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.