One of the traits of a great writer is that he will reveal the extent of your ignorance. Vaclav Smil has this and more, in particular the rare coupling of an inability to write a dull book and an ability to produce them at a prodigious rate. And this month’s Intelligent Life has a piece by Oliver Morton which does a nice job of summarizing Smil’s style.
A professor at the University of Manitoba, Dr Smil writes compendious books that make lovely use of his relentlessly questioning mind, thorough knowledge of the relevant literature, unshakable self-confidence, slightly austere manner and unflagging willingness to deploy his pocket calculator. He ranges widely, but his recurrent theme is the way that energy flows through—and between—natural and artificial systems on both the grandest scales and the most intimate ones. The result is numerate niftiness galore.
And this rather surprising fact:
The world’s cattle weigh 16 times as much as all the wild mammals on the planet put together.
For what it’s worth my favourite Smil book is Energy at the Crossroads, which will do a much greater job of informing you about the realities of energy than any number of op-eds. Unfortunately, most of his books aren’t particularly cheap (blame the silliness of Academic publishers), but don’t let that put you off. Many of the essays on his website are must reads, in particular his piece on the coal dependence of large scale steel production.
And anyone who thinks carbon capture and storage can solve climate change should consider his remarkably trenchant counter argument during this conversation with Andy Revkin: