'How We Got to Now' - Book Review

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World
Steven Johnson
2015, Riverhead Books, 320p.

I really enjoyed Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come From," and still consider his "The Ghost Map" to be the greatest non-fiction book ever written. This one hooked me almost instantly with this quote on page 4: "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 the invention of the microscope, which shortly thereafter enabled us to perceive that our bodies were made up of microscopic cells." If I have to tell you why that's interesting, this book is not for you.

The book examines six series of events and inventions around particular concepts (glass, cold, sound, hygiene, time, and light) and how our advancing understanding and control of each has shaped our lives over the last few centuries. And for the most part it's a very good book. But ...

On page 190 he wrote: "Leave some carbon 14 lying around for five thousand years or so, and you'll find that half of it is gone." This is not, strictly speaking, "wrong." It is, however, staggeringly misleading. First of all, you don't get chunks of carbon 14: it's always mixed in with carbon 12. But if you did have it, it doesn't just ... vaporize, as this implies. It decays into carbon 12, the most common form of carbon. To the naked eye, that imaginary block of carbon 14 that he left lying around for five thousand years would look essentially the same - and would require particularly fine measurement tools to determine the difference. And this put me off the book, leaving me deeply concerned about other scientific simplifications he's provided that I just took at face value because I didn't understand the underlying differences. A good book with some dangerous over-simplifications.