Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Ghost Map

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson was originally published in 2006. My hardcover copy of this nonfiction book is 301 pages including the notes and index. I have had Johnson's book on my wish list for a long time and I am pleased to say it lived up to my every expectation. I very highly recommend The Ghost Map and rate it a 5.

Synopsis from cover:
It is the summer of 1854. Cholera has seized London with unprecedented intensity. A metropolis of more than 2 million people, London is just emerging as one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure necessary to support its dense population - garbage removal, clean water, sewers - the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease that no one knows how to cure.

As their neighbors begin dying, two men are spurred to action: the Reverend Henry Whitehead, whose faith in a benevolent God is shaken by the seemingly random nature of the victims, and Dr. John Snow, whose ideas about contagion have been dismissed by the scientific community, but who is convinced that he knows how the disease is being transmitted. In a riveting day-by-day account, The Ghost Map chronicles the outbreak's spread and the desperate efforts to put an end to the epidemic - and solve the most pressing medical riddle of the age.

The Ghost Map is the chilling story of urban terror, but it is also a story about how scientific understanding can advance in the most hostile of environments. In a triumph of dynamic, multidisciplinary thinking, Steven Johnson examines the epidemic from the microbial level to the human level to the urban level.Brilliantly illuminating the intertwined histories of the spread of disease, the rise of cities, and the nature of scientific inquiry, Johnson presents both a vivid history and a powerful provocative explanation of how it has shaped the world we live in.

"It is August 1854, and London is a city of scavengers." first sentence

"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 itinerate underclass managed to conjure up an entire system for processing and sorting the waste generated by two million people." pg. 4

"Imagine living with that sword of Damocles hovering above your head - every stomach pain or watery stool a potential harbinger of imminent doom." pg. 33

[B]acteria can process all the molecules of life, making bacteria both an essential energy provider for the planet and its primary recycler.... in reality it's been one long Age of Bacteria on this planet..." pg. 36

"The ultimate route of transmission is almost invariably the same: an infected person emits the bacteria during one of the violent bouts of diarrhea....another person somehow ingests some of the bacteria, usually through drinking contaminated water." pg. 40

"The tragic irony of cholera is that the disease has a shockingly sensible and low-tech cure: water" pg. 45

"The explosion of tea drinking in the late 1700s was, from the bacteria's point of view, a microbial holocaust." pg 95

"For the first time the law had something to say about people opting to fill their old cellars with 'great heaps of turds'..." pg. 118

"Whenever smart people cling to an outlandishly incorrect idea despite substantial evidence to the contrary, something interesting is at work." pg. 126

"Hall's instructions for his cholera committee offer a brilliant case study in how dominant intellectual paradigms can make it more difficult for the truth to be established, even if the people involved are smart and attentive and methodical in their research." pg. 165

"A service called GeoSentinel tracks infectious diseases among travelers; the CDC publishes a weekly update on the current state of influenza in the United States....The popular ProMED-mail e-mail list offers a daily update on all the known disease outbreaks flaring up around the world, which surely makes it the most terrifying news source known to man." pg. 219

"The very forces that propelled the urban revolution in the first place....could be turned against us." pg. 254

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