Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How We Got to Now: The power and legacy of great ideas

How We Got to Now / The history behind
everyday objects that are a part of our
contemporary life.

Steven Johnson is a bestselling author of nine books, including Where Good Ideas Come From, a founder of a variety of influential websites, and the host and co-creator of the PBS and BBC series How We Got to Now. His newest book is my current reading project, the just-published How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World.

It is cerebral fun.

In How We Got to Now, Johnson explores the power and legacy of great ideas by investigating the secret histories -- innovation trails -- behind everyday objects that are a part of our contemporary life. He examines "unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated fields: how the invention of air-conditioning enabled the largest migration of human beings in the history of the species to otherwise uninhabitable cities such as Dubai and Phoenix; how pendulum clocks helped trigger the industrial revolution; and how clean water made it possible to manufacture computer chips."

Each of the six innovations that made the modern world, according to Johnson -- glass, cold, sound, cleanliness, time and light -- garners attention in How We Got to Now. 

"Johnson is a polymath," wrote the Los Angeles Times. "It's exhilarating to follow his unpredictable trains of thought. To explain why some ideas upend the world, he draws upon many disciplines: chemistry, social history, geography, even eco-system science."

In the book's opening chapter about glass, for instance, Johnson writes: "Mirrors appeared so magical that they were quickly integrated into somewhat bizarre sacred rituals: During holy pilgrimages, it became common practice for well-off pilgrims to take a mirror with them. When visiting sacred relics, they would position themselves so that they could catch sight of the bones in the mirror's reflection. Back home, they would then show off these mirrors to friends and relatives, boasting that they had brought back physical evidence of the relic by capturing the reflection of the sacred scene. Before turning to the printing press, Gutenberg had the start-up idea of manufacturing and selling small mirrors for departing pilgrims.

"But the mirror's most significant impact would be secular, not sacred. Filippo Brunelleschi employed a mirror to invent linear perspective in painting, by drawing a reflection of the Florence Baptistry instead of his direct perception of it. The art of the late Renaissance is heavily populated by mirrors lurking inside paintings, most famously in Diego Velázquez's inverted masterpiece, Las Meninas, which shows the artist (and the extended royal family) in the middle of painting King Philip IV and Queen Mariana of Spain. The entire image is captured from the point of view of two royal subjects sitting for their portrait; it is, in a very literal sense, a painting about the act of painting. The king and queen are visible only in one small fragment of the canvas, just to the right of Velázquez himself: two small, blurry images reflected back in a mirror.

"As a tool, the mirror became an invaluable asset to painters who could now capture the world around them in a fare more realistic fashion, including the detailed features of their own faces."

Who knew!

In reviewing How We Got to Now, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: "Monks transcribing religious manuscripts in the 12th and 13th centuries began using pieces of crystal the better to see their work with, and so spectacles were born. And then came Gutenberg, whose printed books created a bigger market for them. In 1610, Galileo used a crystal lens to make the telescope, through which he observed moons orbiting Jupiter, and from there came the doctrine-shattering revelation that the Earth is not the center of the universe.

"The discovery had a reverberating impact that is still being absorbed today. Not only did it reveal a truth about the physical world, it reflected back on the human sense of our place in time and space."

Walter Isaacson, the author of Steve Jobs, calls Johnson "the Darwin of technology. Through fascinating observations and insights, he enlightens us about the origins of ideas."

By connecting all of the important dots through the centuries, Steven Johnson takes us on a wonderful journey through time and innovation. And, in doing so, he makes learning about science and technology great fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment