By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Steven Johnson
Narration by: George Newbern
Steven Johnson suggests innovations in glass, ice, light, print, sound, and time are seminal markers for civilization’s advance. Through human innovation, Johnson argues these seminal markers create the modern world.
Johnson’s first example is a translucent substance in the Egyptian desert. Its discovery takes the form of art-buried in ancient tombs. Tiny scarab models lead to questions of how a translucent glass beetle is formed. The surrounding sand held a clue but the wonder is that someone realizes great heat, heat hotter than the hottest desert day, turns sand into glass. Johnson explains glass is created when comets strike the desert sands. Somehow, the event of a comet collision and the presence of sand were put together in a human’s mind. Experiments with heat and sand lead to the creation of art objects in Venice and glass window panes throughout the world. The light of day begins streaming through buildings without intrusion of wind, and rain.
Johnson expands the story of glass innovation with the discovery of magnification; leading to reading spectacles, telescopes, and microscopes. Next come mirrors that accurately reflect images that offer cheap models to penurious artists who paint self-portraits; i.e. artists like Gauguin, van Gogh, and Cezanne. Mirrors are than added to telescopes and microscopes to expand the precise detail of unseen planets and unknown microbes. History of the heavens and the future of health care expand from innovations in glass. The discovery of glass is like being a time traveler who sees the past and looks into the future.
The brittle transparent natural production of ice leads the world from cooled drinks, to refrigeration, air conditioning, and frozen dinners. With the idea of an entrepreneur to sell northern ice to sweltering southerners, an ice trade develops. Shipping blocks of ice leads to ideas about how ice can be artificially created at a lower cost. Refrigeration replaces the first entrepreneur’s idea of an ice trading network with ice-making refrigerators in every home. The cooling characteristic of refrigeration expands to air conditioning and soon window air conditioners become the rage of factories and homes. High temperatures are no longer an impediment to a growing industrial revolution. From the days of cutting ice blocks in the north, the idea of freezing fish for shipping and preservation of fresh food leads to an innovation known as frozen dinners.
In the early days of civilization, sunlight determined the length of the work day. Eventually ways of extending the work day are created with artificial light. First came melted animal fat candles; then came whale oil candles, and then came Edison’s and other’s innovations in electric light bulbs. Soon nights became work shifts and twenty-four hour cities like Las Vegas are born. Light innovations expanded both manufacturing and entertainment industries. The physics of light is discovered and “weaponizing” light (formally known as ray guns in comic book and science fiction stories) became real.
In the early history of writing, books were only available to the very rich because of the cost of paper and time for labor intensive copying. With Guttenberg, innovations in print spread education around the world at an affordable cost. Personal human knowledge expands geometrically.
Johnson notes that in early cave drawings, specific cave locations were used to ritualize the sound of animals painted on walls. Some scientists suggest human ancestors stood in a particular area of a cave painting to mimic animals’ sounds of life. Innovations in sound have expanded from echoes in caves to wired communication to cell phone conversations to sea floor mapping to the discovery of remnants of the sound of earth’s Big Bang.
Finally, Johnson addresses the concept of time. In early history, time seems an unnecessary dimension of living. As the world matures, time is measured; i.e. first by the position of the sun; later by the segmentation of a created twenty-four hour day and finally with accuracy determined by the molecular action of atoms. Accurate and synchronized measurement of time becomes critical to many aspects of life. Inaccuracy on a cosmic scale makes space travel to precise locations impossible. The principle of time provides a history of the past by recognizing the half-life of carbon. The principle of time measures the progress and potential for human life in the future.
Johnson argues that these six areas of innovation coalesce to explain humanity’s past, present, and future. Johnson’s glass, ice, light, print, sound, and time reminds one of Aristotle’s forms; i.e. the idea that forms are what human’ senses determine objects to be. Johnson adds the principle of innovation to Aristotelian forms to make the world modern.