The Roots of Progress

Better living through chemistry

I took a break from reading the Thomas Crump book in order to read The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm. I’m not interested in apocalytpic scenarios (and I’m certainly not a “prepper”), but I hoped it would be a good introduction to and overview of the basics of industrial civilization.

I learned a lot of tidbits from it, such as how many different steps there are in producing wheat, or in making penicillin. But the biggest thing that stands out to me is realizing how certain chemicals, themselves, are useful products, and how they need to be created through industrial processes, just like cars or shirts.

When you hear about the Industrial Revolution, you hear about things like Bessemer steel or the power loom. But I never had “chemicals” in my head as a whole category of things that need to be made. The Knowledge mentioned, among other things, calcium carbonate, which is contained in limestone, and various kinds of acids and alkalis. But maybe the most striking to me was nitrogen, which is used for agriculture. Apparently the only way to increase productivity of land past a certain point is to inject nitrogen into the soil to help plants grow, and the way to do that is to mass-produce it, through something called the Haber-Bosch process.

Anyway, “chemicals” need to go in my list of technologies somewhere, probably under the broad heading of manufacturing/materials.

Relevant books

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm

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