An assembly of short, numbers-based investigations into important questions of the day.
“My goal is to demonstrate not only that numbers do not lie, but to discover which truth they convey,” writes Smil of this tidy, entertaining collection of brief inquiries into a host of hot-button topics: vaccinations, the malleability of unemployment figures, the consequences of diesel fuel, the fossil fuels behind wind turbines, the environmental impact of cars and cellphones, and the realities of Brexit. Regarding the last, the author writes that the U.K. has become “another has-been power whose claim to uniqueness rests on having too many troubled princes and on exporting costumed TV series set in fading country mansions staffed with too many servants.” Some of the more lighthearted material—e.g., the surprising number of benefits that tall people enjoy—help take the sting out of the more formidable issues: why replacing kerosene with biofuels to power our airplanes would require the planting of 125 million hectares with soybeans; the ubiquity of synthetic fertilizer, without which more than 3 billion people could go hungry; the glacially slow pace of alternative energy. Though all of Smil’s subjects—from the “zoomass” of cows to the physics of triple-paned windows to the manual labor required to build the pyramids—are situated firmly within the realms of math and science, with plenty of kilonewtons and exajoules, the author also slips in cogent discussions of other relevant current-affairs topics, including the flawed yet enduring concept of American exceptionalism: “Politicians may look far and wide for evidence of [it], but they won’t find it in the numbers, where it matters.” Throughout, Smil’s viewpoint is balanced, and each element of the text is fully backed by research as well as the author’s contagious curiosity. Even when examining dire circumstances, Smil keeps readers engaged.
A fascinating book to be read straight through or consulted bit by bit.