Energies: An Illustrated Guide to the Biosphere and Civilization / Edition 1

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Energy is the only universal currency. One of its many forms must be transformed into another in order for stars to shine, planets to rotate, living things to grow, and civilizations to evolve. In this book, ecologist Vaclav Smil takes the principle of universality seriously, presenting a comprehensive and integrated survey of all the forms of energy that shape our world, from the sun to the human body, from bread to microchips. Each essay explains the science of the energy form as well as its implications for the functioning of the universe, life, or human society. Cross-links and summary diagrams allow easy comparisons among the various levels and flows of energy.

In this highly original book, ecologist Vaclav Smil takes the principle of universality seriously, presenting a comprehensive and integrated survey of all the forms of energy that shape our world, from the sun to the human body, from bread to microchips. Written in a scientifically sophisticated yet accessible style, Energies consists of eighty-two short essays organized under six headings: Sun and Earth, Plants and Animals, People and Food, Preindustrial Societies, Fossil-Fueled Civilization, and Motion and Information. Each essay explains the science of the energy form as well as its implications for the functioning of the universe, life, or human society. Cross-links and summary diagrams allow easy comparisons among the various levels and flows of energy.

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Editorial Reviews

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The 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.

—Greg Sewell

Scientific American
...[A] teeming, cross-disciplinary book....a dazzling procession.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262692359
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2000
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 228
  • Product dimensions: 8.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Vaclav Smil is the author of more than thirty books on energy, the environment,food, and the history of technical advances, including Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature, published by the MIT Press. He is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.

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Table of Contents

Energy's Unique Allure: An Unorthodox Look
An Overview of Concepts and Units
1 Sun and Earth 1
Sun 1
Solar Radiation 4
Atmosphere 7
Planet Earth 9
Winds 12
Rains 14
Oceans 17
Rivers 19
Earth's Heat 21
Geotectonics 23
Earthquakes 27
Volcanoes 29
Denudation 31
Space Encounters 33
2 Plants and Animals 37
Adenosine Triphosphate 37
Archaea and Bacteria 39
Photosynthesis 42
C[subscript 3] and C[subscript 4] Plants 44
Phytoplankton 46
Forests 49
Grasslands 52
Heterotrophic Metabolism 54
Reproduction 57
Growth 59
Endotherms and Ectotherms 61
Food Chains 63
Herbivores 65
Carnivores 68
Swimming 70
Running and Jumping 72
Flying 75
3 People and Food 79
Basal Metabolism 79
Thermoregulation 81
Pregnancy and Lactation 83
Human Growth 85
Walking and Running 87
Labor and Leisure 90
Nutrients 92
Grains 94
Bread 97
Lipids and Meat 99
Milk 101
Ethanol 102
4 Preindustrial Societies 105
Hunters and Gatherers 106
Shifting Cultivation 108
Traditional Agricultures 109
Cattle 112
Horses 114
Wood, Charcoal, and Straw 117
Waterwheels 120
Windmills 122
Copper, Iron, and Steel 125
Gunpowder 128
Sailships 130
5 Fossil-Fueled Civilization 133
Fossil Fuels and Electricity 134
Coals 136
Crude Oils 139
Natural Gases 141
Steam Engines 143
Steam Turbines 146
Water Turbines 149
Fission Reactors 152
Transmission 154
Electric Motors 156
Lights 158
Internal Combustion Engines 160
Gas Turbines 162
Blast Furnaces 164
Aluminum 167
Nitrogen 169
Nuclear Weapons 171
6 Transportation and Information 175
Trains 175
Ships 178
Bicycles 180
Cars 182
Airplanes 185
Rockets 187
Pipelines 189
Tankers 191
Telephones 193
Radio and Television 196
Computers and Microchips 197
Further Reading 201
Index 208
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