When I learned Steven Johnson (my favorite author) has a new book out, it prompted me to finally read one of his previous books that’s been on my list for a while.
The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World was a timely read, for obvious reasons. Though cholera is a different beast than COVID (“Imagine if every time you experienced a slight upset stomach you knew that there was an entirely reasonable chance you’d be dead in forty-eight hours”), its effect in this story and throughout history shows us both how far science has come since the Victorian Age and how vulnerable we remain to infectious diseases.
What I love most about this book—even beyond the historical factoids and masterful storytelling you can expect from any Johnson joint—is that it’s basically a murder mystery, with cholera as the microbial serial killer and an unlikely detective duo of a doctor and a priest hunting it during a deadly epidemic in the crowded, putrid London of the 1850s.
Call it an epidemiological thriller. Probably not much competition in that sub-genre, but Johnson made the most of it.
I like Johnson’s description of London at the time:
an industrial-era city with an Elizabethan-era waste-removal system as perceived by a Pleistocene-era brain.
On the topography of progress:
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.
On great intellectual breakthroughs:
It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton’s famous phrase. Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.
On miasma theory and the “sociology of error”:
It’s not just that the authorities of the day were wrong about miasma; it’s the tenacious, unquestioning way they went about being wrong. …
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.