Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Ghost Map

I heartily recommend Stephen Johnson's The Ghost Map, not least for the sense of deja vu.  The book covers a terrifying epidemic of cholera which gripped Victorian London:
  • At 6am on 28 August 1854, the city of London struggled to sleep at the end of an oppressively hot summer. But at 40 Broad Street, Soho, Sarah Lewis was awake tending to her feverish baby girl. As she threw a used bucket of water into the cesspool at the front of her lodgings, it marked the start of a cholera epidemic that would consume 50,000 lives in England and Wales - and become a battle between man and microbe unlike any other. Steven Johnson takes us day by day through what happened and re-creates a London full of dust heaps, furnaces and slaughterhouses; where a ghost class of bone-pickers, rag gatherers, dredger men and mud-larks scavenged off waste; where families were crammed into tiny rooms and cartloads of bodies wheeled down the streets. And at the heart of the story is Doctor John Snow: vegetarian, teetotaller, anaesthesiologist and Soho resident, whose use of maps to prove that cholera was spread by water - and not borne on the air as most believed - would bring him into conflict with the entire medical establishment, but ultimately defeat his era's greatest killer. Steven Johnson interweaves this extraordinary story with a wealth of ideas about how cities work, ecosystems thrive and cultures connect. He argues that, with half the planet's population set to be urban, today's megacities could soon be wrestling with the same problems as John Snow and that, just as in 1854, science could be our salvation.
As with Johnson's Emergence, he manages to weave a gripping narrative from a rather dry subject matter.  But what caught my eye in The Ghost Map was the following:
  • "No one died of stench in Victorian London.  But tens of thousands died because the fear  of stench blinded them to the true perils of the city, and drove them to implement a series of wrongheaded reforms that only made the crisis worse...practically the entire medical and political establishment fell into the same deadly error: everyone from Florence Nightingale to the pioneering reformer Edwin Chadwick to the editors of The Lancet to Queen Victoria herself.  The history of knowledge conventionally focuses on breakthrough ideas and conceptual leaps.  But the blind spots on the map, the dark continents of error and prejudice, carry their own mystery as well.  How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time?  How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories?"
Does this remind you of anything?

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