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After the Apocalypse: Dr Lewis Dartnell Shares His Toolkit for Rebuilding the World

24/11/2014 14:27 GMT | Updated 23/01/2015 10:59 GMT

"I think you should band together with all the advertising executives and style consultants and see just how long you last..."

I've just asked scientist and author Dr Lewis Dartnell how transferable he sees my hard-won PR and Marketing skills would be in the sort of post-apocalyptic scenarios he imagines in his book, The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch.

My chances don't look good, but then again neither do almost anyone's, including his:

"We still only ever have about two days worth of food in our north London flat!" he says. "Living in the developed world today we've all become disconnected from the fundamentals of actually making and doing things."

While any number of fictional films and novels are set after the collapse of civilization, very few go beyond the immediate twenty-eight days later, as it were, to imagine the far greater task of rebuilding that will face the survivors once they've finished racing around the desert in punked-up battle cars or shot-gunned the last walking dead to a standstill.

This forms the jumping off point for Dartnell's own project, a carefully researched book in the pop science genre that uses our endless obsession with the End of the World as the perfect scientific lens through which to examine how that world came to be in the first place.

"Just don't talk to me about the Z word," he says. "What I hope that people take away from reading the book is just a deeper sense of satisfaction in understanding a little of how the fundamental things work, and perhaps better appreciate all that we take for granted in our modern, cosseted lives."

As science fiction writer William Gibson has said, 'We always think of ourselves as the cream of creation' and indeed this tendency extends into a perceptual fallacy that places us at the head of a typically linear progression of civilisation of which we are the end, best result.

What Dartnell's book demonstrates is that not only is the evolution of a civilisation anything but linear or predictable - think of the Mayans with their toy wheels or the Romans inventing concrete, but neither making the next so called obvious connection - but it's also something that's always vulnerable to an all-too irrevocable reboot by powerful external forces of plague, famine or even a flatline in our delicate communications networks.

How then do we preserve our current levels of knowledge in such a way that survivors in tomorrow's world might begin to rebuild their way back towards our current level tech-topia before too long?

"Let's say you did take seriously the risk of society collapse and mass-death, and wanted to try and safeguard the fruits of our civilisation," says Lewis. "What might be the best way to preserve and protect the most crucial scientific knowledge and technological innovations and tools, in the hope of enabling a rapid recovery after the apocalypse? In your vault you'd want to store a selection of the most crucial tools and machines, such as a lathe (a machine tool that is able to copy its own components and so essentially reproduce to create endless other lathes), and clear instructions on how to use them. You wouldn't be able to guarantee that reading and writing hadn't also been lost during a prolonged dark ages after a global catastrophe, and so the first level of instructions might need to be pictorial and symbolic, teaching the basics of written language with which a great deal more information can be imparted."

So what are the essential building blocks of a civilisational starter kit?

Dartnell breaks it down into several key areas including Agriculture, Clothing & Shelter, Construction, Medicine, Power, Transportation, Communications and Chemistry, each forming one part of the puzzle that needs to be unlocked before anything like our current state of existence can be replicated.

The real trick, of course, is that skilling up in at least a few basics in all of these as fast as possible is far more important than mastering them one at a time. For example, what good is that surgeon in your survivor party without all of the chemical skills needed to manufacture the drugs and equipment they rely on?

One intriguing notion that Dartnell also touches on is the possibility of retaining enough of our history and technological know-how that we can successfully leapfrog ourselves towards better solutions a second time around. For example, breaking our historic reliance on fossil fuels or intensive farming techniques; and with a little help from currently emerging technologies we might even go further than that:

"In the near future, as 3D printing technology matures, you could perhaps even just store a computer database of patterns with a big 'Print' button on the front. So if civilisation ever did need to be restarted after a global catastrophe, even generations down the line a survivor would just need to find their way to the vault and push the button for a sequence of tools and appliances, appropriate to each stage of the rebooting process, to be generated for use by the recovering society. Importantly, you would only need to provide the tools with which more tools can be constructed."

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch is out now in Paperback and ebook editions from The Bodley Head.

BOOK EVENT: Dr Lewis Dartnell will be discussing The Knowledge as part of the Ships, Clocks and Stars exhibition programme at the National Maritime Museum on Thursday 27th November, 6.30pm.