A Beginnner's Guide to Energy

6:09 PM

Mature, public conversation about issues that matter is foundational for democratic society. I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" offers such an opportunity. To contribute to that dialog, I will offer commentary on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg.

It was Bill Gates who initially exposed me to the work of Vaclav Smil. In Gates' recommendations for "Beach Reading (and More)," Microsoft's founder suggested Smil's latest work while also noting his long affection for Smil's writing in his review of the book:
I can’t think of anyone better equipped to present a clear-eyed analysis of this subject than Vaclav Smil. I have written several times before about how much I admire Smil’s work. When he tackles a subject, he doesn’t look at just one piece of it. He examines every angle. Even if I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, I always learn a lot from reading him.
When Mark Zuckerberg made Smil's Energy: A Beginner's Guide the fourteenth selection in his "A Year of Books," Zuckerberg also cited Gates' recommendation as one that influenced him to include the 2006 book in his reading.

Vaclav Smil
Vaclav Smil, a Czech-Canadian scientist, is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. Having published 35 books and more than 400 papers, Professor Smil writes broadly interdisciplinary research in energy, environmental and population change, food production and nutrition, technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy.

Not having read much science since high school and college, the first two chapters, which quickly survey theories from chemistry, physics, and biology, as well as the accompanying equations, were a bit slow-going for me. Obviously, this reflects less upon the author than his reader. The broad base built upon those foundational sciences in the first chapters allows Professor Smil to incorporate their insights throughout the remainder of the book. It illustrates something of Bill Gates' remark that Professor Smil "examines every angle."

In fact, the book is not highly technical. Apart from the equations and occasional units of measure derived from the first chapters, the book reads easily. While a scientist, Smil writes in an easy prose. The book is unencumbered by footnotes and endnotes.The book dovetails nicely, as well, with Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, a prior Zuckerberg pick. Themes from Harari's work about the development of agriculture and technology are developed by Professor Smil in light of energy and the efficiency of the process.

Many themes, used as illustrations, are given brief reference, and this reader was left to ponder further implications (and tack on additional works to future reading), like his reference to the urban heat island affect (p. 20). I also learned about the advantages in running afforded by our bipedality, over quadrupedal runners, like dogs, who have to time their movements to their respiration (p. 72). Professor Smil also observes misuses of language and concepts in relationship to his theme: misuse of the term "power" (p. 15), a preference for the word "web" over "food chain" (p. 58), and the multiple forms of coal better expressed as "coals" (p. 105). Smil chooses his words carefully as well as gracefully.

The book's central challenge may well be reduced to this:
. . . it is not a shortage of energy, but rather our ability to harness it and convert it into useful energy at an acceptable (both monetarily and environmentally) cost, that will determine the fate of our civilization. (p. 32)
Amid the growing effects of climate change and the declining reserves of fossil fuels, Professor Smil then explains the energy costs involved in various technologies throughout history and reviews some key factors, in place of offering forecasts, regarding energy in the future. Professor Smil identifies issues of exaggerated energy consumption in the U.S., relative other economies, but he sets them forth as a scientist more than an ethicist. All in all, Pope Francis' Laudato Si' may well provide excellent companion reading to the research shared by Professor Smil.

In Energy: A Beginner's Guide, Professor Vaclav Smil provides a thorough and enjoyable introduction to concepts regarding energy, the history of those concepts, and our modern challenges with energy. Likely, this will be my first, but not final encounter, with Professor Smil's writing, given how much i enjoyed reading him.

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