Nathan Hwang

Post-apocalyptic textbooks and planetary isolation

So, I’ve been doing some thinking (surprise!); while we as a society worry about an apocalypse that forces us back to the dark ages, there is precious little done about it. It’s mostly just something to entertain ourselves with (I’m guessing that it’s also easier to write for, because if 99% of the population is gone, then you don’t have to write or ignore a whole bunch of people, or set the story somewhere like backroad Canada), which isn’t surprising, but it got me thinking about how quickly humans can rebuild a society after a worldwide event. For instance, the fall of Rome ushered in a very long dark age, with much of the knowledge either being forgotten or revered to the point of hindering further progress (okay, I just realized that I’m thinking along the lines of Asimov’s Foundation. I just realized it, after carrying this idea around for a week. Man, my mind is just falling apart). If anyone prepared for the fall of Rome (which wasn’t that great anyways), then they didn’t do so very well.

So, how would we do better at transmitting information across a dark age?

  1. Teach the scientific method, with a healthy dose of skepticism and some anti-authoritarianism (perhaps bordering on libertarianism): we don’t need a repeat of the monastic system serving as the only place where knowledge was kept, and kept stale at that. Also, despotism seems to come naturally to societies: libertarianism, not so much.
  2. I don’t know if this is true, but I would think that the knowledge of the Romans/Greeks was preserved by so few people because it was not very useful: the Aristotelean division of elements explained things, but it didn’t allow anyone to build better fires or harder metals. Hence, all the knowledge passed on should be directly useful, or explaining how those things that are useful work.
  3. Teach a natural progression of scientific/mathematical topics, starting with things like kinematics and basic chemical theory, and explaining how to make/recreate the apparatuses that are used while progressing along different topics (recovering topics in greater detail is an excellent idea), possibly ending with the creation of semiconductor technology.
  4. We should probably include grand ideas like plate tectonics, evolution, and some cosmology, even in passing. Remember: it took us how long to figure these things out?
  5. Definitely include instructions on how to make a printing press.
  6. Use English, simple as possible. Latin, despite being a language for elites, survived for a very long time as the way to pass around information. We’ve finally broken that paradigm as most of scientific papers being written in English, but most people can’t read the sort of English used in your average science paper. If we don’t ‘dumb it down’ for this process, then it will not be useful.
  7. Gloss over the details: the readers will probably be recreating the steps as they go, so that they don’t need every detail spelled out for them (especially since we should be covering basic math and stuff at least once). Also, keeping things concise will allow us to keep the volume slimmer, and easier to transport.
  8. Tie it all up into a book (physical, easy to transport and read with no technology). This is a weak point: if we don’t have many copies floating around the world, then the book won’t survive a particularly bad apocalypse. Also, it might decay before humans are ready to take advantage of the things in it again, say, a few generations. So it’ll have to come in a very resilient format, but it’ll also have to be dirt cheap; additionally, the information in it needs to be useful to people now, probably as a broad overview of everything scientific. Cheap and resilient don’t usually match together, so that’s one hurdle that would have to be overcome.

And then there are some things that I feel shouldn’t go into such a tome:

  1. Leave out biology specific to our physiologies: after an apocalypse, we have no idea what state the survivors will be in, or how they’ve changed, or how the surrounding environment has changed.
  2. Leave out philosophy: it isn’t useful, and thinkers will be able to piece together most of the theories we’ve come up with so far once they have a functioning society.
  3. Keep political/economic discussions to a minimum: introduce democracy, but we’re not going to make this a treatise on capitalism vs. communism. Maybe give a page to it.
  4. No/minimal history: even if you need to know history to avoid repeating it, we really have no idea what sort of rules will be operating after an apocalypse.

Is this inane? Of course. Would it be an excellent hedge if an apocalypse did happen? Of course. Do I plan on actually writing/editing a post-apocalyptic textbook and/or crowd sourcing it with a wiki? Um, I’ll get back to you on that.

If this does go anywhere, I’m dubbing it the “post-apoc txt”.

My next mind-dump is not too far removed from the previous: again, it’s a far removed, what-if scenario. What if the colonization of new planets just serves to extend national boundaries, carrying over all the dysfunctions of the old planet to the new one? I’ve managed to talk myself out of worrying about such a scenario (writing can do wonders for thought experiments: they don’t seem to survive the transition from head to paper): the speed of light means that culture should fracture on planetary boundaries. Or does it? Meh, there’s too many caveats, and my original solution that meant to introduce heterogeneity in a galactic culture isn’t very feasible if we have faster than light communication (don’t communicate with a planet for a while, essentially: that’s why ‘planetary isolation’ is part of the title). I’m gonna shelve this one.

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