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on 11 February 2009
Where will our energy come from? Oil and coal are running out and cause global warming, nuclear plants are potential Chernobyls that nobody wants in their back yard, wind turbines kill birds and spoil the landscape... We've got a serious problem, right? Right. But it's not "Which technology should we shift to?", it's rather "Why can't people add up?".

In a nutshell, David MacKay's brilliant book is about working out a budget, as if on the back of an envelope, with the red column listing how much energy we consume and the green column listing how much we produce (or could produce using various technologies). Can this budget be balanced? And how? In one brief but insightful chapter after another, the author gives us a few simple intellectual tools to figure out the answer for ourselves: not much more than the four operations and a bit of common sense, plus a useful human-scale framework for thinking sensibly about energy. With the sharp mind of the scientist, to the tune of "numbers, not adjectives", he mercilessly cuts through the fog of empty propaganda words that has surrounded the energy debate to date.

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for life", says the Chinese proverb. MacKay gives no answers; instead, he gently and entertainingly teaches readers how to fish them out for themselves. The author, who is a professor in the Physics department at Cambridge, couples open-mindedness and intellectual rigour with an admirable talent for making quantitative ideas easy to understand and even satisfyingly fun to work out. After responding with a simple calculation to the objection that building a nuclear power plant would consume "huge" amounts of concrete and steel and therefore cause "huge" pollution, for example, he notes with characteristic wit: "Please don't get me wrong: I'm not trying to be pro-nuclear. I'm just pro-arithmetic."

This book is an amazing performance: sharp, accurate, quantitative and at the same time clear, entertaining and compelling, not to mention beautifully illustrated with great photographs and informative diagrams and maps. A scientific book as hard to put down as a good novel. It's a labour of love (three years in the making) and it shows. It's even available at no charge as a full-quality pdf download from the author's own web site. Despite that, I've bought five extra paper copies, besides my own, as presents for friends with whom I wanted to share this all-important message about our future. I have never done this before with any other book. If there were a way to give this book more than five stars, I definitely would.
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on 8 January 2009
It's rare to find a book that is so full of good, scientific facts and well-researched figures, and yet is so enjoyable to read.

Well-worth reading from beginning to end, it's also fun to dip into. The prose is light-hearted and chatty - by far the best way to get across a serious message - and the book is beautifully produced, with interesting charts, page layouts and illustrations - even some of the captions make for amusing reading. You can feel the author's sense of humour leaking through all over the place.

I think we should be lobbying the BBC to make this into a documentary series. It would also be a great basis for A-level physics teaching. There aren't many books which fit both roles so well.

A splendid gift for anyone you know who is interested in realistic, rather than emotional, ways to deal with today's energy challenges. Recommended.
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on 24 February 2009
This is the book I was waiting for: someone has done the research and put credible broad-brush energy numbers down on paper, and it's surprisingly entertaining as a bonus.

If you want to know the scale of the sustainable energy/climate change problems we face, and what scale the possible solutions need to be, get this book. If you'd prefer to believe that buying a Prius will save the world, don't get this book.

It's a stunning achievement and it should be made compulsory reading for anyone involved in government.
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on 24 September 2009
The world needs physicists and engineers like never before to ensure that Mankind can live peacefully and sustainably in the future. This book is the best material to inspire intelligent youngsters who may be choosing to do a science subject at university that science can really be used to solve Mankind's problems. By working through the topics especially in the additional chapters they will begin to see that what they have learned at school is the building block of what they will learn at University and how these tools can have a real application to the problems of the world.

For all intelligent adults who have had a science training, this book is the one to reassure you that science (even simple science - not rocket science) allows a refreshing view on energy that puts all the waffle you hear on the media into stark contrast.

How pleased we should be that Professor David MacKay has been appointed Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government's Department of Energy and Climate Change. If he can persuade the policymakers with the same humour and candour we find in Sustainable Energy - without the hot air then the UK should be able to play an authoritative role in international deliberations on energy and climate change. Roll on Copenhagen.
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on 17 January 2009
Renewable resources are "huge", our energy needs are "huge" - but which huge is bigger? David MacKay believes in numbers, not adjectives and has done a marvellous job of setting out our energy use - for heating, electricity, food, transport, iToys and so on - in one consistent unit of power, the kilowatt hour per person per day. This is admittedly a bit of a mouthful, but it is a lot simpler than converting between our usual mish-mash of kWh, BTUs, litres, standard cubic feet, barrels etc - and makes it brutally clear that you cannot unplug your phone charger and then head off on a long haul vacation with a clear conscience.

He also reviews the UK's sustainable energy options, and comes to the rather depressing conclusion that we use about ten times our plausible local resources. Nonetheless, he proposes a menu of sensible policies which could actually work, and are not the result of some industry pushing its own interests. This is an excellent and unique book full of data, analysis, insight and wit; buy it, read it, make sure your friends buy it too.
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on 21 June 2009
If you are interested in the subject and fed up with subjectivity and media hyperbole then this book is your best bet. As a non scientist I found it very readable and extremely informative.
The only criticism I have of the book is that occasionally it had some simplistic statements like 'stop flying', rather than more helpful and constructive advice on what to do if you have to fly (offsetting was pretty much dismissed and it is hard to see an alternative form of transport for essential journeys which cannot be done by train or in an economical car with three or more passengers).
Overall though I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who wants to inform themselves about the subject.
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on 10 February 2009
Quite staggeringly brilliant. Real science, real numbers, and real, strong conclusions, but with such a light, accessible approach that the reader doesn't even notice how difficult the concepts are that they have just understood. This book explains exactly why we need to urgently find sources of sustainable energy, painting a complete picture of where all the energy goes, and the pros and cons of every potentially sustainable option: changes to fossil fuel use, improvements in energy efficiency, renewable energy sources, nuclear, everything.

What makes it particularly good is that the book's stated goal is primarily to work out how, for the foreseeable future, we could possibly keep on using the same amount of energy we use today. If nothing else, this book shows beautifully that questions of energy and questions of environmental catastrophe can be de-coupled. Whether people believe that the Earth is warming up or not is irrelevant: we need sustainable energy sources either way! So buy it for the eco-sceptic in your life, and then they may just stop whinging about low-energy light bulbs...
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on 13 April 2009
I like to think of myself as reasonably well-informed when it comes to matters energy and sustainability, but I am poor at quantifying elements of the discussion. This book, so entertainingly and unassumingly written, provides all the background required and informs on many levels and with the authority that comes from solid calculation and painstaking research. Mackay is to be congratulated and, with any luck, honoured for his timely and invaluable contribution. Now is the time for the rest of us to act!
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on 12 May 2009
A fascinating book. Excellent discussion of the various schemes for CO2 reduction, their pros and cons and impact on the environment if used. Clearly written (with some humour) and not too technical for the lay reader.
I recommend it highly
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on 9 December 2008
This has to be one of the most well written books I have read in ages. Professor MacKay brings all forms of energy down to the rule of thumb, making the scale of the problem understandable.
I plan on buying this for everyone I know. The key message that I got from this book is that "every little helps, a little", which is to say that doing things like turning off a mobile phone charger will not fix global warming, we have to make big changes.
He also provides clearly detailed solutions.
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