Skip to main content

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are stuck (and what you will be faced with as challenges). From then on, there's a mix of practical information and background of theory that might help you rebuild some kind of civilised world. So we get science, technology, the arts, medicine - inevitably cherry picking but sometimes in a surprising amount of detail when focussed on a small part of what's needed. 

In some ways, what we have here is a modern version of those popular books from a good few years ago that told you how to survive crocodile attacks and the like, but on steroids. Not only is this book far fatter (we're talking over 450 pages) it takes the premise of providing mostly accurate but practically useless how-to information to the wonderful extreme. Since the reader isn't actually stranded in the past, it's not going to be a truly practical guide, but it does put across a surprising amount of information in an approachable manner. It's like having the old Pear's Cylopedia crossed with a science fiction comedy.

The were only two things that slightly reduced the enjoyment. I found North's style of humour too knowing - it just got wearing after a while, rather than continuing to be entertaining as someone like Douglas Adams would have managed. So, for example, page after page of this kind of thing can get a bit heavy: 'Cool hats are easy to imagine [without language], but the meaning of the sentence "Three weeks from tomorrow, have your oldest stepsister meet me on the southeast corner two block east from the first house we egged last Halloween" is extremely difficult to nail down without having concrete words for the concepts of time, place, numbers, relationships and spooky holidays.'

My other slight moan is that the big sections on growing food and 'common human complaints that can be solved by technology' got a little samey and were distinctly over-long. Some aspects of establishing the needs of basic civilisation are... rather dull. But there was still much to delight in as the book skips its merry way from units of measurement to how to invent music (with a few classical pieces included to claim that you composed, because who's going to know you haven't).

The reality, then, doesn't quite live up to the brilliance of the idea. I'm not sure anything could. But it still remains a great way to link together a portmanteau of any random bits of knowledge that North felt it would be enjoyable to impart. It would make a great gift book and will give a lot of pleasure. You may even learn something handy, should you ever be stuck in the remote past.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…