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The Big Idea

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From the Pythagorean theorem to DNA's double helix, from the discovery of microscopic life-forms to the theory of relativity—the big ideas of science and technology shape an era's worldview. Open this book, grasp the newest ideas from thought leaders of today, then spring off from them to move back through the past, one big idea at a time. Meet the people who gave birth to these ideas—and those who fought against them. Meet the MIT electrical engineer currently developing a way to turn on the lights cordlessly, then move back through Nikola Tesla's visionary concept of the wireless transfer of energy, Thomas Edison's groundbreaking work in developing a nationwide electrical grid, Ben Franklin's experiments to capture electricity, all the way back to ancient Greece, where Thales of Miletus described static electricity as a property of naturally occurring amber.


Ingeniously organized and eminently browsable, this richly visual volume is divided into six big sections—medicine, transportation, communication, biology, chemistry, and the environment. Words and images that work together to explain such fascinating and elusive subjects as cloud computing, sunshields to cool the Earth, and self-driving cars. What did it take to get to these futuristic realities? Then, turn the page and follow a reverse-chronological illustrated time line of science and technology. This remarkable illustrated history tells the story of every Big Idea in our history, seen through the lens of where science is taking us today—and tomorrow.


With an irresistibly cutting-edge look and original illustrations created by award-winning Ashby Design, paired with the reliable authority and comprehensiveness that National Geographic's world history books always offer, this is a one-of-a-kind trip to the future and back through all time all in one.


  • Hardcover
  • 352 pages; 200 color and 100 black-and-white photographs, 50 illustrations, 10 maps
  • 9 1/8" x 10 7/8"
  • © 2011

Timothy Ferris is the author of a dozen books, among them Seeing in the Dark, The Whole Shebang, and Coming of Age in the Milky Way, which was translated into 15 languages and named by The New York Times as among the leading books published in the twentieth century. Called "the best popular science writer in the English language" by The Christian Science Monitor and "the best science writer of his generation" by The Washington Post, Ferris has received the American Institute of Physics prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and his works have been nominated for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.


The original big ideas came from innovative men and women whose names are long lost. No monuments commemorate the inventors of the bowl, the dugout canoe, or the wheel, nor those who first planted crops, smelted copper, or etched marks into wet clay to inaugurate writing. Yet their legacies are all around us, in the foundations of the modern world.


With the advent of writing, big ideas came to be regarded as the providence of big thinkers. These intellectuals, as they were called, contributed valuable insights but seldom discovered or invented anything. Instead they analyzed and rearranged the relatively few facts that were then known, like jailhouse card sharks forever shuffling the same deck of cards. Science and technology did not so much build on the intellectual tradition as react against it, returning to the habits of hands-on tinkering that characterized prehistoric innovation. Pioneering scientists like Galileo, Gilbert, Harvey, and Newton had little use for scholarly analysis of venerable opinions. They were more apt to agree with Francis Bacon, the great 17th-century prophet of science, who likened his Cambridge professors to “becalmed ships; they never move but by the wind of other men’s breath.”


The scientists preferred to find new facts, such as how gravity and magnetism work, how blood circulates through the human body, and how planets orbit the sun. Their points of reference came less from reading old books than from experimentation and observation—what Galileo called reading “the book of nature.”


The result of their campaign was an unprecedented improvement in the lives of people around the world. Prior to the scientific and technological revolutions, the average human being was illiterate, earned a few hundred dollars a year, and was unlikely to survive to see age 30. Today, over 80 percent of all adults are literate, the global median annual income exceeds $7,000, and life expectancy at birth is approaching age 70. All this happened so quickly, measured against the long shadows of our history and prehistory,that many people don’t yet realize that it has happened.


I keep on my desk a Neanderthal hand ax, chipped from a piece of obsidian some 34,000 years ago. It’s a good ax; pick it up and you immediately start imagining all sorts of things you could do with it, from cutting meat to defending yourself to making another ax. That spirit, of learning and being inspired through direct physical interrogation of nature, is the real impetus behind science and technology alike.


Bacon, writing at the dawn of modern science, argued that experimenters “are like the ant; they only collect and use,” whereas logicians “resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. “But the bee takes a middle course,” Bacon wrote. “It gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own.”


Time proved Bacon right. Scientists today are so immersed in technology, and technologists in science, that it can be difficult to trace where one ends and the other begins. This messy process satisfies the neat prescriptions of neither scholars nor priests, but its results speak for themselves: More facts are now discovered in a decade than were once acquired in a century. Were Bacon alive today he might compare global science and technology to fields of wildflowers fertilized by bees: astonishing in their variety, yet each part testifying to the nature of the whole. The volume you are holding is a way into that excitement and splendor. Welcome, in short, to a beehive of a book.
--Timothy Ferris


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