How We Got to Now, by Steven Johnson (Riverhead Books, 259 pages)
Here’s an idea: Let’s ditch Common Core and make Steven Johnson the nation’s education czar. PBS may have already begun this, by broadcasting a six-part series based on the science writer’s new book, How We Got to Now, Six Innovations that Made the Modern World. Or maybe the book is based on the series; it’s hard to tell.
However genius the marketing, the venture succeeds because of two factors: first, the excellence of the book, a taut and engaging retelling of everything you should have learned in high school, but forgot right after the tests; and second, the fact that the author is a likeable know-it-all who happens to be extraordinarily telegenic. Never underestimate America’s ability to listen rapt to a square-jawed Adonis with shockingly blue eyes talk about the properties of cesium atoms.
But on to the book.
Innovations are not solitary things, but “networks of other ideas” that can only emerge once foundational concepts are in place. Hence, “The smartest mind in the world couldn’t invent a refrigerator in the middle of the seventeenth century. It simply wasn’t part of the adjacent possible at that moment. But by 1850, the pieces had come together,” Johnson writes.
To explain, Johnson employs an example from nature, which he dubs “the hummingbird effect.” During the Cretaceous period, when the dinosaurs lived, there was an explosion of flowering plants, as insects and blossoms thrived on the currency of pollen, and nectar developed. A surfeit of nectar, coincidentally, attracted and nourished hummingbirds, but for them to obtain it, their wings had to evolve to allow them to operate as tiny hovercrafts.
What began as an interaction between blossom and bee turned into a game-changer for another creature: “a virtually unknowable chain of causality” that is visible in virtually every innovation, the hummingbird effect taken wing.
Fast forward 65 million years, and the refrigerator is an example. Its genesis was a 25-year-old engineer named Willis Carrier, hired to regulate humidity at a printing press. But, as Johnson explains, “Carrier’s invention circulated more than just molecules of oxygen and water. It ended up circulating people as well.”
“It’s no accident that the world’s largest cities — London, Paris, New York, Tokyo — were almost exclusively in temperate climates until the second half of the twentieth century. What we are seeing now is arguably the largest mass migration in human history, and the first to be triggered by a home appliance.”
But the dispersal of humans to inhospitable climes actually began not with Carrier but with the Boston entrepreneur who started a freakishly implausible business: the selling of ice.
Frederic Tudor grew up wealthy and, as a young man, struggled to find a way to make his mark. Finally, after a trip to the Caribbean, he hatched a plan to harvest New England ice and sell it in tropical climes.
At first, the venture was a spectacular failure, landing Tudor in prison for debt. But with persistence and innovation, he ultimately made a fortune with a concept that had previously been unknown: the marketability of cold. In less than a century, Johnson writes, ice went from “a curiosity to a luxury to a necessity.” (An amusing aside: In 1906, The New York Times announced an ice famine in the U.S. If only, eh?)
From there, in a chapter simply titled “Cold,” Johnson introduces the Florida doctor who hung blocks of ice from the ceiling, to try to reduce the fever of malaria patients, and the naturalist who grasped the concept of flash freezing while fishing with the Inuits in Canada. (His name may be in your freezer right now.) Not all of these men are household names, but together, their endeavors formed the network of ideas that got us to modern life today.
The other innovations Johnson covers are glass, sound, clean, time and light. Altogether, they provide sweeping lessons of history better than any college textbook, because people learn better from stories they can connect to their lives than from memorizing sterile, abstract information. Also, Johnson plays connect-the-dots like a champ, as in his demonstration of how 19-year-old Galileo Galilei’s boredom at church led to the invention of the pendulum clock, which led to time clocks and watches, which led, of course, to the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. (Makes perfect sense when you read it.)
Because each domino must fall before you can get to another, How We Got to Now is not a book to skim, but one to be digested slowly, like a gummie vitamin. Gorgeous photographs and illustrations help assuage the full-frontal assault of information: from art in King Tut’s tomb to observatories on a dormant volcano to the laboratory of Alexander Graham Bell.
So which came first, the TV series, which began Oct. 15, or the book? They were “born together,” a collaborative process, Johnson’s publicist assures us, which may well be true, as discoveries, Johnson says, tend to come in clusters, a phenomenon called “multiple inventions.” “The isolated genius coming up with an idea that no one else could even dream of is actually the exception, not the rule,” he writes. If so, there is a world of Steven Johnsons out there, which, for the collective IQ, could be a very good thing. B+
— Jennifer Graham