The Roots of Progress

2019 in review

December 31, 2019 · 7 min read

2019 was the third year of The Roots of Progress, and it was a big one.

The biggest development, of course, was that I’m now doing progress studies full-time. I made this decision around mid-October, so I only got to do about two months before the holidays, but already I can tell that it’s making an impact on my work.

Obviously, this lets me do more reading and writing. What wasn’t so obvious before was that this new capacity doesn’t mean I just do more of exactly the same thing. It’s making what I do more intense. I’m going deeper. I’m reading entire books on relatively narrow topics, such as smallpox inoculation, and writing in-depth summaries that are longer than any of my previous posts. I’m delving into academic literature and have even dabbled in doing my own data analysis. I don’t know if any of that would have happened if I hadn’t taken this on as a career goal rather than a side project. Part of this is that I now have the time to spend on going deeper, but part of it is that I feel the bar has been raised. When this was a “hobby” I could just read and write about whatever I felt like; now I have a responsibility to be actually ask important questions and answer them. (Although I still place a good deal of trust in my intuitions about what is important and valuable.)

Doing ROP professionally also means that I have time to devote to formats other than the blog. I’ve started speaking (more below) and I am experimenting with interactive diagrams or simulations, in order to better explain certain concepts.

Here’s what I did this year in more detail. If you’re interested in this project, I hope you’ll appreciate a bit of a look behind the scenes, and if you just subscribed recently, this can serve as a summary and guide to what you missed earlier.

Reading

In 2017 and 2018, I devoted most of the year-end review to the books I had read, which means it’s now a tradition. And who am I to break with tradition?

In 2019 I read sixteen books that were in some way connected with this project (up from twelve in each of the previous two years).

My favorite of the year was The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World, by David Deutsch. Credit to my friend Fawaz who had been nagging encouraging me to read this for years. Even though I felt I already knew and agreed with most of the points I found most interesting and valuable, I have found myself quoting the book frequently, which is a sign that its formulations crystallized ideas and concepts for me that had been at most implicit. One was its refrain that all problems are solvable: “Anything not forbidden by the laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.” Another was the idea that, despite this, there will be no end to problems. Solutions to problems always generate more problems, just as answers to questions always generate new questions. This isn’t a pessimistic take, but an extremely optimistic one, because it says that any problems generated by technology are simply part of the natural course of progress, and will be solved in turn by new ideas. The book deserves its own post, which I’d like to do soon.

Another “big-picture” book I read this year was more famous but overrated: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. Here’s my review. Philosophically, Diamond is the opposite of Deutsch; while Deutsch puts progress on a pedestal, Diamond doesn’t acknowledge its existence. I also read a couple other books not related to technology but about world history more generally, both of them by my friend and former teacher Scott Powell: The History of Now: A New Kind of History, and The 4-Hour Historian: An Anti-Textbook, Volume 1: The World We Live In 1.0. The books are aimed at a high-school audience, and I had already heard most of the material through Scott’s online courses for adults, but I appreciate his drive to radical simplification and integration of history, which I strive to emulate in my own work, in contrast to most history of technology.

My second favorite this year was a biography: Louis Pasteur: Free Lance of Science, by René Dubos. Pasteur’s life and career are tremendous enough in themselves, but Dubos goes beyond biography; the book covers much of the history of microbiology, paints an inspiring portrait of the intellectual atmosphere of the 19th century, and muses about the nature of scientific creativity itself.

This was just one of a handful of books I read on the topic of infectious disease, which I’ve been focusing on the last several weeks. I read and enjoyed Defying Providence: Smallpox and the Forgotten 18th-Century Medical Revolution, by Arthur Boylston, and some of Smallpox: The Death of a Disease; The Inside Story of Eradicating a Worldwide Killer, by D. A. Henderson; these resulted in my history of smallpox and the origins of vaccines. I also read and enjoyed Germ Theory: Medical Pioneers in Infectious Diseases, by Dr. Robert Gaynes, and Polio: An American Story, by David M. Oshinsky; the latter led to a post and followup about polio and randomized clinical trials.

Another favorite was one in the history and philosophy of science: Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress, by Hasok Chang (thanks to Manjari Narayan, who turned me on to this and more generally to the Lakatos Award books). This was a fascinating story about the development of the thermometer, which turns out to be much more challenging than just putting a drop of mercury in a glass tube and painting a ruler on it. This book, too, deserves its own post. The history of science is something I haven’t gotten into much yet, and probably won’t until have covered the history of technology and industry more thoroughly, but it’s a crucial part of the overall story of human progress.

The last favorite I’ll call out is Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World, by Jill Jonnes. I enjoyed this not only for its engaging story about the early development of the electricity industry, but for its portrait of George Westinghouse, who sometimes unfairly loses the spotlight in the popular narrative about Edison and Tesla. I covered both in my explanation of why AC won the War of the Electric Currents.

In addition to medicine, the other topic I spent a lot of time on this year was steel. I read two books: Steel: From Mine to Mill, the Metal that Made America, by Brooke C. Stoddard, and The Epic of Steel, by Douglas A. Fisher. That plus a lot of supplementary online research culminated in my history of the metal, “Iron: From Mythical to Mundane”, which I also gave as a talk.

There are a few other topics I started researching this year but haven’t had a chance to blog about. One was locomotives and railroads, for which I read The Locomotive Pioneers: Early Steam Locomotive Development 1801–1851, by Anthony Burton, and Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869, by Stephen E. Ambrose. The other was agriculture, for which I read Food: A Very Short Introduction, by John Krebs. I hope to return to agriculture early in 2020.

Writing

I wrote 32 posts this year (including this one), totalling over 40,000 words. That’s almost twice as many posts as in 2018, and almost twice as many words as either of the previous two years. In general, the trend has been for my posts to get longer over time; the three longest posts were all written in the last few months, and 7 out of the top 10 were written in 2019.

My most popular posts of the year seemed to be:

But I only put any kind of analytics on the blog around August. Next year I’ll be able to rank the posts by unique views.

Speaking

As the progress movement took off this past summer, I started getting invited to give talks and podcast interviews. I spoke on the history of steel at the first SF progress studies meetup, and again at South Park Commons. I also spoke at a few private events on the role of science in the Industrial Revolution.

I was also interviewed on “Self in Society” with Ari Armstrong, Village Global’s “Venture Stories” with Erik Torenberg (alongside Rob Tracinski), and “That’s BS” with Jordan Myers, plus a couple more that haven’t come out yet.

I’d like to more actively seek out talks and interviews in 2020. If you know a forum I should speak at, or a podcast I should be on, let me know.

Social media

Part of spending more time writing has been spending more time posting on Twitter, which I’m now treating as a second forum for my thoughts, open questions, fun facts, idle speculation, and philosophic musing. Many of my posts get turned into Twitter threads, and vice versa. My most popular thread (over 7k likes!) was a Twitter adaption of an old post on cement, which generated enough replies that I did a followup post just to answer people’s questions. I made similar thread adaptations for steel and smallpox. Another popular thread was on why penicillin was so slow to develop. You should follow me on Twitter.

I recently started a Reddit community (subreddit), r/rootsofprogress, for the blog. Since I don’t have comment threads on the blog, this is becoming a place to discuss the posts. More discussion is happening at LessWrong, where I’ve been cross-posting some of my articles (although not consistently).

Audience

The ROP audience grew a lot in 2019. This is partly an effect of going full-time, and partly a cause: the spontaneous attention I started getting this summer was part of what encouraged me to take the leap. My breakout post was the bicycle one, which hit #1 on Hacker News and was promoted in a variety of places, from Marginal Revolution to Kottke.

My main Twitter account (@jasoncrawford) now has almost 7,000 followers, and @rootsofprogress has over 4,000. There are over 1,500 subscribers to the email list, and tens of thousands of monthly visitors to the website.

Support

To allow me to do progress studies full-time, I’ve been fortunate enough to receive a number of grants from sympathetic funds, including Tyler Cowen’s Emergent Ventures.

I also started a Patreon a few months ago, which is over 50 patrons and $275 a month. That covers plenty of books!

The grants are one-time “angel investments” to jumpstart my new career; I don’t intend for them to be my source of income long-term. It’s crucially important to me to be paid for my work directly by the people who benefit from it, whether that’s through writing books, speaking, or a large base of small donors. So if you’ve found my work valuable, consider becoming a patron.

2020 and beyond

With full-time focus, 2020 will be a big year for ROP. I want to dive into the history of agriculture, and many other subjects, from precision manufacturing to nuclear power to the internal combustion engine to the history of finance. By the end of the year I hope to have a book proposal.

Thanks to all of you for reading!

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