Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Ghost Map

by Steven Johnson
150 years ago, London was the largest city in the world, and in many ways very much like any modern metropolis. But the city was almost entirely lacking in infrastructure, public works. The flush toilet had recently been invented, but citywide sewers were still years off, and "night-soil men" were paid to haul off human waste when it collected too deeply in cesspools. To put it mildly, the city stank. Editorials were frequently published in the newspapers about the putrid air, and the ill-health it undoubtedly caused, especially in the poorest parts of town. Then, in late August, 1854, people start dying in Soho. It's not the first time cholera has attacked the city , but it's the deadliest. Whole families die overnight, while their neighbors are spared. Steven Johnson tells the story of the two men, a doctor and a minister, who overcome the pseudo-science of the time to find the exact cause, stop the spread of the disease, and ultimately change the way London, and cities across the world, functioned. Our 21st-century vantage point allows us to zoom in and out, from microbe to metropolis, in ways Dr. John Snow would have loved. Johnson does a wonderful job of making this scientific detective story into a page-turner.

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