The complexity of modern civilization is somewhat of a double-edged sword. It has brought great advances in human health and well-being, yet a full understanding of the sum-total of our knowledge of how the world works is now far beyond any single person. Consequently, getting people to agree on how to tackle complex problems becomes this much harder. In How The World Really Works, energy expert and policy analyst Vaclav Smil provides the big picture of the material and energetic basis undergirding human civilization, and what this means for attempts at addressing climate change. Rich in eye-opening facts and not a little bit opinionated, this is a much-needed reality check that purposefully avoids extreme views of both the techno-optimist and catastrophist kind.
Not two weeks before I started reading this book, our neighbourhood was hit by a short power cut. It was a potent reminder of how we take electricity for granted and are utterly dependent on it. Author and journalist Robert Bryce has been writing about electricity and power for the last 30 years, publishing numerous articles and several books, and hosting the Power Hungry podcast. A Question of Power is part-history of electrification, part-reportage on current patterns of global electricity consumption, and part-outlook on the future of electricity generation, with Bryce coming out against renewables and in favour of nuclear energy. This proved to be a thought-provoking book and I disagree with some of his ideas, though not for the reasons you might think.
One has to wonder whether the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft had the star-nosed mole in mind when he created the Cthulhu Mythos. Fortunately for us mortals, this little mammal is harmless—though it is not without some extraordinary powers of its own. I first came across the work of biologist Kenneth Catania in the recently reviewed Sentient and had to dig deeper. Great Adaptations is a personal and entertaining account of his almost-five decades career investigating the biological mysteries of the star-nosed mole and other creatures.
The Industrial Revolution has been a mixed blessing. Although it improved living standards and brought material prosperity to many, humanity and the environment have paid a high price, not least in the form of pollution. The Contamination of the Earth catalogues the many forms of past pollution but also examines the social and political aspects of it. In other words, how people were affected by it and responded to it, and how legislation and politics allowed it to happen, to persist, and to only grow with time. This sprawling and information-dense environmental history work does full justice to this large and serious topic, but be prepared for a read that is neither light nor uplifting.
Writing a book about climate change is challenging due to the scale and many facets of the problem. With Our Biggest Experiment, climate campaigner, writer, and lecturer in science communication Alice Bell delivers a large book that tightly focuses on the history of both climate change research and our current fossil-fuel-dominated energy system. Driven largely by her curiosity about the people behind the data on climate change, this well-structured and easily readable book is full of remarkable stories. Bell excels in drawing your attention to the individual strands that make up the complex texture and weave of this huge history. As such, this is a highly recommended read for anyone interested in the backstory of how we arrived at our current predicament.
The word biology derives from the Greek words bíos (βίος in Greek), meaning “life”, and -logía (-λογία in Greek), meaning “branch of study”, and is usually defined as “the study of life”. But what is life? Remarkably, biologists cannot agree on a definition. Everyone can name clear examples of living and non-living things. However, as so often in biology, there is no sharp demarcation between the two. There is a grey area where things are, well, somewhat alive? Lifelike? It is these borderlands between life and non-life that famous science writer and journalist Carl Zimmer explores in Life’s Edge. Instead of providing an answer, this intellectually stimulating and rewarding book will help you understand why it is such a hard question to begin with.
In 2016, the scuba-diving philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith wrote Other Minds where he explored the mind of the octopus—I reviewed it right before reading this book. Its bestseller status, including translations in more than 20 languages, was not entirely unpredictable. Octopuses are a sexy topic. Four years later, he explores animal minds further with Metazoa, with the tour now also including sponges, corals, shrimp, insects, fish, and mammals. Godfrey-Smith convinced me he is no one-trick pony when it comes to writing a good book, though this one is more cerebral than its predecessor.
The legendary British broadcaster and natural historian Sir David Attenborough needs almost no introduction. Since his first appearance on our television screens in 1954, he has gone on to a long and distinguished career presenting and narrating groundbreaking nature documentaries. And he shows no sign of slowing down. His voice and style have become so iconic that he has been dubbed the voice of nature. Over the years, he has increasingly expressed concern over the state of the natural world, and in A Life on Our Planet Attenborough fully engages with this topic. However, when you turn to the title page you will notice the name of a co-author, Jonnie Hughes, who directed the Netflix documentary tied in with this book. As Attenborough explains in his acknowledgements, Hughes has been particularly instrumental in the writing of the third part of the book, together with substantial assistance from the Science Team at WWF. This is Attenborough’s witness statement, yes, but whose vision of the future is it?
Growth as a process is ubiquitous. It is the hallmark of every living organism. It motivates much of what we as humans do, as often unspoken as it is outspoken. It is the narrative lens through which we examine societies and civilizations past and present. And it is the altar at which economists worship. You would think that nobody in their right mind would write a book that tries to encompass all of the above. Leave it to a deep thinker such as Vaclav Smil to prove to you otherwise.
The robot apocalypse has become a well-worn trope that will elicit laughter more than concern. But there is a far more direct threat from artificial intelligence or AI: economic disruption. Technology can and has taken jobs away from humans. I first started taking this idea more seriously after watching CGP Grey’s short documentary Human Needs Not Apply. If you enjoyed that video, this book is the must-read follow-up. Economist and historian Carl Benedikt Frey provides a soundly argued and clearly written book on the history of technological revolutions and what lessons these hold for future job security.