andy George, and we've collaborated on a number of videos together. Take a look at:

I've left him with a particularly tricky challenge - and am looking forward to seeing how he copes with it..!

Covfefetarian5 karma

What do you think we as individuals can and should do at this very moment, other than the immediate measures such as washing o hands and practicing social distancing, to help us come out at the other end of this as unscathed as possible?

lewis_dartnell6 karma

I'm not an epidemiologist specifically, but that is exactly my understanding. To slow the spread of a contagion like this (i.e. to 'flatten the curve') you need to a) reduce the number of other people you come into contact with and b) reduce the probability of passing on the virus when you do

Personally, I think it's only a matter of time (days, perhaps) before the UK begins a much more stringent lock-down policy (as already seen in e.g. Italy), and hopefully in the US and elsewhere too.

kiwi_reader5 karma

What's the most preventable source of human suffering during an apocalyptic situation?

lewis_dartnell10 karma

What I reckon is the most important piece of understanding, that I hope would never get lost to history, is Germ Theory -- the idea that the reason people get sick and pass diseases on to each other is that there are organisms which are so incredibly small that they are invisible to your eyes. Once you understand that, you understand why it's important to keep your sewerage and your drinking water separate (which even in London in the mid-nineteenth century wasn't being done) to prevent waterborne diseases, and why it's important to wash your hands. The chemistry behind making soap is ludicrously simple -- you only need animal fat and ashes from a fire -- and this simple knowledge could keep a lot of people much healthier if we restarted again from scratch

Norgeroff5 karma

What color is your toothbrush?

lewis_dartnell20 karma

Blue. But it's electric, and so one of the first things I'd have to throw away if the grid ever did go down...

I do, however, always know exactly where my towel is...

PizzaQuest4202 karma

an electric toothbrush without power is like a broken escalator.. it still works, it just takes more effort

lewis_dartnell3 karma

You know what, I like your way of thinking!

ROK2475 karma

Once the police stop going to work, what chance does a person have if they don't have a gun?

lewis_dartnell5 karma

Well, I think it depends on where you are. But yes, if there ever were a complete social collapse, I think a period of violence might be inevitable. We see that in civil wars in recent history

secret_panic_24 karma

If everything collapses as we know it, how would a globalised planet deal with growing food. Since such a large amount of what we eat isn't from our country, how will it change agriculture and food habits. Will we go back to being hunter-gatherers? Will the lack of endemic food... Procurement processes kill us?

lewis_dartnell13 karma

Yeah, that would be a very important concern. One of the ideas about how to keep lots of people fed if there were a catastrophe would be to use the infrastructure established by huge fast food chains like MacDonalds. They are very effective at turning cows into food, and there are enormous numbers of cattle in the US especially.

But people have also been thinking about really innovative ways of feeding people, even in something as catastrophic as the nuclear winter after a large asteroid impact, when plants cannot be grown effectively with traditional agriculture. One idea is to fell entire forests, and use the decomposing trunks to grow specific mushrooms and fungi. Not pleasant, but at least it would keep people alive long enough to start boot-strapping other solutions...

PanickyMushroom3 karma

I’m a lawyer. We’re screwed in a post-apocalyptic environment, aren’t we?

lewis_dartnell4 karma

Well it depends... What skills have you got..?

PanickyMushroom2 karma

I can make a mean grilled cheese.

lewis_dartnell2 karma

You're on my post-apocalyptic survival team! Wait, hang on, do you also know where to make bread and milk from scratch too..?

Sityl3 karma

Did you enjoy the anime, "Dr. Stone?"

It has a similar premise.

lewis_dartnell3 karma

Ooh, not come across that before. Sounds interesting. Will look into it - cheers!

Zaratim3 karma

Hi Prof. Dartnell, after this covid-19 pandemic we could very likely be looking at a post-apocalyptic scenario. If we want this scenario to be better than the present one, we would want a different political/economical model than the present one. How do we get that to happen when money (i.e. power) is consolidated in the hands of so few, who have it in their interest to not change?

lewis_dartnell8 karma

I don't believe that Covid-19 will cause an apocalypse in the way that we'd recognise from cinema or TV series. But it could well fundamentally shift how our economics / politics/ society works, as you say. And in fact, I would hope that this jolt -- a warning-shot, if you like -- would drive us to reform some of these things.

Money doesn't necessarily need to be consolidated in so few hands, and many nations in the world already do have a much more equitable distribution of wealth

Zaratim2 karma

Okay, but the countries that don't have equitable distribution of wealth (like the US and UK) are also global leaders. How do you get them to change?

lewis_dartnell2 karma

the simple answer is by voting. Personally, I didn't vote for the current UK government and I would have liked to see other leaders in power.

Ferv0ur3 karma

Firstly I'd like to say I love your book. It's on my shelf and it's an amazing read.

In case of a actual collapse in society - do you think there are any special social measures we will need to take to prevent everyone from devolving into violent looters? Or, do you think we are just so social that humans will work together for the common good?

lewis_dartnell2 karma

Cheers - really glad to hear you found it interesting!

Personally, I'm not sure what could be done in the event of a total societal collapse to prevent people rioting, looting, and descending into a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. I think that's the one thing that many post-apocalyptic films and TV series get right. But that will only last for a period, before order begins re-establishing itself and people settle down again to rebuild. After all, we are a naturally cooperative species, and it's only by working together well over the centuries that we've been able to build all that we take for granted in our modern lives

SEGFourth3 karma

What are your thoughts on the work of Jacque Fresco and Peter Joseph?

lewis_dartnell3 karma

I admit I had to look them both up. thanks for that tip-off; look forward to digging in deeper to their ideas tomorrow

Sofapilot3 karma

Fun question.. how do you think popular culture, such as the "Walking Dead" series, has influenced the public's response (loads of angles to take here) to the pandemic?

lewis_dartnell3 karma

Yeah, great question! If anything, I think people should be taking the very real dangers presented by Covid-19 much more seriously - at least that's my impression from the UK where I live, and watching the news reports from other countries. Zombies aren't real of course, but that doesn't mean that contagions can't be devastating.

Squeazle3 karma

During the last Ebola scare, I felt it would be a good time to reread The Stand, I guess I know what I'm reading now!

I do have a question though. I really love post-apocalypse thought experiments and have mentally mapped out several for my situation. I've drawn the line at actual hardcore prepping but let's just say my hurricane kit (I live in Florida) is top notch. The biggest difficulty I think we would face, provided the EOTW scenario isn't catastrophic to the climate, is the retention of all the necessary knowledge to first survive, then thrive. What are the best resources for that knowledge that one could archive and what might the best medium for their storage be? Books are great but take up too much space/weight and electronics have almost unlimited storage but are susceptible to EMP or data loss.

lewis_dartnell2 karma

Yeah I agree absolutely! In terms of the best resources for knowledge, there are freely downloadable libraries of scanned books on practical skills like carpentry, metal-working, agriculture, etc.

One of the projects I conducted for The Knowledge was to hack an APOCALYPSE-PROOF KINDLE to store an entire library of human knowledge, and keep itself charged with solar panels. Keep it shielded from an EMP and this would genuinely be a hugely useful resource.

In the pages of The Knowledge, I explain how to make your own primitive printing press, homemade paper and simple ink, and so the book contains all the information you need to make other books... After the apocalypse you could begin manually downloading the crucial information on your digital device (before it fails) back into physical media using a primitive printing press

velabas3 karma

Hi Lewis, great book, read it two years back. In your opinion, what aspect of the rebuilding is most critical in reinvigorating civilization?

Also, how has writing this book affected how you live your life day to day if at all?

I just remembered your book inspired this thing i made

lewis_dartnell3 karma

Oh gosh yes I would love to work on a HOW TO CIVILIZATION 101 course!

Researching and writing The Knowledge was incredibly interesting and fulfilling, but I don't think it's fundamentally changed how I live my life. I'm a bit more appreciative of stuff that I took for granted before, and enjoy understanding how it works behind the scenes, but I've not become a doomsday prepper. Living in London, I've got about a fortnight's worth of food tops...

tgibook3 karma

I am disabled (progressive MS) but I essentially live alone with 5 cats. I have been sheltering in my home for weeks already. My best friend came to shelter with me. If a major fail in the infrastructure happened and the utilities go out we would probably head down to Mexico. He is a dual citizen and has a number of properties down there. A couple are not dependent on utilities just because they are located on a mountain surrounded by groves of naturally growing fruit trees. He is pretty stocked up already just because going to the store is such a journey. He's a former federal police officer down there and because of his job is covered in tattoos and looks like a narco. He always has knives on him and insists its all he needs. I'm sure he has guns in Mexico.

I would take my dad's necklace with a gold and diamond emblem of his company that he wore everyday and the family Torah which is about 900 years old and my cats. Do you think I'm prepared enough?

The only other question I have is do you know my cousin Ruby Wax? I thought she was teaching psychology at Oxford, but when we last spoke she was getting ready for a show.

lewis_dartnell2 karma

You know what, if a collapse of society ever did come about, I reckon you'd be pretty set up in a secluded compound in Mexico. That sounds idyllic!

Ruby Wax - I don't know her personally, but certainly know exactly who she is! I know that she was a visiting lecturer on aspects of mental health at Oxford, but she must do that alongside her other TV work.

SequesterMe2 karma

What can we do to reduce the likelihood that such a crappy administration as we have now doesn't get back in charge of things?

lewis_dartnell4 karma

Are you writing from the US? Clearly, the single most important thing you can do to change your leaders is to not only vote yourself, but encourage everyone else you know to vote too. It's apathy amongst moderate voters that lets popularist leaders in...

col_impact2 karma

Prof Darnell, do you think based on my skill set / comment history that I would be someone who would perish or thrive in a post Apocalyptic world? IAMA martial artist, visual effects artist, expert care provider, and an academic researcher with an advanced degree in the anthropology of religion. I wrote a thesis that looked at the interaction between western society and indigenous cultures through the lens of Navajo philosophy. I have picked up an extensive amount of survivalist knowledge.

lewis_dartnell2 karma

Fascinating - such a diverse background! I would definitely want you on my post-apocalyptic survival team...

miladymondegreen2 karma

How do we rebuild our world after an apocalypse?

lewis_dartnell3 karma

Great question. You want the short answer or the long answer...?

ChipOnly2 karma

Hey Prof, I got a question for you!

Do you think it's ethical to capitalize on and feed widespread public fear, in an effort try and move some copies of a book?

lewis_dartnell6 karma

That's a fair question. I have researched and written a book on this topic, and that is the source of my limited expertise within this discussion on AMA. But I don't think I'm being shamefully self-promoting in this conversation?

OpasnostLapshoi2 karma

Do you consider yourself a survivalist/prepper?

What are the top 5 most important skills a person should cultivate in order to survive such a situation as described in your book?

lewis_dartnell2 karma

I don't consider myself as a prepper or survivalist, no. I researched and wrote 'The Knowledge' because I was curious about how things work behind the scenes of our modern world, and how you could reboot civilisation as quickly as possible if you ever needed to. A good starting point for this thought-experiment was a hypothetical apocalypse and the loss of everything we take for granted in our modern lives.

But let's say this ever were to happen. I think I'd be looking for people with hands-on, practical skills - hunting, farming, carpentry, metal-working, mechanics, nurses, and so on

DJ_T3DDY2 karma

With the trajectory we are currently on, what’s the likelihood that COVID-19 is going to be catastrophic? We’re in the early stages now, but how on track are we to this being along the likes of a modern day Black Plague type pandemic?

lewis_dartnell3 karma

I'm not an epidemiologist (but my degree is in Biology), but it is my understanding that Covid-19 is a very serious public health-risk around the world and will end up killing a great many people and harm the global economy, but it will not collapse society or result in an apocalypse. It will not kill 30-50% of people like the Bubonic Plague

sol_plaatje_writes2 karma

Hi. What aspects of modern society do you think I should certainly not reintroduce when I take over my corner of the world post-apocalypse? Some stuff is easy like racism and witch-hunts. Is there anything that seems like a really good idea but is actually probably bad?

For example I think we will probably have stricter sexual mores in a post-contraception world, but I don't think the old patriarchy makes more sense than, say, matrilineal property inheritance. That seems like the system we should have had from the start.

lewis_dartnell5 karma

I'd like to think that a post-apocalyptic community -- given the opportunity of starting from scratch with a blank slate and without the baggage of history -- would craft itself into an open-minded, liberal, free-thinking society... I'm just not quite that optimistic. Or maybe naive... I think the bottom line is that while you can explain in a book the basics of how to make and do everything you need, you can't be prescriptive about things like law, governance, etc. Those will be defined by the culture itself

Smeggywulff2 karma

What are your feelings about the Long Now Foundation? I've always found the idea of the Rosetta Disk very interesting, but it seems somewhat impractical.

lewis_dartnell2 karma

Yeah, I'm a huge fan. I've done talks for them in San Francisco, and their 'Manual for Civilisation' project was started partly because of my interactions with them -- I've contributed a pile of books to this library effort. What makes you say the Rosetta Disk was impractical?

Smeggywulff1 karma

I'm imagining a true post apocalyptic scenario where there are only a handful of these left, probably forgotten by most of humanity, then they have to find a magnification device strong enough to read the micro etchings. I'd also personally love to see disks for science as well as languages, chemical compound lists, manufacturing guides for things ranging from simple water pumps to more complicated things like how a solar panel works and how to make one and all the trappings needed for it to function.

lewis_dartnell2 karma

Oh I see. I think the nuance is that my book isn't really about the end of the world; it's about exploring behind the scenes of how our modern world actually works. And the Rosetta Stone I think was intended as a statement about ourselves -- in the same way the Voyager disks are not really a serious attempt to send a message-in-a-bottle to aliens, but to hold a mirror to our own culture

420farms2 karma

I've often wondered this... in a capitalistic society, people are in a race to succeed / money etc, where the individual is accountable for their own... and may have strong views agaisnt those who cant or wont follow in that same regard and require public assistance....

But in a society based system do you think the mindset and actions would differ in that there is now accountability spread throughout and that could lead to better assistance and more focused based society?

lewis_dartnell2 karma

Yeah I think there are already many cultures and societies around the world where looking after each other for the common good is a keystone of how their system works

Sofapilot2 karma

Over the last three weeks, online retailers have sold out of UK-legal weapons such as crossbows. Is that to be expected, and what can we deduce?

lewis_dartnell2 karma

I'd not heard that, but it is interesting... It's understandable that people would want to take steps to protect their family and loved ones from perceived threats. What I do wonder about, is how differently a collapse-of-social-order (if it ever happened) would play out in somewhere like the UK with a relative scarcity of very lethal weapons in peoples hands, compared against the US, for example, with a huge prevalence of firearms...

Sam-Gunn2 karma

I am going to be very disappointed if you don't cover important things like how to become the leader of a band of raiders, or how to survive in the Thunderdome without years of previous MMA or fighting experience.

In all seriousness, this looks pretty cool, even if it has shortcomings that some of the amazon comments appear to point out. They don't sound like insane shortcomings, just more of lacking certain amounts of detail when getting into some of the more complex issues you might face.

What encouraged me to buy the book (and not the kindle version, but something I can use as a reference in case society actually collapses) is that you're speaking on some of what I, a layperson, considered to be very big questions around surviving societal collapse, or being sent back in time to the middle ages without a means to return, or similar. Whichever might occur, at least in my mind as a potential thought experiment.

Such as penicillin. In the amazon sample (Which is when I decided to buy this) you mention how those breakthroughs were by chance, and could've easily taken years or longer to come about if that one spark of chance hadn't happened.

Rebuilding beyond basic first aid was always a question I liked to think about on long drives or whatever. I technically know what penicillin is, and that it came from mold, but how many books would i have to go through in a library (that still existed mostly intact) to find HOW to identify the proper strain of mold, cultivate it, and use it? Much less build a microscope (my believe was I'd not be able to make one, even a recreation of one of the first ones built) so I'd always believed if I had to, my ability to do certain things that need a microscope, I'd have to rely on somehow finding one.

Definitely can't wait to read it!

lewis_dartnell4 karma

Perhaps I should have explained in the book how to tailor leather trousers that are just that little bit too tight-fitting.... ;o)

But yes, of course, there's only so much detail you can cram into 300 pages of a book, and critics will always have their own personal hobby they'd have liked to see more about... Can't please all the people...

Ilemhoref1 karma

What are your thoughts on the novel "earth abides"? And why do you think we could transfer our knowledge to future generations in a post apocalyptic society?

Love your book, have a nice self-isolation period.

My answers: I want the most to build my own barn and tend to my own farm, creating my own food seems utopian.

I think I could keep myself alive with my family and close friends, we are after all mostly social creatures. If they do not survive I think I could scavange for food, with a bike and my dog. Using the nearby trees I could make heat. Sadly I think I'll have to scavange for water.

In my opinion the most valuable thing to scavange for will be battery powered tools. With them it'll be much easier to build generators, shelter and most of what you'll (including ways to charge the batteries)

lewis_dartnell3 karma

Love it! It's the top one on my list of BEST POST-APOCALYPTIC BOOKS But yes, totally agreed on the need to scavenge for power tools for helping the rebuilding process

betteryeti1 karma

Hi Lewis! Why are you trying to make a global pandemic into a payday?

lewis_dartnell1 karma

The link to the book I researched and wrote is provided to establish for IAMA what expertise I have in certain topics. I have not provided any links to a sales page. I appreciate your point, but don't think it holds

Jamaraq1 karma

Off-topic, but this is a showerthought I have had for a long time, and perhaps you can give me a good guestimate.
How long would it take after an apocalyse to erase all signs of human civilization, provided plants and some animals survive? And more specifically, is the Earth old enough to have had a civilization before us, but of which all sign are erased by erosion, plate tectonics, and natural decay?

I am sorry, this is totally off-topic, but this thought experiment fascinates me to no end.

lewis_dartnell2 karma

Not off-topic at all, and a great questions. I do touch upon that in Chapter 1 of the book, but there are far better things to read for this particular thought experiment. I cannot rate highly enough:

dodecahedodo1 karma

Are you an early bird or a late night owl?

lewis_dartnell2 karma

Early bird. My brain begins shutting down long before 10pm...

forfearthatuwillwake1 karma

As someone who takes medication to survive, what do I do in a post-apocalyptic world?

lewis_dartnell2 karma

It depends on exactly which medications. I did research and find out for Chapter 1 of the book how long different drugs might be expected to remain effective for after a hypothetical apocalypse. Things like insulin that need to be refrigerated don't last very long, but many pills, including antibiotics, would still be efficacious decades after the 'best before' date

jennsamx1 karma

I see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on your shelf behind you. It's either out of order or orphaned. Where are the others? How can you handle a bookshelf of chaos?

lewis_dartnell2 karma

Hah - good spot! There I was trying to look all intellectual with my Umberto Eco and I've been outed as a Potter fan too...

Neniaite1 karma

What are your thoughts on the Georgia Guidestones?


What role do you believe mental health professionals will have in a collapsed world?

lewis_dartnell2 karma

Yeah the Georgia Guidestone is really interesting -- I visited it after coming to Atlanta for an astrobiology conference. I'm not convinced it carries the most useful message, but I love the mystery surrounding who actually built it, and for what ends...

Mental health -- I think this will be enormously important for recovering from any disaster. Even at the moment, with many people self-isolating during the coronavirus pandemic, mental health is of utmost importance