Guns, Germs and Steel

Why did history take a different course on different continents? Jared Diamond takes a fascinating look at that question in his 1997 masterwork on the accumulative effects of culture. The book not only helped me to better understand history, it also helped me to better understand myself.

Case in point, I use a qwerty keyboard, even though I could probably double my writing speed by connecting a $20 dvorak keyboard to my laptop. I haven’t made the switch because I am too old to learn typing all over again. And even if I did, I’d look like a total doofus the next time I stepped up to the computer catalog at my local library. Jared Diamond explains the whole sordid history of the qwerty keyboard in Gun’s Germs and Steel:

[Qwerty] was designed in 1873 as a feat of anti-engineering. It employs a whole series of perverse tricks designed to force typists to type as slowly as possible, such as scatter­ing the commonest letters over all keyboard rows and concentrating them on the left side (where right-handed people have to use their weaker hand). The reason behind all of those seemingly counterproductive features is that the typewriters of 1873 jammed if adjacent keys were struck in quick suc­cession, so that manufacturers had to slow down typists. When improve­ments in typewriters eliminated the problem of jamming, trials in 1932 with an efficiently laid-out keyboard showed that it would let us double our typing speed and reduce our typing effort by 95 percent. But QWERTY keyboards were solidly entrenched by then. The vested interests of hundreds of millions of QWERTY typists, typing teachers, typewriter and computer salespeople, and manufacturers have crushed all moves toward keyboard efficiency for over 60 years.

Jared Diamond

Thanks to Diamond’s history, you now have one weird trick to drastically improve your writing efficiency. Also thanks to Diamond, you know the exact reason why you probably won’t make that switch anytime soon.

This is just one of the many gems of historical story-telling in Guns, Germs and Steel. It’s also just a great all-round explainer of the pre-history of our species. Here’s Diamond’s effortless explanation of radiocarbon dating:

Archaeologists date food production by radiocarbon dating of carbon containing materials at the site. This method is based on the slow decay of radioactive carbon 14, a very minor component of carbon, the ubiquitous building block of life, into the nonradioactive isotope nitrogen 14. Carbon 14 is continually being generated in the atmosphere by cosmic rays. Plants take up atmospheric carbon, which has a known and approximately con stant ratio of carbon 14 to the prevalent isotope carbon 12 (a ratio of about one to a million). That plant carbon goes on to form the body of the herbivorous animals that eat the plants, and of the carnivorous animals that eat those herbivorous animals. Once the plant or animal dies, though, half of its carbon 14 content decays into carbon 12 every 5,700 years, until after about 40,000 years the carbon 14 content is very low and difficult to measure or to distinguish from contamination with small amounts of mod ern materials containing carbon 14. Hence the age of material from an archaeological site can be calculated from the material’s carbon 14/car bon 12 ratio.

Read or listen to Guns, Germs and Steel

by Jared M. Diamond