Jul 29, 2014

How do you build a civilization from scratch?

I don't know about you, but I have often wondered about the ultimate consequence of an apocalpytic scenario in which all of humanity's knowledge is lost along with the vast majority of humanity as well. Say, straight out of a sci-fi movie, the Earth's core becomes unstable in a short period of time and it eventually explodes. The only people who manage to escape are the few extremely lucky ones who get to reach far away from the earth in spaceships to avoid destruction*.

Now assume that the bunch of eclectic survivors consists of a few scientists, and maybe some authority figures. All they have left is some computers and a small collection of books--that is, if they remembered to bring any. Assuming that the internet would exist only if the servers on the Earth would be there, the would not have internet. Assuming that these people who got to escape the catastrophe had sufficient time to think about what they would need to rebuild a civilization, they would have predicted that they would need vast amounts of basic knowledge in the form of encyclopedias and basic science text books.

In such a scenario, the only a long-term hope to reestablish civilization if the survivors can find an inhabitable planet or a moon of a gas giant soon enough so that they don't die within the spaceship(s) that they are in already. Let's assume that there is such a place and the survivors have the technology to travel fast enough to reach there, and that they reach the destination. Can they reinvent the combustion engine or a refrigerator? Would they know the basics of the thermodynamics to make things work? Would they know how to build a home that will withstand the climatic conditions of the planet? Would they know how to make new glass, paper, steel, fuel, etc.? Would they know how to efficiently start agriculture or make weapons for hunting? Would they know enough about elementary pharmacology to synthesize medicines to protect themselves from infections?

If you think that this will all be difficult, what if they did not have the time to take in any material for reference? What if they had to start things from scratch? And what if only a few children who have not learned anything are the only survivors? Would they be able to think up all the inventions that we have made over last 50,000 odd years? In any of these scenarios, how long would it take to reach a level of technology that we now take for granted?

Of course, no one will know the exact answer to any of these questions. My guess is that humanity must think of a way to deposit all the knowledge that we have gained at several locations--on Earth and outside it--to ensure that such a thing does not take place. I don't know the exact way, but the planning must be started soon! What do you think?

The reason why I thought of writing this post now is because I heard an interview with Lewis Dartnell, the author of the book The Knowledge: How To Rebuild Our World From Scratch, on Quirks and Quarks, hosted by Bob McDonald on CBS Radio. Mr. Dartnell has written the book for practically the same situation. This is a link to a review of the book. It's a must-have more than a must-read, I guess, but the only thing I'm not sure if whether I should buy it in a hard copy of download it on my Kindle.

(PS: Yes, I realize that this is just like the Battlestar Galactica plot.)

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