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We certainly are the uncouth ones, leaving nature's paws and feathers for tires and metals driving cars on the endless pavement covering more and more of the land, flying in ever larger, faster more numerous airplanes that have netted the sky with vapor trails. Smil's book is about our transition into all this. He starts with wood fires, water wheels, windmills and animal powered wagons and machines then goes on to the steam engine, internal combustion engine, and gas turbine. From Fire to Wire. First crouching before fire in smokey caves then recently flourishing everywhere by wire, to be lit, heated or cooled by electric machines from distant power plants. As usual with Smil, the book is very good but it leaves out so much. All these machines are like a giant Stalagmite that has formed thanks to a drip drip of precious life, everything is built on a deposit of what came before, all the equipment, the power and convenience. Smil is a historian of this stalagmite, a study of energy, apparatus, formed by human hands. I see him, the professor from Prague in a white lab coat lecturing us. We are spellbound, the topic, science and Smil partakes of it, he wants to be part of it why else would he choose the joule, a mere watt second as a base unit of energy? We buy energy at least by the kilowatt hour as we buy gasoline by the gallon not the drop. Three million six hundred thousand joules per kilowatt hour. Smil wants to use big numbers. There he is in his white lab coat woven with fleece of the metric system a historian now with a chance to use big numbers like one of the scientists. We really have to bear down on those who want to appear scientific. They are after undue influence from the scientific badge. Smil, ever the erudite European professor with scores of fascinating books gives them a charming Dr. Strange love touch by occasionally leaving out the English article as on pg. 126 "to make profit". Should one speak of the distance from Los Angeles to New York as hundres of millions of inches or use miles? (1.56M (million) inches or 2,462 miles?) This insistence on stupefying measurements of man made energies has him neglect the really awe inspiring dimension of nature. He is like an agent for self important but actually dwarfish technologist preening themselves despite their uncouth accomplishments. He forgets mention of the sun unless it is transformed into electricity or of less interest, hot water. Smil, historian of science never mentions glass, silent, odorless, long lasting glass surely an energy invention as important as an engine. Power lines, railroads, freeways oil and gas lines are all to be noticed but not glass and certainly not clotheslines. We have better examples think of our migrating cranes who leave no vapor trails and thrill us with their musical calls. I was upset to find the y axis of historic energy use graphs suddenly change from an easily understood quantity to the Fisher-Pry plot. f/1-f He never explains it and I have now forgotten already what I finally learned from someone else. What is the point? Those who understand a mystery can bully those who don't. The old energy vs. time plots were fine by me. Smil leaves out one transformation that plays a large part in our affairs. This is a kind of technical overshoot where developments are made compulsively for their own sake. Like the famous shark feeding frenzy that has sharks once started on bloody meat next gobble tin cans, bottles and garbage in a "feeding frenzy". We build solar power plants to feed a grid that lights shopping centers with fluorescent lights during the sunniest weather. At much less expense we could put in skylights turn off these lights, and forget the PV power plants. This is the essence of overdevelopment. We are forgetting good old use of the sun, windows and skylights faster than we develop cost effective new uses. The same frenzied over development places mysterious unitary valves that cause me technical panic on motel showers, the old hot and cold faucets worked fine. This compulsive development seems not the same as that which transformed the last centuries but maybe it is the same and the steam engine and the diesel engine on which his transformation are based never really got us anywhere. Read more Smil, a recent book and one of his best Prime Movers of Globalization dwells on a key inventor Rudolph Diesel 1858-1913 whose engines power so much of the world today. Diesel told his son Eugene "It is wonderful to design and invent in the way an artist designs and creates. But whether it all has a purpose, whether people have become happier as a result that I can today no longer decide." Diesel drowned in the English Channel in 1913 an apparent suicide, he was not yet 60. His ghost may have something to tell us but the throb of the diesel engines make it hard to hear.
Very incisive and thought-provoking work though excessively technical at times. Smil does a good job demonstrating that energy technology transitions are protracted affairs with frequent "bumps in the road." While he favors renewable energy, he recognizes that the claims of many renewable energy proponents, most notably con artist Al Gore, are vastly overblown. One area Smil could have done a better job in is describing the consumer costs of transitioning to renewable energy; particularly in areas such as transportation, fuel prices, and fueling convenience. Until it is possible for consumers at large to purchase renewable powered vehicles at prices comparable to today's cars, recharge or refuel them in the amount of time it takes to fill up at the gas station, the utopian fantasies of renewable energy as a panacea to carbon emissions will remain the expensive pipe dreams of limousine liberals.