Book Report: The Ghost Map

The Ghost Map“Epidemics create a kind of history from below: they can be world-changing, but the participants are almost inevitably ordinary folk, following their established routines, not thinking for a second about how their actions will be recorded for posterity. And of course, if they do recognize that they are living through a historical crisis, it’s often too late – because, like it or note, the primary way that ordinary people create this distinct genre of history is by dying.” (The Ghost Map – p32)

Title: The Ghost Map – The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

Author: Steven Johnson

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Publication Date: 2006

Origin: As readers of this blog know, ever since reading How We Got to Now, I’ve been working my way through Steven Johnson’s entire catalog.

But beyond that, I was interested in the story that The Ghost Map would tell: of the evolution of a city, of statistical analysis in a pre-microscopic age, of overcoming conventional wisdom, and of discovery.

Summary: The Ghost Map covers the events of and surrounding London’s intense cholera epidemic of 1858. In Johnson’s words: “This is a story with four protagonists: a deadly bacterium, a vast city, and two gifted but very different men. One dark week a hundred and fifty years ago, in the midst of great terror and human suffering, their lives collided on London’s Broad Street, on the western edge of Soho.”

We learn about cholera, and its dark history.

We learn about London, a metropolitan experiment housing two million people – frequently in horrendous conditions.

We learn about John Snow, a scientist and thinker who gets most of the credit in traditional narratives.

And we learn about Henry Whitehead, a man of scripture and skepticism who played as vital a role as Snow in changing our understanding of disease.

As is Johnson’s way, after telling the story he explores its impact upon the modern world, and draws parallels with contemporary events.

My Take: Gotta say, I loved it. The story is gripping and powerful, and Johnson brings the people to life. I’ve said before that I enjoy and appreciate historical context, and The Ghost Map provides it in spades.

In the Western world, we take for granted things like clean water and waste removal infrastructure, and – despite what our 24/7 news cycle and political overlords might want us to believe – we face no existential threats.

The Ghost Map helps to illustrate just how far we’ve come in a relatively short time (really, a handful of generations), and might just help us appreciate what we’ve got.

Furthermore, The Ghost Map shows the scientific method at work: theories being formulated and attacked, and by standing up to that intense scrutiny and skepticism, emerging even stronger. In an age in which too many leaders seem to be encouraging scientific illiteracy – or, worse still, seem to be distorting the very meaning of science for political means – it’s nice to see an example of science winning out over fear and conventional (and in this case incorrect) wisdom.

Read This Book If: …you want some insight into scientific progress and the dawn of epidemiology.

Notes and Quotes:

  • p4, echoing Emergence, while describing the many scavenging roles in Victorian London: “But such social outrage should be accompanied by a measure of wonder and respect: without any central planner coordinating their actions, without any education at all, this itinerant underclass managed to conjure up an entire system for processing and sorting the waste generated by two million people.”
  • p11 paints a picture: “Victorian London had its postcard wonders, to be sure – the Crystal Palace, Trafalgar Square, the new additions to Westminster Palace. But it also had wonders of a different order, no less remarkable: artificial ponds of raw sewage, dung heaps the size of houses.”
  • p15: “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. These questions, too, deserve their own discipline = the sociology of error.” (for more on this theme, you could check out Brilliant Blunders)

“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.”

  • I found this passage, from p32, simultaneously beautiful and sad: “This is one of the ways that disease, and particularly epidemic disease, plays havoc with traditional histories. Most world-historic events – great military battles, political revolutions – are self-consciously historic to the participants living through them. They act knowing that their decisions will be chronicled and dissected for decades or centuries to come. But epidemics create a kind of history from below: they can be world-changing, but the participants are almost inevitably ordinary folk, following their established routines, not thinking for a second about how their actions will be recorded for posterity. And of course, if they do recognize that they are living through a historical crisis, it’s often too late – because, like it or note, the primary way that ordinary people create this distinct genre of history is by dying.”

“And of course, if they do recognize that they are living through a historical crisis, it’s often too late – because, like it or note, the primary way that ordinary people create this distinct genre of history is by dying.”

  • p34-35 describe, in chilling terms, what someone goes through as he or she dies of cholera. The mind stays sharp right until the end: “The mind within remains untouched and clear, – shining strangely through the glazed eyes, with light unquenched and vivid, – a spirit, looking out in terror from a corpse.”
  • Take that, humans, from p36: “As Stephen Jay Gould argued in his book Full House, it makes for good museum copy to talk about an Age of Dinosaurs or an Age of Man, but in reality it’s been one long Age of Bacteria on this planet since the days of the primordial soup. The rest of us are mere afterthoughts.
  • Friggin’ natural selection (kind’ve like that moth example from industrial England, but with much more diarrhea-induced death), p44: “It goes without saying that the bacteria are not in any way conscious of developing this strategy. The strategy evolves on its own, as the over-all population balance of V. cholerae changes. In a low-transmission environment, lethal strains die out, and mild ones come to dominate the population. In high-transmission environments, the lethal strains quickly outnumber the mild ones.
  • p53, speaking of one of the protagonists, Henry Whitehead (holy crap, someone go and update that weak Wikipedia entry): “There is, first, his composure and probing intelligence in a time of great chaos, but also his willingness to challenge orthodoxy, or at least submit it to empirical scrutiny.”

“There is, first, his composure and probing intelligence in a time of great chaos, but also his willingness to challenge orthodoxy, or at least submit it to empirical scrutiny.”

  • p87, after basically describing how people in much of the Western world live in perpetual fear nowadays: “We feel fear more strongly because our safety expectations have risen so dramatically over the past hundred years.”
  • p90 gives some neat historical context, reminding us that large cities (with a few exceptions over the centuries) are a fairly modern invention: “And so, in projecting back to the mind-set of a Londoner in 1854, we have to remember this crucial reality: that a sort of existential doubt lingered over the city, a suspicion not that London was flawed, but that the very idea of building cities on the scale of London was a mistake, one that was soon to be corrected.”
  • p126 adds a bit more to the excerpt from p15: “All of which begs the central question: Why was the miasma theory so persuasive? Why did so many brilliant minds cling to it, despite the mounting evidence that suggested it was false? This kind of question leads one to a kind of mirror-image version of intellectual history: not the history of breakthroughs and eureka moments, but instead the history of canards and false leads, the history of being wrong. Whenever smart people cling to an outlandishly incorrect idea despite substantial evidence to the contrary, something interesting is at work.”

“Whenever smart people cling to an outlandishly incorrect idea despite substantial evidence to the contrary, something interesting is at work.”

  • The age-old battle of emotion versus logic: “The miasmatists had plenty of science and statistics and anecdotal evidence to demonstrate that the smells of London weren’t killing people. But their gut instincts – or, more like it, their amygdalas – kept telling them otherwise. All of John Snow‘s detailed, rigourous analysis of the water companies and the transmission routes of the Horsleydown outbreak couldn’t compete with a single whiff of the air in Bermondsey.”
  • p132 reminds me of a common marketing reality: simple sells. “Miasma was so much less complicated. You didn’t need to build a consilient chain of argument to make the case for miasma. You just needed to point to the air and say: Do you smell that?”
  • p135: “The river of intellectual progress is not defined purely by the steady flow of good ideas begetting better ones; it follows the topography that has been carved out for it by external factors. Sometimes that topography throws up so many barricades that the river backs up for a while. Such was the case with miasma in the mid-nineteenth century.”

“The river of intellectual progress is not defined purely by the steady flow of good ideas begetting better ones; it follows the topography that has been carved out for it by external factors.”

  • p148 reminds us, “…how easily brilliant minds could be drawn into error by orthodoxy and prejudice.”
  • p152: phages are neat
  • Because…SCIENCE! p182: “Snow’s theory had even withstood the assault of a committed debunker.”
  • p199: “In the long run, the map was a triumph of marketing as much as empirical science. It helped a good idea find a wide audience.”

“In the long run, the map was a triumph of marketing as much as empirical science. It helped a good idea find a wide audience.”

  • Oh hey, here’s a great resource (and you can find high-res images of the maps – I’m gonna get one printed and framed, in celebration of science and the scientific method): http://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow.html
  • p201: “Imagining the chain of events in this way makes one fact overwhelmingly clear: John Snow may have been instrumental in first identifying the pump as the likely culprit behind the outbreak, but Whitehead ultimately supplied the crucial evidence for establishing the pump’s role.”
  • p208, speaking of London’s immense sewer system, which became operational in 1865 (I’ll keep this in mind next time I’m there): “It remains the backbone of London’s waste-management system to this day. Tourists may marvel at Big Ben or the London Tower, but beneath their feet lies the most impressive engineering wonder of all.”

“Tourists may marvel at Big Ben or the London Tower, but beneath their feet lies the most impressive engineering wonder of all.”

  • p221: “Jane Jacobs observed years ago that one of the paradoxical effects of metropolitan life is that huge cities create environments where small niches can flourish.”
  • I might pay it a visit someday, in homage, p228: “On Broad Street itself, only one business has remained constant over the century and a half that separates us from those terrible days in September 1864. You can still buy a pint of beer at the pub on the corner of Cambridge Street, not fifteen steps from the site of the pump that once nearly destroyed the neighborhood. Only the name of the pub has changed. It is now called The John Snow.”
  • p242: “Game theory has always had trouble accounting for players with no rational self-interest.”

“Game theory has always had trouble accounting for players with no rational self-interest.”

  • p250: “Right now we’re in an arms race with the microbes, because, effectively, we’re operating on the same scale that they are. The viruses are both our enemy and our arms manufacturer. But as we enter an age of rapid molecular analysis and prototyping, the whole approach changes. The complexity of our understanding of microbial diseases is already advancing much faster than the complexity of the microbes themselves. Sooner or later, the microbes won’t be able to compete.”
  • This passage from p251 reminded me of the parts in The Pentagon’s Brain that deal with asymmetrical warfare, IEDs, and suicide bombers: “The crucial difference, though, is that there are vaccines for biological weapons, while there are no vaccines for explosives. Any DNA-based agent can effectively be neutralized after its release, by any number of different mechanisms: early detection and mapping, quarantine, rapid vaccination, antiviral drugs. But you can’t neutralize an explosive once it has been detonated. So suicide bombers are probably going to be a part of human civilization for as long as there are political or religious ideologies that encourage people to blow themselves up in crowded places.”
  • The hopeful ending on p256 sounds very Sagan-esque: “However profound the threats are that confront us today, they are solvable, if we acknowledge the underlying problem, if we listen to science and not superstition, if we keep a channel open for dissenting voices that might actually have real answers.”

“However profound the threats are that confront us today, they are solvable, if we acknowledge the underlying problem, if we listen to science and not superstition, if we keep a channel open for dissenting voices that might actually have real answers.”

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Books, Leadership, Marketing, Math and Science
One comment on “Book Report: The Ghost Map
  1. […] point in the evening, I was reminded of these passages from Steven Johnson’s excellent book The Ghost Map, which examines Victorian London’s most frightening cholera […]

What do *you* think?

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address and get posts delivered straight to your inbox.

Archives
%d bloggers like this: