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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
The Light of the World
As if motivated by the maxim "The more things change, the more they stay the same," Vaclav Smil set out to write a book that brought together dozens of scientific disciplines to present a unified look at a universal constant: energy. The problem, he says, is that increasing specialization has researchers buried in their own fields of study, with little knowledge of what is being learned in others. A geologist studying plate tectonics and the forces that move the earth's crust, for example, is unlikely to know anything about the new science of bioenergetics, which is learning what keeps a hovering hummingbird aloft. Is there a relationship between these two? Yes. It's energy.
No process in human knowledge, be it natural or artificial, celestial or terrestrial, microscopic or plainly visible, is possible without using energy, and the amount of energy in the universe is constant. The best we can do is harness, convert, or redirect energy. But all energy is related. Follow this chain, for example:
The sun transforms nuclear energy into light and heat.
Trees change light and water into food and wood.
Humans consume food, which powers brain activity.
Brainpower is expended to create technology.
Technology, powered by electrical energy drawn from flowing water or burning fossil fuels, replaces human tasks, saving human energy.
Is this all the same energy? Pretty much. And that is the underlying theme of ENERGIES.
But to make that general point, Smil delves into the scientific complexities ofeachnatural phenomenon or human technology he explores. He isn't just making a point; he is teaching science. As a case in point, here is the opening of his essay on photosynthesis:
The well-known basic equation describing the endothermic reaction requiring 2.8 MJ of solar radiation to synthesize one molecule of glucose from six molecules of CO2 and H2O is an oversimplified black box. A more realistic black box looks like this: 106 CO2 + 90 H2O + 16 NO3 + PO4 + mineral nutrients + 5.4 MJ of radiant energy = 3,258 g of new protoplasm (106 C, 180 H, 46 O, 16 N, 1 P, and 815 g of mineral ash) + 154 O2 + 5.35 MJ of dispersed heat.
The prose can be dense and scientific, but it is mostly accessible and well cross-referenced (that's what the bold italics are for). The natural history and technology sections are much more readable for a nonscientist than the chemistry and molecular genetics essays. In sum, however, Smil has assembled an impressive, detailed study of the force that makes the world go round — and keeps your watch from stalling.