(p. 11) In “Extra Life,” Steven Johnson, a writer of popular books on science and technology, tells the stories behind what he calls, in an understatement, “one of the greatest achievements in the history of our species.” Starting in the second half of the 19th century, the average life span began to climb rapidly, giving humans not just extra life, but an extra life. In rich countries, life expectancy at birth hit 40 by 1880, 50 by 1900, 60 by 1930, 70 by 1960, and 80 by 2010.
. . .
It’s been a long time since the history of technology has been recounted as the triumph of plucky heroes, and Johnson’s stories reflect today’s more sophisticated understanding.
. . .
Sometimes the anti-heroism goes too far — Norman Borlaug, whose Green Revolution saved a billion lives, is unmentioned. But altogether, Johnson is a fine storyteller. Among his cast of characters are John Graunt (1620–74), the British haberdasher who studied mortality reports as a hobby and thereby invented epidemiology; Joseph Bazalgette (1819–91), the man behind “one of the 19th century’s greatest engineering achievements,” which you probably did not guess was the London sewers; “Moldy Mary” Hunt (1910–91), the Peoria bacteriologist who scoured fruit markets for the perfect rotten cantaloupe, the one with a strain of mold that enabled the mass production of penicillin; John Stapp (1910–99), who strapped himself into his invention, the rocket sled, and safely decelerated from 628 miles per hour to 0 in 1.4 seconds; and Dilip Mahalanabis, 86, the Indian pediatrician who discovered that a bit of salt and sugar dissolved in clean water could stop fatal diarrhea and thereby saved the lives of nearly 60 million people.
For the full review, see:
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date May [sic] 11, 2021, and has the title “How Humans Gained an ‘Extra Life’.”)
The book under review is:
Johnson, Steven. Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer. New York: Riverhead Books, 2021.