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Sci-Fi Medicine

Ask Slashdot: Are You Apocalypse-Useful? 737

An anonymous reader writes: "Young people, when choosing a profession, are often told to 'do what you love.' That's why we have experts in such abstruse fields as medieval gymel. But let's talk hypotheticals: if there's a worldwide catastrophe in which civilization is interrupted, somebody specializing in gymel wouldn't provide much use to fellow survivors. In a post-apocalypse world, medical doctors would be useful, as would most scientists and engineers. The bad news for Slashdotters is that decades without computers would render computer science and related professions useless. What do you consider to be the most useful and mostly useless post-apocalypse professions? How long would it take for society to rebuild enough for your profession to be useful?"
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Ask Slashdot: Are You Apocalypse-Useful?

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  • by dpbsmith ( 263124 ) on Saturday April 12, 2014 @07:12PM (#46736471) Homepage

    A nineteenth-century schoolbook [] addresses this question. Post-apocalyptic society might not be too different from that of a "colony." Farmers, millers, carpenters, blacksmiths, masons, shoemakers, doctors, school-masters make the cut; barbers, just barely; silversmiths, soldiers, dancing-masters, lawyers, politicians, and "gentlemen" do not.

    [note.â"Mr. Barlow one day invented a play for his children, on purpose to show them what kind of persons and professions are the most useful in society, and particularly in a new settlement. The following is the conversation which took place between himself and his children.]
    Mr. Barlow. Come, my boys, I have a new play for you. I will be the founder of a colony; and you shall be people of +different trades and professions, coming to offer yourselves to go with me. What are you, Arthur?
    Arthur. I am a farmer, sir.
    Mr. Barlow. Very well. Farming is the chief thing we have to depend upon. The farmer puts the seed into the earth, and takes care of it when it is grown to ripe corn. Without the farmer, we should have no bread. But you must work very +diligently; there will be trees to cut down, and roots to dig out, and a great deal of hard labor.
    Arthur. I shall be ready to do my part.
    Mr. Barlow. Well, then I shall take you +willingly, and as many more such good fellows as I can find. We shall have land enough, and you may go to work as soon as you please. Now for the next.
    James. I am a miller, sir.
    Mr. Barlow. A very useful trade! Our corn must be ground, or it will do us but little good. But what must we do for a mill, my friend?
    James. I suppose we must make one, sir.
    Mr. Barlow. Then we must take a mill-wright with us, and carry mill-stones. Who is next?
    Charles. I am a carpenter, sir.
    Mr. Barlow. The most +necessary man that could offer. We shall find you work enough, never fear. There will be houses to build, fences to make, and chairs and tables beside. But all our timber is growing; we shall have hard work to fell it, to saw boards and planks, and to frame and raise buildings. Can you help in this?
    Charles. I will do my best, sir.
    Mr. Barlow. Then I engage you, but I advise you to bring two or three able +assistants along with you. William. I am a blacksmith.
    Mr. Barlow. An +excellent companion for the carpenter. We can not do without cither of you. You must bring your great bellows, +anvil, and +vise, and we will set up a forge for you, as soon as we arrive. By the by, we shall want a mason for that.
    Edward. I am one, sir.
    Mr. Barlow. Though we may live in log-houses at first, we shall want brick-work, or stone-work, for +chimneys, +hearths, and ovens, so there will be employment for a mason. Can you make bricks, and burn lime?
    Edward. I will try what I can do, sir.
    Mr. Barlow. No man can do more. I engage you, Who comes next?
    Francis. I am a +shoe-maker, sir.
    Mr. Barlow. Shoes we can not well do without, but I fear we shall get no +leather.
    Francis. But I can dress skins, sir.
    Mr. Barlow. Can you? Then you are a useful fellow. I will have you, though I give you double wages.
    George. I am a tailor, sir.
    Mr. Barlow. We must not go naked; so there will be work for a tailor. But you are not above mending, I hope, for we must not mind wearing +patched clothes, while we work in the woods.
    George. I am not, sir.
    Mr. Barlow. Then I engage you, too.
    Henry. I am a silversmith, sir.
    Mr. Barlow. Then, my friend, you can not go to a worse place than a new colony to set up your trade in.
    Henry. But I understand clock and watch making, too.
    Mr. Barlow. We shall want to know how the time goes, but we can not afford to employ you. At present, I advise you to stay where you are.
    Jasper. I am a barber and hair-dresser.
    Mr. Barlow. What can we do with you? If you will shave our men's rough beards once a week, and crop their hairs once a quarter, and be content to help the carpenter the re

  • Re:WHAT? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by PolygamousRanchKid ( 1290638 ) on Saturday April 12, 2014 @07:15PM (#46736497)

    There is a massive cache of existing technology which can be repurposed to rebuild society. Whos gonna do it if not Slasdotters?

    There was a Discovery show about this scenario: []

    One of the most interesting challenges was finding new uses for all the old technology laying around. Like, fixing it up to do something new, that was necessary for survival.

  • Re:Medical doctor (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hey! ( 33014 ) on Saturday April 12, 2014 @07:41PM (#46736653) Homepage Journal

    So when you break your leg, you're going to have your witch doctor set it for you?

    Vaccines and antibiotics are not high tech -- by which I mean something that requires an extensive and intact industrial infrastructure to produce. Crude replacements could be created by someone with 21st C scientific knowledge and the kind of technology that would have been available to 18th C gentleman scientists.

    As for other drugs, a doctor could work with herbalists. Willow bark replaces aspirin; foxglove replaces digitalis; Ephedra sinica replaces pseudoephedrine; absinthe replaces anti-worm medications. A herbalist working under medical supervision is a lot better than nothing.

  • by tylikcat ( 1578365 ) on Saturday April 12, 2014 @07:45PM (#46736687)

    I am such a child of the eighties (as in, I grew up halfway expecting an apocalypse). Identification of edible plants and mushrooms, not to mention medicinal plants (and a fairly good start on for real medicinal as opposed to folkloric medicinal). Spinning, weaving, preparation of fibers and a fair bit on natural dyeing (hey, we will get an economy going eventually, right?) Gardening. Domestication of natural yeast, bread making starting from whole grains (and I've threshed and winnowed grains, just not a ton), how to make a wood burning oven from clay, and experience cooking in such a thing. (And a fairly good idea how to make a simple kiln, and I've worked with native clays and fire things in such a kiln, just never made one from scratch.) I've done a bit of smithing, and I was about to say I don't know enough (outside of theory) about refining ores, but if we're talking post-apocalyptic, there is likely a fair bit of metal stock to be had. Decent at fish-traps, too. Some basic masonry. Cheese and yoghurt making. Tofu making, for that matter, which is much the same thing. (And I could probably fraction of the MgCl from seawater as a coagulant.) (I also could produce alcoholic beverages from a variety of substance... though the quality might be iffy. And I know many brewers who are really good.) ...and this is getting a little ridiculous, so I'll stop with the list though it's far from complete. However?

    "Not to mention someone capable of swinging a sword and lopping the heads off marauders intent on dragging off the young women and torching the village."

    I suppose I no longer really count as a young woman, but I'm a martial artist and a martial arts instructor* and jian is probably my best weapon. (Though a good jian requires pretty decent metalurgy - spear might be a better place to start.) And I'm a member of a Chan Buddhist order that emphasizes studies on medicine and the natural sciences. I'd happily teach those young women (and men, and, really, anyone else who can manage not to be an asshole) but I do think the idea that after some kind of societal breakdown women will be commodities and/or victims gets a bit overplayed. (Though... bah. Birth control. Really really need birth control. And while there are many low tech things that can help a lot, few of them are both reliable and reversible.)

    * Though my day job is being a neurobiologist. Yup, most biologists are nuts.

  • Re:Medical doctor (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gerddie ( 173963 ) on Saturday April 12, 2014 @07:47PM (#46736697)
    You don't need electricity for soldering, all you you need is something to create heat, e.g. a fire, a needle, and solder: Last time I was on Cuba for a few weeks as a visiting scientists, the power supply of my laptop broke down. I was living in one of those casas particulares, and one of the landlady's relatives proposed to open the power supply (With a saw, because it was glued) . Then he found the bad contact and since they didn't have a soldering iron, he did the soldering with a needle heated in the gas flame. Two weeks later I had to repeat the soldering procedure applying some more tin-solder, but the power supply works without a flaw ever since.
  • by gvz ( 410344 ) on Saturday April 12, 2014 @08:09PM (#46736791)

    This is a Hollywood-type confusion, very frequent.

    A catastrophic event, as the one clearly meant in the summary, is one where lots of people die, technology is damaged (ie, electric infrastructure is busted, telecomm stops working, etc.) and life as we know it is no more, but life goes on.

    Apocalypse is an event of biblical origin (apocalypse is the last book of the Bible, meaning "revelation"), and it explains the end of the world, that is, the end of life as we know it, and the world as we know it, and humans in general as we know them. Apocalypse will be a time when the dead will live again, with different qualities, and Earth will be renewed.

    So talking of "life after apocalypse" is a confusion of terms. It would be a lot more proper to talk of "life after a catastrophic event".

    It usually churns my stomach -as a Christian- to watch movies like 2012, where we have an "apocalypse" (catastrophic event falsely linked to the biblical event) just to find out that now we have a broken up, backwards world, ruled by some advantageous morons, and inhabited by egotistical ciizens. My, what a world!

    To keep things clear, the main event of the biblical apocalypse is the second coming of Jesus Christ, to renew everything and rule an eternal life of complete happiness. And, if you are not christian, or believer, if you are a person (a lot of them here on /.) who mock on religion, judging that it is a lie, or a loss of time, or such opinions, at least accept the "apocalypse" as a cultural-literary event, described in the most reproduced book in history.

    Apocalypse will invove a catastrophic event, no doubt, but things afterward will be a lot different.

  • Re:Medical doctor (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Wycliffe ( 116160 ) on Saturday April 12, 2014 @08:16PM (#46736845) Homepage

    No electricity means your failing at basic engineering. A coil and a moving magnet is not that hard to come by.

    I would agree. Unless we end up with something like the show "Revolution" where the laws of physics are turned upside down
    then having electricity on a small scale isn't a problem. The most likely scenerio in a collapse would be no cleanrooms, no
    rare elements, and therefore no NEW computers so being able to cobble together existing technologies to help with irrigation
    systems, etc... would be a highly useful skill. Even in a collapse computers are going to be useful. There will be plenty of tasks
    that people will want done on computers and they will want someone to be able to repair them and repurpose them to more
    immediate needs.

    If we end up in a scenerio where an EMP, nuclear blast, sun spot, etc... fries all the chips then repurposing old technologies
    becomes harder but we will still presumably have electricity but might have to rely alot more on crude relays, etc... rather
    than abandoned computers. In this scenerio a hardware engineer or electrical engineer would have an advantage but most
    computer programmers have at least been exposed to some of this at some point.

  • Re:Farming (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ShieldW0lf ( 601553 ) on Saturday April 12, 2014 @08:20PM (#46736863) Journal

    I'm in the same boat. Not a whole lot of demand for IT professionals, but I can design and run a permaculture style farm, build a stone house, cast scrap aluminum into a metal working shop, build sterling engines and steam turbines, deliver the level of medical care you'd expect of a combat medic, manufacture rudimentary chemicals from raw materials for use in peace and in war, hunt with a bow and arrow, trap game, fish, track and fight hand to hand. Among other things.

    And, I can use rhetoric to inspire men to follow my leadership and organize them effectively when they do.

    I think I'd do quite well.

  • by Roger W Moore ( 538166 ) on Saturday April 12, 2014 @10:28PM (#46737509) Journal

    The challenge is that scientists and engineers do not necessarily have the skills most critically required in the first decade or two of a new civilization

    Not true. Many of the oldest trades no longer exist so you need someone to develop the techniques and skills again. As a physicist I've never made a steam engine or a large scale electrical generator but I know the basic principles behind them and given time could get one working or figure out how to repair one which breaks. Put that together with a chemist who can figure out how to extract copper and steel from ores and a biologist who can figure out the best crop rotations and dietary requirements and you have the skills needed to greatly increase your survival odds in the first few years.

    The advantage of scientists and engineers is not that we are trained for some task but that we have the training to figure out how to do many, many different tasks. We routinely build and do things that nobody knows how to build or do because they have never been built or done before. In modern society it is more efficient to have individuals trained for each special task but without that scientists and engineers will be the ones who will need to reinvent everything which is missing and in the longer term teach the next generation.

  • Re:Farming (Score:5, Interesting)

    by donaldm ( 919619 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @01:38AM (#46738259)

    People can survive quite well without the care of physicians. Going without food is more difficult.

    Very true, because without food all living creatures die. However if you have a community of people the most important people are "Waste Management Specialists" such as garbage collectors and people who can put in and maintain water and sewerage systems. Without proper sanitation you would normally have a local or even a worldwide catastrophe unless we all want to go back to our hunter/gatherer roots.

  • Re:Farming (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Spy Handler ( 822350 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @05:03AM (#46738803) Homepage Journal

    People can survive quite well without the care of physicians. Going without food is more difficult.

    This. But we're talking about a deep understanding of agriculture and plant biology, not modern farming with GPS-guided combines and Monsanto round-up seeds.One would need to know how farming was done in ages past.

    And also since we're assuming a post-apocalyptic world in which computer programmers are useless due to a lack of electricity, I'd say even more important than farming knowledge is fighting knowledge. Having guns and ammo (LOTS of ammo) and knowing how to use them. Shooting a gun accurately may seem simple to the uninitiated, but it takes considerable training and practice. Also knowing how to fix guns (gunsmithing) will be an important skill.

    The holy grail in this world would be having the chemistry knowledge and experience to make your own gunpowder and ammo. If you could do that, you'd become THE most important person a local warlord could have in his court.

  • Re:Medical doctor (Score:2, Interesting)

    by RJFerret ( 1279530 ) on Sunday April 13, 2014 @01:22PM (#46740827) Homepage

    This. I recently read remembrances from people living in post-Soviet countries after the USSR breakup. It was little like the fantasies most others are envisioning in responses here, and imagining from fiction.

    They all talked about economic collapse, anyone who had savings, became destitute.

    Muscle ruled, thugs obviously took whatever they wanted from those who could supply, starting with factories and businesses. Obviously thugs wouldn't harm those they needed to the point of those individuals not being able to provide.

    However supply lines/travel were problematic. Someone spoke of a store that sold two things: salt, and vinegar.

    Some posters are pointing out their wives have skills, completely forgetting that many wives might be taken into sexual slavery. Desirable women became commodities.

    Which isn't to say there was complete lawlessness, but what would you do for protection from the gangs/law? They are younger, stronger, well-armed, more numerous, and don't respect intellectual debate. Their "tax" structure won't be logical, or necessarily sustaining.

    I'm also amused at those imagining recovering information from libraries. Have you been to one recently? Many libraries won't cull books donated to their collections for fear of offense, but patrons don't check out resource books that many assume they'd find there, stuff that doesn't circulate gets culled. Older titles get culled all the time. Patrons check out DVDs. Particularly new releases. Shelf space has been yielding to computer workstations. There's a growing trend shifting from housing dead trees, to serving as community centers, particularly in more online services.

    A lot of people have been suggesting they are capable of producing electricity from car alternators, as if electricity is valuable when there's a dearth of food. Not a single respondent remembering post-Soviet times mentioned electricity. A recurring theme was getting something from elsewhere as being hugely problematic--IE, transport.

    On the idea of lawyers becoming irrelevant, who else will we turn to when we want to appeal to get our wife/daughter/son/sister back? Who else will we turn to point out that the amount of food left to us, won't be enough for us to survive and supply their wants? There will be need of objective arbiters who understand the "language" of the gangs/thugs/law, and can translate the needs of the common person to petition for "fair" judgment.

    Society will continue to interact, move forward, and all the same existing needs will recur, including less base forms of entertainment. Here we are over a generation after the Soviet collapse, and society has rebounded. The people who came out ahead were the ones with connections, who saw opportunity and capitalized on it, exactly the same as the ones who come out ahead in any form of society.

This process can check if this value is zero, and if it is, it does something child-like. -- Forbes Burkowski, CS 454, University of Washington