January 27, 2015

How we got to now by Steven Johnson

How we got to now by Steven Johnson
Six innovations that made the modern world and the six innovations are "Glass," "Cold," "Sound," "Clean," "Time" and "Light.

Hummingbird effect - an innovation or cluster of innovations, in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain together. Like a variation on the famous ‘butterfly effect’ from chaos theory, where the flap of a butterfly’s wing in California ends up triggering a hurricane in the mid-Atlantic.

Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press created a surge in demand for spectacles, as the new practice of reading made Europeans across the continent suddenly realize that they were farsighted; the market demand for spectacles encouraged a growing number of people to produce and experiment with lenses, which led to invention of the microscope, which shortly thereafter enabled us to perceive that our bodies were made up of microscopic cells.


Roughly 26 million years ago, something happened over the sands of the Libyan Desert. Grains of silica melted and fused under an intense heat that must have been at least a thousand degrees. When those superheated grains of sand cooled down below their melting point, a vast stretch of the Libyan Desert was coated with a layer of what we now call glass.

Scientist began to explore the idea that the Libyan glass rose from a comet colliding with the earth’s atmosphere and exploding over the desert sands. Scientists and space agencies have spent billions of dollars searching for particles of comets because they offer such profound insight into the formation of solar systems. The pebble from the Libyan Desert now gives them direct access to the geochemistry of comets. And all the while, glass was pointing the way.


Boston businessman named Frederic Tudor knew from personal experience that a large block of ice could last well into the depths of summer if it was kept out of the sun. And that knowledge would plant the seed of an idea in his mind, an idea that would ultimately made him an immensely wealthy man.

Ice powered refrigeration changed the map of America. Cooling rooms packed with natural ice that allowed them to pack pork year around, one of the principal innovations in the industry.

Places that had been intolerably hot and humid were suddenly tolerable to a much larger slice of the general public. By 1964, the historic flow of people from South to North that had characterized the post-Civil War era had been reversed. The Sun Belt expanded with new immigrants from colder states who could put up with the tropical humidity or blazing desert climates thanks to domestic air-conditioning.

Broad changes in demography invariably have political effects. The migration to the Sun Belt changed the political map of America. Once a Democratic stronghold, the South was besieged by a massive influx of retirees who were more conservative in their political outlook. In the first half of 20th century, only two presidents or vice presidents hailed from Sun Belt states. Starting in 1952, however, every single winning presidential ticket contained a Sun Belt candidate, until Barack Obama and Joe Biden broke the streak in 2008.

It is no accident that the world’s largest cities - London, Paris, New York, Tokyo - were almost exclusively in temperate climate until the second half of the twentieth century, All around the world, the fastest growing megacities are predominantly in tropical climates: Chennai, Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta, Karachi, Lagos, Dubai, Rio de Janeiro. Demographers predict that these hot cities will have more than a billion new residents by 2025.


The essential revolution in vision largely unfolded between Renaissance and the Enlightenment: spectacles, microscopes, telescopes, seeing clearly, seeing very far and seeing very close. The technologies of the voice did not arrive in full force until the late nineteenth century. The first breakthrough in our obsession with the human voice arrived in the simple act of writing it down.

The dream of recording the human voice entered the adjacent possible only after two key developments: one from physics, the other from anatomy. Edouard-Leon Scott invented the first sound recording device in history, but he forgot to include playback.

Our ancestors first noticed the power of echo and reverberation to change the sonic properties of the human voice tens of thousands of years ago; for centuries we have used those properties to enhance the range and power of our vocal chords, from cathedrals to Wall of Sound. But it is hard to imagine anyone studying the physics of sound two hundred years ago predicting that those echoes would be used to track undersea weapons or determine the sex of an unborn child. What began with the most moving and intuitive sound to the human ear - the sound of our voice in song, laughter, sharing of news or gossip - has been transformed into the tools of both war and peace, death and life.


Building a city on perfectly flat land would seem like a good problem to have; San Francisco, Cape Town or Rio would pose more engineering problem for buildings and for transportation. But flat topographies don't drain and in the middle of the nineteenth century, gravity-based drainage was key to urban sewer systems.

19th century Chicago (flat terrain city) had both human and animal waste to deal with, the horses in the streets, the pigs and cattle awaiting slaughter in the stockyards. Epidemics of cholera and dysentery erupted regularly in the 1850s. Sixty people died a day during the outbreak of cholera in the summer of 1854. The authorities at the time didn’t fully understand the connection between waste and diseases.

Ellis Chesbrough got appointed as chief engineer to solve the sewage problem. Chesbrough launched one of the most ambitious engineering projects of the 19th century: building by building, Chicago was lifted by an army of men with jack-screws. As the jack-screws raised the building inch by inch, workmen would dig holes under the building foundation and install thick timbers to support them, while masons scramble to build a new footing under the structure. Sewer lines were inserted beneath buildings with main lines running down the center of streets which were then buried in land fall that had been dredged out of the Chicago river, raising the entire city almost ten feet on average.

The result was the first comprehensive sewer system in any American city. Within 3 decades, more than 20 cities around the country followed Chicago’s lead, planning and installing their own underground networks of sewer tunnels. Today, entire parallel worlds exist underground, powering and supporting the cities that rise above them.

new jersey doctor John Leal experimented with many techniques for killing bacteria and thus the cholera. In almost complete secrecy, without any permission from government authorities, Leal decided to add chlorine to the Jersey City reservoirs. Unlike others, Leal made no attempt to patent the chlorination technique that he had pioneered at the Boonton Reservoir. Town by town, country by country, colorization became a standard procedure.

Chlorination wasn’t just about saving lives; it was also about having fun. After the World War I, ten thousand chlorinated public baths and pools opened across America, learning how to swim became a rite of passage. These new aquatic public spaces were the leading edge in challenges to the old rules of public decency during the period between the wars. Before the rise of municipal pools, women bathers generally dressed as though they were bundled up for a sleigh ride. By the mid 1920, women began exposing their legs below their knee; one-piece suits with lower necklines emerged a few years later. In total, a woman’s thighs, hip line, shoulders, stomach, back and breast line all become publically exposed between 1920 and 1940. At the turn of the century, the average woman’s bathing suit requires ten yards of fabric; by the end of the 1930s, one yard was sufficient.

We celebrate the things they make possible - towering skyscrapers and even more powerful computers - but we don’t celebrate the sewers and the clean room themselves. Yet their achievements are everywhere around us.


For almost the entire span of human history, time had been calculated by tracking the heavenly rhythms of solar bodies. Like the earth itself, our sense of time revolved around the sun.

In 1583, a 19 year old student at the University of Pisa attended prayers at the cathedral and while day dreaming in the pews, noticed one of the altar lamps swaying back and forth. No matter how large the arc, the lamp appeared to take the same amount of time to swing back and forth. As arc decreased in length, the speed of the lamp decreased as well. To confirm his observation, the student measured the lamp's swing against the only reliable clock he could find: his own pulse. The student was none other than Galileo Galilei.

Ships were in absolute need for split-second accuracy and sailors lacked any way to determine the longitude at sea. All across Europe, bounties were offered for anyone who could solve the problem of determining longitude at sea: Philip III of Spain offered a life’s pension in ducats, while the famous Longitude prize in England promised more than 1 million dollars in today’s currency.

Galileo’s memory of the altar lamp, his studies on motion and the moons of Jupiter, the rise of a global shipping industry and the new demand for clocks that would be accurate to the second, created the pendulum clock.

Pierre Curie had surmised that the decay rate of certain elements might be used as a ‘clock’ to determine the age of rocks. But the technique now popularly known as carbon dating, wasn’t perfected until the late 1940s. Most clocks focus on measuring the present: What time is it right now? But radiocarbon  clocks are all about the past. Different elements decay at wildly different rats which means that are like clock running at different time scales. Carbon 14 ticks every five thousand years, but potassium 40 clocks every 1.3 billion years. That makes radiocarbon dating an ideal clock for the deep time of human history, while potassium 40 measures geologic time, the history of the planet itself.

Why go to such extravagant lengths to build a clock that might tick only once in your life time? Because new modes of measuring force us to think about the world in a new light. Just as the microseconds of quartz and cesium opened up new ideas that transformed everyday life in countless ways, the slow time of the Long Now clock (clock that ticks once a year) helps us to think in a new ways about the future.


Today’s night sky shines six thousand times brighter than it did just 150 years ago. Artificial light has transformed the way we work and sleep, helped create global networks of communication and may soon enable radical breakthrough in energy productions

The Babylonians and Romans developed oil based lamps, but the technology virtually disappeared during the Dark ages. For almost two thousand years, all the way to the dawn of the industrial age, the candle was the reigning solution for indoor lighting.  Significant economic rewards awaited anyone who managed to harpoon a sperm whale. The artificial light of the spermaceti candle triggered an explosion in the whaling industry, building out the beautiful seaside towns of Nantucket and Edgartown. Thousands of lives were lost at sea chasing these majestic creatures, including from the notorious sinking of the Essex, which ultimately inspired Herman Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick.

National Ignition Facility (NIF) labs in Northern California, where scientists have built the world’s largest and highest-energy laser system. At NIF, they are taking light full circle, using lasers to create a new source of energy based on nuclear fusion, re-creating the process that occurs naturally in the dense core of the sun, our original source of natural light.

When all of NIF’s energy slams into its millimeter-sized targets, unprecedented conditions are generated in the target materials - temperature of more than a hundred million degrees, densities up to a hundred times the density of lead, and pressures more than a hundred billion times Earth’s atmospheric pressure. These conditions are similar to those inside starts, the cores of giant plants and nuclear weapons - allowing NIF to create, in essence a miniature star of earth, fusing hydrogen atoms together and releasing a staggering amount of energy. One way or another, we are still chasing new light.

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