How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

By Steven Johnson

(Riverhead, $30, 304 pages)

Who is this author?     

Steven Johnson is the brilliant author of the bestselling nonfiction books on science: not the easiest field of endeavor. His titles include Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, Everything Bad Is Good for You, Mind Wide Open, Emergence, and Interface Culture. But, as they say on infomercials: That’s not all! Johnson also edited the anthology The Innovator’s Cookbook, founded many and varied websites and contributes to Time, Wired, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in California with his family.

What is this book about?

This fascinating book is an illustrated look-back (with lots of color photography) at powerful ideas and how they came to influence many aspects of civilization, often quite unintentionally. Gutenberg, for example, did not and could not foresee that his invention of the printing press would spark a desire for spectacles that helped readers see better and in turn, lead to the development of lenses for microscopes and telescopes and cameras. The book offers many such unexpected connections: air conditioning facilitated the growth of such cities as Phoenix; the ability to make water clean helped in making computer chips, the technique of amplifying sound increased the power of orators as diverse as Hitler and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The book covers six broad areas of innovation, and you’ll wish it covered even more.

Why you’ll like it:

Johnson has the rare and valuable ability to write about complex scientific ideas in a very accessible and entertaining way, opening the door for even the casual reader to deep and important knowledge. He gives us the history of inventors who stumbled upon radical new ideas and devices, often not realizing themselves what they had unleashed. Stories like that are just plain fun to read, and Johnson illuminates both history and science without ever dumbing them down. The book also has inspired a six-part series on PBS that began Oct. 15.

What others are saying:

From Barnes & Noble: In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson successfully demolished the “Eureka Moment” theory of ideas dropping on inventors like apples from a tree. In How We Got to Now, he escorts us further into the real world of innovation by describing half a dozen breakthroughs that have radically changed humankind, almost always in unforeseen ways. To this new mix, Johnson brings the talents of a natural storyteller, dispensing real-life tales of both genius inventors and near-miss blunderers in equally captivating ways.  . . Johnson is particularly interested in the unpredictable ways that developments in one field can trigger momentous changes in another, a process he refers to as “the hummingbird effect” (named for the way the coevolution of flowering plants and insects unexpectedly led to the hummingbird’s evolved — and unbirdlike — ability to float in midair while extracting nectar from flowers). Each chapter is full of strange and fascinating connections, but my favorite was the one on glass. Johnson shows how Johannes Gutenberg’s fifteenth-century invention of the printing press made vast numbers of people aware for the first time that they were farsighted, creating a new and massive demand for spectacles. The growth in the market for spectacles in turn led to a surge in experimentation with lenses, resulting in the inventions of both the microscope and the telescope. Johnson doesn’t stop there: he brings the story of glass up to the present moment, describing how silicon dioxide enables you to read material like this on the Internet, which is created out of fiber-optic cables.

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says:  “In this fascinating book, Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From) presents a “history of ideas and innovation,” focusing on six important technical and scientific innovations that have shaped the modern world but that we often take for granted. The book reveals what Johnson calls “the hummingbird effect,” when “an innovation… in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether.” . . . Understanding the hummingbird effect is crucial in our world of constant technological development. Johnson debunks the genius theory of innovation—the romantic idea of the lone inventor who changes history—arguing instead that ideas and innovations emerge from “collaborative networks” at the intersections of different domains. He says that this understanding is crucial to “see more clearly the way new ideas come into being, and how to cultivate them as a society.”

Says Kirkus Reviews in its starred review: “Best-selling author Johnson  continues his explorations of what he calls the “hummingbird effect,” unforeseeable chains of influence that change the world. An innovation, writes the author, typically arises in one field—chemistry, say, or cryptography. But it does not rise alone—”ideas are fundamentally networks of other ideas,” and those tributary ideas likely came from many sources and disciplines, conditioned by the intellectual resources available at the time. Da Vinci aside, the author notes that even the most brilliant 17th-century inventor couldn’t have hit on the refrigerator, which “simply wasn’t part of the adjacent possible at that moment.” A couple of centuries later, it was, thanks to changes in our understanding of materials, physics, chemistry and other areas. Johnson isn’t the first writer to note that such things as the can opener were game-changers, but he has a pleasing way of spinning out the story to include all sorts of connections as seen through the lens of “long zoom” history, which looks at macro and micro events simultaneously. . . , Johnson’s look at six large areas of innovation, from glassmaking to radio broadcasting (which involves the products of glassmaking, as it happens), is full of well-timed discoveries, and his insistence on the interdisciplinary nature of invention and discovery gives hope to the English and art history majors in the audience. Of a piece with the work of Tracy Kidder, Henry Petroski and other popular explainers of technology and science—geeky without being overly so and literate throughout.”

“[Johnson's] point is simple, important and well-timed: During periods of rapid innovation, there is always tumult as citizens try to make sense of it….Johnson is an engaging writer, and he takes very complicated and disparate subjects and makes their evolution understandable,” says The Washington Post.

When is it available?

You can discover this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library

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