You have been stranded in the distant past due to an accident involving a personal time machine. Fortunately, enclosed in the user guide of your non-repairable craft is a cheat sheet for rebuilding an industrial civilization from scratch in (much) less than the 200,000 or so years it took us the first time around. How To Invent Everything (Riverhead, $27) by Ryan North is a copy of that guide, found encased in Precambrian rock on a building site, and now made available to anyone who might need to guide humanity from the invention of spoken language all the way through to the design and construction of computers, while avoiding fossil fuels, sexism, and other little mistakes. It made me wonder what “obvious” technologies we’re missing right now. Anyone interested in science, history, bizarre trivia involving birthing forceps, or laughing at how clever and, also, incredibly stupid, people can be, will like this book.
David Christian’s TED Talk “The history of our world in 18 minutes” has been viewed more than eight million times. It covers “Big History”, a framework to make sense of the history of the Universe, from the Big Bang to the present, and then into the distant future, from a human perspective. It covers eight “thresholds” at which “Goldilocks” conditions exist for the emergence of new and more complex phenomena. From a single college course in the late 1980’s, the idea has grown into a course taught at thousands of high schools and colleges, thanks to the personal enthusiasm and financial investment of Bill Gates, raising questions about the influence of private money on public education. Origin Story covers the same ground in book form, and will give you a new perspective on how everything, from salt to supernovas, is connected.
In The Six (St Martin’s, $29.99), a comprehensive account of the famous Mitford sisters, British journalist, writer, and biographer Laura Thompson revives a world both gone utterly and forever, and strikingly, disturbingly familiar. These crazy, dramatic, improbable lives play out against a background of mass rallies, simplistic, violent ideologies, rampant, resurgent nationalism and, finally, war. As the Mitfords rub shoulders with Churchill and Hitler, Mosley and Kennedy, their personal beliefs, actions, and rivalries, along with their devastating consequences, mirror the fractures in the wider world. Celebrities in a time even more ruthlessly judgmental than our own, the sisters were protected by breathtaking privilege and entitlement; they were symbols of inequality, and yet were often broke; lived close to power and history, and were powerless to change it; they were so clever, and yet so mad; so beautiful and yet so, so ugly. The Novelist, the “Normal” One, the Fascist, the Nazi, the Communist, and the Duchess, otherwise known as Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah, along with their parents and their brother, Tom, are forever linked as the “mad, mad Mitfords.” After all the myth-making, the novels and memoirs, the spin and the damage control, the fights and the reconciliations, Thompson’s book is a reminder that truth is still sometimes stranger, and more interesting, than fiction.