How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch
By Lewis Dartnell
On-Sale April 17, 2014

For more information or to set up an interview with Lewis Dartnell, contact:

Samantha Park, 212-366-2814,

Many of our favorite disaster-themed Hollywood blockbusters share a common premise: how would we survive the end of the world as we know it? While they depict struggles for immediate survival, they don’t address how (and if it would even be possible) to rebuild civilization after a catastrophe. If you had to go back to basics, like some kind of post-apocalyptic Robinson Crusoe, could you re-learn how to accurately tell time, weave fibers into clothing, or restart agriculture? In THE KNOWLEDGE: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch (The Penguin Press; April 17, 2014; $27.95 Hardcover), Lewis Dartnell provides a brilliantly original crash-course in rebooting modern society and explores the very nature of scientific knowledge itself.

As recently as in the last century, people made the things they used every day. Yet in the span of just a couple generations, we have become a society of consumers rather than makers. Most of us today happily consume the latest technology without having the slightest idea of why it works or how it came to be. We are astoundingly ignorant of the basics of producing food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and tools. Thanks to today’s modern conveniences, we have become disconnected from the basic skills and knowledge on which our lives and our world depend.

The main challenge survivors of the apocalypse would face is gathering information, since human knowledge is collective and distributed across the population. No one person could claim to know it all, and any attempt to create a comprehensive record of all knowledge would be overwhelming. Instead, what if there were a way to condense information into a single volume—a guidebook you could press into the hands of survivors that would provide them the basic scientific principles and tools they need to jumpstart a modern technological civilization? With THE KNOWLEDGE, Dartnell, widely regarded as one of the brightest young scientists of his generation, has created a blueprint for rebuilding functional society.

Every piece of technology rests on an enormous support network of other technologies, all interlinked and mutually dependent. You can’t hope to build a radio, for example, without understanding how to acquire the raw materials it requires, as well as generate the electricity needed to run it. Dartnell breaks down complex inventions into their component parts, helping us understand how things work on a basic level. From teaching basics of crop cultivation, to producing soap from fire ashes, to demonstrating DIY-photography using rudimentary silver chemistry, Dartnell shows how the story of innovation is also one of accidental discovery and serendipity. With the benefit of knowing what we now know, we can plot an accelerated reboot of society.

THE KNOWLEDGE shows us what we would need in order to start over, but it is also a brilliantly original thought experiment about the very nature of scientific knowledge. Dartnell also reveals the greatest invention of them all: the knowledge-generating machine that is the scientific method itself. Understanding this key engine of progress would allow survivors to understand technological advances as well as things we have yet to discover.


(Fun fact: Lewis took his own portrait and developed it himself using a primitive single-lens camera and simple silver chemistry.)

Dr. Lewis Dartnell is a UK Space Agency research fellow at University of Leicester and writes regularly for New Scientist, The Times, The Guardian and The New York Times. His area of expertise is in the field of astrobiology—he studies how microorganisms might survive on the surface of Mars and how best to detect signs of ancient Martian life. He also designs experiments for unmanned space missions to Mars.


Lewis explains how to start a fire with every day items... including a fire alarm!

Got a stash of canned food? Great! You're in good shape to survive the apocalypse. But don't have a can opener? No problem. Lewis shows how to open a can without tools.

Live near an IKEA? Lucky you! You can use many IKEA items to make a fire from scratch. Designer Helmut Smit demonstrates.


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