[time-nuts] Book review: "How We Got To Now."

Nick Sayer nsayer at kfu.com
Mon Sep 4 22:32:30 EDT 2017


I happened to be at Powell's bookstore in Portland the day after the eclipse and came across this book and wound up buying it. It's attraction to me was the same that I felt growing up watching the documentaries hosted by James Burke - Connections and The Day The Universe Changed.

Both Burke and Steven Johnson (the author) have the same playbook - showing how disparate inventions and innovations drive change in surprising ways. Johnson's book divides into six topics: Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time and Light. His overarching theme is what he calls the Hummingbird Effect.

How did a hummingbird evolve? There was no niche for hummingbirds until the symbiosis of flowering plants and bees came about, and that symbiosis created an opening for a bird if it could exploit the availability of nectar intended by the flower as a bribe for the bees. 

One anecdote is how the development of chlorinated drinking water led to swimming pools and to the rapid diminishment of ladies swimming fashions compared to what they were at the beginning of the 20th Century. 

But it's the chapter on Time that is relevant to us here. It is a whirlwind examination of the history of measurement of time and what our increasing penchant and ability to measure it accurately has meant for us as a species and, in fact, for the definition of time itself. 

I dare say that most of what is there will be familiar to most Time Nuts, but having so much of it concentrated into a single volume is not only a great deal of fun to read, but also can serve as an indoctrination tool to others.

But it's not just the Time chapter. The chapter on Clean ends in a TI cleanroom where advanced semiconductors are made. A place where the water is too clean to drink and the workers wear protective suits not to protect themselves from the environment, but vice-versa. The Sound chapter touches on SIGSALY, the first digital audio transmission system.

Anyway, if you haven't come across this book, I think it's worth a look - particularly if you're a fan of the work of James Burke. 

Sent from my iPhone


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