If you are looking for a great read, pick up “The Ghost Map” from Outside.in cofounder Steven Johnson. The book, published in November, poignantly tells the story of how an amateur scientist and a clergyman use their knowledge of a local neighborhood in London to track down the root causes of a major cholera breakout in 1854.
The cause of the breakout had defied the city’s health professionals, who were looking for the wrong clues (“environment,” not “water”) and blind to what was basically in front of their noses. By interviewing local residents about their less-than-obvious water consumption habits, the scientist and clergyman figure out that the disease spread from a water pump on Broad Street. Johnson concludes that it was the scientist’s ability to draw maps of the victim’s residences and their proximity to the water pump that solved the mystery, and perhaps saved thousands of lives by preventing future cholera breakouts.
This beautifully written book takes its place on my bookshelves among the great mysteries. It adds great perspective on research planning, and throws in some biology, geography and urban planning, too. (For more on Johnson’s work and views on local, read an interview I did with him last November.)