Saturday, 3 October 2020

Numbers Don't Lie by Vaclav Smil

Numbers Don't Lie: 71 Things You Need to Know About the World  by Vaclav Smil
Published by Penguin on the 1st October 2020.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is flying dangerous? How much do the world's cows weigh? And what makes people happy?

From earth's nations and inhabitants, through the fuels and foods that energize them, to the transportation and inventions of our modern world - and how all of this affects the planet itself - in Numbers Don't Lie, Professor Vaclav Smil takes us on a fact-finding adventure, using surprising statistics and illuminating graphs to challenge lazy thinking.

Packed with 'Well-I-never-knew-that' information and with fascinating and unusual examples throughout, we find out how many people it took to build the Great Pyramid, that vaccination yields the best return on investment, and why electric cars aren't as great as we think (yet). There's a wonderful mix of science, history and wit, all in bite-sized chapters on a broad range of topics.

Urgent and essential, Numbers Don't Lie inspires readers to interrogate what they take to be true in these significant times. Smil is on a mission to make facts matter, because after all, numbers may not lie, but which truth do they convey?

Numbers Don't Lie is a collection of numerous short essays which were, mostly, first published in American magazine, IEEE Spectrum, the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. Covering a wide range of topics, the essays are crammed with a lot of information, but their brevity means that I never quite felt as though Smil had explored each of his ideas to a satisfactory depth. I was frequently left with a nagging sense that perhaps the crux of the matter had been left, unexamined, just out of the frame. Numbers in themselves don't lie, but their selection and presentation can easily be manipulated to prove pretty much any argument and I wondered what the major influences behind this work were. I would certainly question the two essays promoting increased cow's milk consumption as universally healthy for humans, and essays regarding the future of meat-eating actually seemed to contradict each other. Smil apparent resignation to continued levels of fossil fuel usage is concerning. Comments like diesel fuel being here to stay are directly counter to what we must achieve to combat the climate emergency, and Smil does seem surprisingly negative about the possibilities for renewable energy solutions, especially now governments are beginning to actively support such technologies rather than suppressing them through biased taxation measures (a point he doesn't make). Assumptions of slow progress historically within an industry doesn't mean significant gains will never be made there and it's perfectly possible to concurrently pursue several avenues of improvement. Overall I think Numbers Don't Lie could be an interesting starting point to spark conversations about some of the issues raised, but unfortunately I found it more of a frustrating read than anything else with the snarky comments concluding each essay being particularly irritating. 

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Books by Vaclav Smil / Science books / Books from the Czech Republic

1 comment:

  1. Part of me really wants to give this a go but I think I'd also get upset with the snarky comments after each essay.