Tag Archives: history

Global Economic History

Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction (2011) by Robert C Allen is an excellent overview of the world’s economy. Allen is a professor of economic history and clearly knows his subject in depth. The book is well written and provides an excellent overview of global economics.

The chapters are The Great Divergence, The Rise of the West, The Industrial Revolution, The Ascent of the Rich, The Great Empires, The Americas, Africa, The Standard Model and Late Industrialisation and big Push Industrialisation.

The book has a standard model for economic development from the 19th century. Mass education, transportation improvements, a national bank for stable currency and tariffs to protect nascent industry.

The book is actually more than the sum of the parts. The combination of Allen’s expertise, the subject and the requirement for succinctness is really quite something. Allen’s stating of various theories and his own ideas about what helped and hindered economic development in the varying specific cases is really good. It would be hard not to learn quite a bit from the book.

Global Economic History is a surprisingly successful book on a big subject. Allen writes well and provides a really excellent overview of the subject.



Superconductivity: A Very Short Introduction (2009) by Stephen J Blundell is a really fine history and introduction to superconductivity. The author is a professor of Physics at Oxford who has also written a number of physics textbooks. It’s great to see someone who can explain things so well at many different levels.

I recently listened to the excellent Omega Tau Podcast on superconductivity and decided to read a book that had some more information about the history of superconductivity and how it works. This book provides exactly that in a really digestible form and there are even a few funny jokes in the book.

Superconductivity was a surprise discovery made when people were experimenting with just how cool they could make things and if they could obtain liquid Helium. That conductivity became infinite was highly unexpected. The physical explanation for this took decades. It’s interesting to compare the long time it took to explain superconductivity to the relatively short time it took work out how to make nuclear reactors and weapons.

The explanations for superconductivity have to be quantum in nature. Then the way in which higher and higher temperature superconductors have been discovered is really remarkable. It gives an insight into just how much great research there is into materials going on quietly all over the world. It’s also startling how the highest temperature superconductor having been created went from 3K in about 1900 to about 25K in 1985 then to 138K in 1993.

It’s a really well done book that is very informative, fascinating and easy to read.

Money Changes Everything

Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible (2016) by William N Goetzmann is a very impressive book that looks at how finance has evolved through history. The book does a great job in explaining how important financial developments have been for the development of the world.

The book is broken into sections that look at ancient Mesopotamian finance, ancient Greek finance, Roman finance, Chinese finance, the the changes to modern finance in Europe that helped Europe explore and dominate the world and how modern finance has become global.

Goetzmann is a professor of finance and management studies at Yale and is an expert on the history of finance.

The sections on the ancient world show how important the development of finance was to the development of math and how important it was for cities and empires to employ finance. It was startling to discover that 90% of the records recovered from some Mesopotamian cities were financial records.

The sections on Roman and Greek finance showed how large cities could use finance to get their food supplies and what sort of laws were required. The section on Chinese finance is also remarkable and shows how Chinese rulers used coins and then paper money.

The section on the development of European financial developments from the twelfth century onward is fantastic. Making the point that Hindu-Arabic numerals were popularised in the Liber Abaci is very much worthwhile. The trading of bills of exchange, then the creation of companies and stock market booms and bubble is very well explained.

The weakest part of the book is the modern section where oddly Marx and Ayn Rand’s contribution to finance is pondered. While Marx is certainly an important figure in history it’s odd to have in the book. The book also has quite a bit on Keynes. Keynes is more justified but still it’s somewhat odd.

Overall the book is fantastic though. It really makes the reader ponder just how much finance has helped to develop the world.

The Enlightenment : A Very Short Introduction

The Enlightenment : A Very Short Introduction (2015) by John Robertson is an introduction to various Enlightenment thinkers and the influence they have had and how their contribution has been seen since The Enlightenment.

Robertson is a professor of the history of Political Thought at Oxford so he’s well placed to write a book as ambitious as this that is so short. Kant, Hume, Smith, Rousseau and the other major enlightenment figures all have their impact and work described.

The book also discusses how The Enlightenment has been seen since by various philosophers and historians.

The book shows the diversity of thought of the major Enlightenment figures and inadvertently that Steven Pinker’s thesis that it is some central idea from the Enlightenment that has driven current prosperity is dubious. This is not to say modernity isn’t prosperous, just that Pinker’s description of The Enlightenment as being a secular, atheist movement toward reason is not something that many of the major Enlightenment figures would have agreed with.

The book made me want to read more of the works of major Enlightenment figures and get more of an understanding of them. It was worth reading for me to get some overview of what is meant when people talk about The Enlightenment.


Factfulness : Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (2018) by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund is an absolutely outstanding book about the most important numbers in the world and how most people around the world, including researchers, do not know them.

Everyone should read this book. It is superb. This review will try and say why. The book combines an engaging narrative with insight and a plethora of facts about our world.

Hans Rosling was a Swedish doctor who worked extensively in the developing world and realised that even he did not know much about how the world has developed. He then started studying the big statistics on the plight of the world. He established the Gapminder Foundation ( http://www.gapminder.org ) that is dedicated to showing the true state of the world through the big numbers on health, population and wealth. Rosling died last year after a truly remarkable life. This book, written with his son and his son’s wife is his last act and completed by them is also a great credit to them as well.

The book starts with a quiz, the first few questions of which are here:

1: In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school? A: 20 percent B: 40 percent, C: 60 percent

2: Where does the majority of the world population live? A: Low-income countries B: Middle-income countries C: High-income countries

3. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has … A: almost doubled B: remained more or less the same C: almost halved

4. What is the life expectancy of the world today? A: 50 years B: 60 years C: 70 years

The answers are at the end of this review.

Rosling posed 13 such questions to various experts and laypeople around the world and found that people usually do worse than guessing at random. This is a truly terrible result. The book is another attempt by Rosling to get us to understand more about the way the world really is and why we have such a poor grasp of the big, basic statistics of our world.

Rosling looks at his own life in Sweden, growing up with a mother who was delighted to have a washing machine that freed up so much of her time that in turn allowed her to read to her son who became a doctor. Rosling then intertwines his own life, and extensive experiences in the third world to show how the world has changed and how it really is. He uses his experience as teacher to doctors in Sweden who want to work in the developing world but know little about the reality of it.

The book looks at why people are generally far too negative, how they see trends as straight lines rather than as things that change, how we fear things irrationally, how we generalize poorly, how we rarely think about how the past really was, how we don’t get enough perspectives, how we then seek to blame and how people exaggerate negatives and proposes Factfulness rules of thumb so we can better understand our world and the fate of people on it.

Factfulness is a deep, moving and fantastic book that really helps to educate people as to what the real state of the world is. It should be read by as many people as possible. Hans Rosling lived a remarkable life working to better humanity. The least the rest of us can do is read this entertaining book to educate ourselves better.

( 1: C, 2: B, 3: C, 4: C )


Iran: A Very Short Introduction (2014) by Ali Ansari is a short introduction to the whole history of Iran. Ansari is a professor in Modern History at St Andrews University and he is also the founding director of the Institute for Iranian Studies.

The book is great of the history of Iran up until about the seventeenth century and then the book takes an odd turn with Ansari inserting more references to how Iran see its history now. It reads oddly from there on and the modern history of Iran feels very rushed It seems that the book may have been substantially cut down from what the author intended and what remains feels almost like a collage.

Short Introductions are often superb short books by mainly British academics. They are like an extended edition of In Our Time at their best. However, this one really doesn’t work. It has made me want to read more about Iran, but also that the book was better edited.

Enlightenment Now

Enlightenment Now : The Case for Reason, Science, and Humanism (2018) by Steven Pinker is a high selling non-fiction book by a famous author that espouses that humanity’s condition has improved dramatically in the past 200 years and also very dramatically in the past 50 years. In addition to that Pinker says that the reason for this improvement is Reason, Science and Humanism. Bill Gates recently said that book is his favourite of all time. Pinker is a Canadian born cognitive psychologist professor at Harvard. He has also written a number of very successful other books.

The fact that the number of people in the world living flourishing lives in the world over the past 200 years has shot up dramatically. This fact is critically important and has been sadly under reported. The recently deceased Swedish doctor Hans Rosling made a big effort with his ‘Gap minder’ website to collate statistics on the well being of people all over the world. His TED talk is fantastic and it has had a huge impact. The data show that life expectancy has shot up in poor parts of the world along with literacy and life expectancy. Max Roser, a German researcher, has furthered this sort of data collection in his fantastic our world in data project.

The book summarises these incredible developments well. Pinker states that the system of markets, science and democracy has worked better than anything in history and that the increase in well being is absolutely staggering. The book does cover much of the same ground that Matt Ridley’s ‘The Rational Optimist’ also does.

The other part of the book is stating that it is the ideas of the Enlightenment that have been furthered with atheism that has caused all this to take place and Pinker starts to take on those he believes are the enemies of The Enlightenment. This part is more problematic. Many of the major Enlightenment thinkers were religious, in particular Kant, as have been many major scientific figures including Newton, Maxwell and others. They were not seeking to put forward new thinking based just on reason but instead to use reason to justify their beliefs better. There have been critiques of the book from academics who study The Enlightenment that point out these issues .

Pinker also makes the point that a lot of the humanities have become heavily left wing and politicised and intolerant. Pinker points out that in many Humanities departments there are as many Marxists as conservatives with the majority being substantially left, and many hard left wing. They have also become intolerant of idealogical diversity. Pinker points out that this is also leading to much of the humanities become irrelevant. Science is seen by post modernists as just another version of truth that is primarily about propagating an oppressive point of view.

Much of the great progress over the past 20 years is also due to China’s rise and it is interesting to ponder if the rise of a nominally Marxist but certainly totalitarian state coupled to a market economy that uses science is a rise compatible with The Enlightenment.

Pinker’s previous book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ was challenged by Nassim Taleb on the basis that a single modern nuclear war would make the entire thesis incorrect. Pinker responds to this criticism in the book. However, he doesn’t name Taleb which is a bit petty.

The book concludes with a defence of Liberalism and Humanism and references to The UN’s Declaration of Human Rights and a manifesto for a new Humanism.

Overall, Enlightenment Now is well worth a read for the statistics that point out just how much the modern world has improved in so many dimensions. Pinker’s idealogical justification for this rise isn’t as strong and is apparently not as well researched.