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A Brief History of Hype and Failure

by Vaclav Smil

Pub Date: Feb. 7th, 2023
ISBN: 978-0-262-04805-7
Publisher: MIT Press

A highly respected scientist takes a close, cleareyed look at the processes of invention.

Smil, the author of more than 40 books on scientific subjects and global matters, is always worth reading. In his latest, the author investigates some technologies that have not lived up to their promise despite huge investments of effort and capital. In the first section, he explores three inventions—leaded gasoline, DDT insecticide, and chlorofluorocarbons—that were initially welcomed but later shunned as environmentally hazardous. This was mainly due to the long-term consequences not being fully understood or the balance of benefits and disadvantages not being properly measured. Basically, they seemed like good ideas at the time. The second category deals with inventions that were supposed to be world changing but never quite got out of a niche—e.g., airships, nuclear fission, and supersonic travel. In these cases, the inventions were overtaken by alternatives that were cheaper and less dangerous. Then there are ideas that failed to mature into useful technology, like nuclear fusion, high-speed travel in vacuum tubes (hyperloop), and nitrogen-fixing cereal crops. These are all intriguing concepts, but there have always been problems that stubbornly resist solutions, and 90% of a breakthrough does not count for much. Smil clearly understands the technical issues involved, but he avoids jargon, and he has a cheeky sense of humor. He wonders why technologies that are proven failures receive regular bursts of enthusiasm, and he points to the media as a primary culprit. A novel, earth-shaking invention is an easy headline even if the fine print shows that real-world application is decades away. In fact, the author shows how new-generation supersonic travel would not markedly improve our lives. Today, the most crucial technologies involve better water treatment methods and improved agricultural yields. It may be unglamorous work, but advancements in both would make a critical difference.

An informative, entertaining package from a gifted, original thinker.