Boy. Coffee really jolts you into action. Rarely have I gotten so much feedback. Thanks one and all. (And this is just a sampling.) If you’re pressed for time, skip to the end – it’s my favorite.


Rob Sartain: ‘Check out James Burke. His ‘Connections’ televisions series on PBS is what you’re looking for. He’ll tell the story of how someone three centuries ago did something that, through an apparent chain of coincidences, results in supersonic jets today. His columns in Scientific American are very accessible by a non-technical reader.’

Jonathan Betz: ‘You may be interested in the VHS series ‘Connections,’ hosted by James Burke. Each video gives a history of a series of intertwined technological developments – I think I recall one that traced backwards through all the developments necessary before we could have an atom bomb. I first saw these in the eighth grade, so I think they’re about at the level you described.’

Scott Schumacher: ‘James Burke, the host of the mid 1990s PBS series ‘The Day the Universe Changed’ and current host of The Learning Channel’s ‘Connections 3’ is, in many ways, your man. Burke might best be described as a ‘thought historian.’ The title of his latest book (‘The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens made the Carburetor Possible‘) gives you some idea of the way that this strange and brilliant man thinks.’

☞ I love it. But please: don’t all send me the e-mail about how the size of the space shuttle traces back to width of a horse’s ass. We know that determined the width of a Roman chariot, which determined the width of the ruts in the roads, which led to the width of the railroad, which led (I forget exactly how but don’t need to know right now) to the width of NASA’s rockets.


Russell Turpin: ‘Of course, the Romans had running water in their cities, supplied by the aqueducts, some of which still stand in Italy, France, Spain, and North Africa. They did not have taps; but you really don’t need a tap to get water for your cup of tea. It’s just fine if the water runs continuously through your house’s basins, without ever stopping. After all, if you stop the water, then you need huge tanks to store it. And pumps to get it up to those tanks. Those tanks are not as clean as you might think. A modern water tank has all sorts of grime and dead beasties in it. You don’t think about that, when you make your coffee. Because of the chlorine in the water, it doesn’t present a health hazard. In Roman times, though, it made much more sense just to let it flow.’

Alan Flippen: ‘I don’t think Ben Franklin had running water, but the ancient Romans did. They even had flush toilets of a sort: aqueduct water ran in a trough under the public toilets so it could wash the waste away into the sewers. It was all done by gravity. You can see these toilets at a number of major archeological sites, including Pompeii and/or Ostia, just outside Rome.’

☞ See how fragile civilization is? If the Irish hadn’t saved it, we might still be living like the Visigoths.


Many of you linked me to the famous 1958 laissez-faire essay, ‘I, A Pencil.’


David Maymudes: ‘This book is similar to the one you want: Glass, Paper, Beans. It doesn’t get as far into the basic science as you suggested, but it really is along the same lines.’

Colin Robertson: ‘I don’t know if your precise premise has been done, though there are similar books on other topics. Coffee, though, is pretty clearly gone over in Uncommon Grounds, by Mark Prendergast. Also: The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry from Crop to the Last Drop by Gregory Dicum and Nina Luttinger.’

Trisha: ‘Your book has pretty much already been written, but no one wants to read it. Most people cannot imagine early calculators, bigger than today’s laptops and most kids can’t imagine a life being ended trapped down a coal mine or in a mill machine. Or that these were common as little as 100 years ago. Once you begin on what goes into a cup of coffee, it becomes hard to know where to stop. How do you justify to a kid the conditions many people have to put up with in order for you to have coffee, or the impact on the land? And then of course there’s the sticky situation of what are you going to do about it – the challenge of teaching the model citizen to conform, to behave, yet to challenge injustice. Tricky balancing act that. In Britain, the issue is dealt with by giving students a rounded education, and it takes many years, and a non-zero length attention span.’

Keith Graham, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy, University of Bristol, UK: ‘Your column is reminiscent of the most eloquent statement of our interdependence, by Adam Smith, which I quote in my book, Practical Reasoning in a Social World (Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 45-6).’

Barry Bottger: ‘Sounds like you have just viewed Escape From Affluenza, a wonderful PBS special from a few years ago hosted by Wanda Urbanska. If you have not seen it, you’d be surprised to see your “simple cup of coffee” essay/analogy to be a highlight of the show.’

Steve Golder: ‘Re: your coffee essay; I suspect that you, like me, get up many days and thank Fate that you live in the 21st century, in America, have food, indoor plumbing, electricity, and hot water, rather than, by chance, having been born in some God-forsaken third world hell-hole that will enter the 21st century by the time we are in the 25th. The fools who think we ‘deserve’ to drive 14 mpg cars just don’t get it. America is a great place but it breeds arrogance.’

Elliott Wong, Manhasset High: ‘Thanks for the year-long 9th grade global history assignment. It may take until June, but the book will be written. I’ll send up the best parts of my kids’ work!’

Rick Mayhew: ‘Your column today reminded me of one of my favorite quotes: ‘If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.’ – Carl Sagan.

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