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Energy: A Beginner's Guide Paperback – May 1 2006

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Oneworld Publications (May 1 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1851684522
  • ISBN-13: 978-1851684526
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 1.8 x 20.2 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 308 g
  • Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #115,202 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

About the Author

Vaclav Smil is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of more than thirty books, including "Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature "and, most recently, "Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing" both published by the MIT Press. In 2010 he was named by "Foreign Policy" as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers. In 2013 Bill Gates wrote on his website that "there is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil."


"Filled with interesting factual tidbits, this book rekindles the fascination with science that we all once had as children." -- Richard N. Cooper, Foreign Affairs

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0xa9326cc0) out of 5 stars 22 reviews
63 of 66 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa93795e8) out of 5 stars Delightful for nonbeginners Dec 28 2008
By Brian H. Fiedler - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is not truly a Beginner's Guide. The book is more like an Executive Summary of the many writings by the prolific author, up to 2005. No references are given. There is no appendix with useful tables of values. However, there are many useful tables, lists and values dispersed throughout the book. The book has a few flubs: confusing ultra-violet radiation with infrared, missing a "per year" in a sentence, and draft animals pulling with kg of force.

Some more serious problems occur on page 152, where the parenthetical definition of "net energy ratio" is actually the the definition of EROI, energy return on investment (of energy). The numbers discussed in the remainder of the paragraph are actually values of 1- 1/EROI . A true beginner would be flummoxed.

Another grievance is that the difference between installed capacity of wind power and the actual production of electrical power is not emphasized forcefully enough. A wind production number is given on page 169 (as a percent of world electrical power), but you are on your own to figure out the important capacity factor, and then to put wind power in a fair comparison with nuclear power and coal power. The summary of wind energy is otherwise excellent, as is the summary of photosynthesis and biofuels. All ethanol fans should read it.

The focus of the book in not renewable energy policy. The scope is much more grand, all done wonderfully in consistent S.I. Units, with respect for the intelligence of the reader. The author gets to the point. Energetics is the most concise way to organize knowledge of your universe. The brilliant author summarizes nearly all of it in 176 pages: your cells, your home economics, your technology, your planet. For larger scale solar and galactic - you may need to shop elsewhere. Presentation of energetics leads to implications in the sociology of jet travel, urban planning, and history of science and technology. For example, on page 93 we learn how the celebrated inventor James Watt delayed progressive development of the steam engine.

The book would be a great investment of time and money if a better book was not available: "Energy in Nature and Society", published by Smil in 2008. That book has more figures, of better quality, appendices and approximately 3 times the amount of text. The overlap in not complete, though. You won't find that tidbit about Watt in the 2008 work, or the fact that swarms of insects soiling the leading edge of wind turbine blades can cause a nearly instant drop in power production by up to 20%.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa91d3294) out of 5 stars Excellent Nov. 3 2013
By Graybeard - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is an excellent primer on energy for people who want to be energy-literate. The book takes an interdisciplinary approach, discussing energy from historical, scientific, industrial, economic, end-use, social, environmental, political, legal, regulatory, and global perspectives. This 181-page book (176 pages of narrative) contains 33 helpful charts and diagrams, plus many excellent sidebar essays. Highly recommended.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa91d31e0) out of 5 stars five stars for both content and clarity of presentation Feb. 22 2014
By chaitanya pullela - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition
This is an outstanding introduction to the concept of energy. The contents are organized very well. The first chapter starts with the basic concepts of energy and its measurement, and then proceeds in an "evolutionary sequence" with a discussion of energy in -- nature, human history, present society, and future. The chapters are as follows:

1. Energy in our minds: concepts and measures
2. Energy in the biosphere: how nature works
3. Energy in human history: muscles, tools and machines
4. Energy in the modern world: fossil-fueled civilization
5. Energy in everyday life: from eating to emailing
6. Energy in the future: trends and unknowns

I highly recommend this book to all. In fact, i think this book should be a required reading for every citizen because energy is such an important factor in human life and economy, and assumes more importance in current times because of its relevance to sustainability. Added bonus that its an entertaining read.
HASH(0xa91d3f90) out of 5 stars Spoiler Alert! Nuclear power is the answer. Aug. 8 2015
By John Burger - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The first chapter is tedious. I never did fully internalize some of the more esoteric concepts in college, such as mols and joules, and still don't, but the rest of the book is chuck full of amazing data and factoids.
It left me in awe of just how much we humans have come to know. Also, it puts in perspective some of the climate change issues. Just remember, there will not be a quiz and enjoy knowing that out there scientists actually understand a lot more than today's media can ever present.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa91d3e10) out of 5 stars Smil describes these flows in great detail. A source of energy is where the ... July 11 2016
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition
Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman famously stated that no one knows what energy is, we just know that there's a fixed quantity of it and that it moves around.Vaclav Smil, Distinguished Professor of the Environment at the University of Manitoba, develops this fact. Energy not only moves around, it moves around along an intricate network of paths, in a variety of ways and at wildly different rates. It is this movement that accomplishes what we call work, where work can be defined as a change from one state to another state. For example moving a one kilogram weight for one meter, raising the temperature of a litre of water by one degree celcius are both examples of work.If the quantity of energy doesn't change, why are we so obsessed with saving energy, or why do we worry about running out of energy? And why do we speak of sources of energy when that implies getting more energy?We have to qualify the statement that the quantity of energy doesn't change. That's true, but only in a closed system. If a system is not closed, then that system will have three energy components: the energy already present in the system, the energy flowing into the system, and the energy flowing out of the system. The sum of the three elements must remain constant and this is a basic fact of physics called the First Law of Thermodynamics.Smil describes these flows in great detail. A source of energy is where the flow of energy begins. The main source of energy for our planet, accounting for well over 99% of everything that happens here, is the sun. The earth's interior of molten rock and iron accounts for less than 1%.The earth also radiates energy, mainly in the form of heat. The earth received light from the sun not only in the visible electromagnetic Spectrum (violet to blue to green to yellow to orange to red) but also in other wavelengths (ultraviolet and higher frequencies, or infrared and lower frequencies).The sun's light flows as a continuous stream, and while much, much less energy makes its way into the biosphere from inside the earth, it comes as a series of catastrophical events. For instance, continental plates creep into one another and the stress builds up until it is released in a devasting earthquake, or jets of magma poke through the earth's crust as volcano eruptions.While transiting through the earth, the sun's energy is absorbed by air, water, rocks, and plants. Water evaporates, is blown by winds and condenses very far away releasing heat into the air as it condenses. This creates wind and water currents.Bacteria, algae and plants absorb heat and light and react with carbon water, and the hydrogen and oxygen it contains, to turn them into organic matter. This organic matter is broken down by other bacteria or by animals and turned into tissue, for instance when the animal is growing, or into work, for intance when an animal is moving around and burning the sugar in its muscle cells.Falling water flows back into the ocean via lakes, streams and rivers. Along the way the flow of water can turn wheels and so power sawmills or generate electricity that can be transported elsewhere to power lightbulbs and computers.Plants also turn sunlight and water into food and by eating that food, we turn it into work. Thus because we are animals and we eat, we take part of the earth's energy flows.We also take part in that flow through our industry. We extract oil and coal from the ground and burn what we extract to turn it into electricity or into motion (e.g. car travel). We are not certain how that oil is created but we call them fossil fuels because we think oil is the end product of a geologically slow bacterial process, but the details are murky.Oil is the energy source of most our economic activity. It is not a renewable resource, or at least its rate of renewal is so low as to make no difference. As oil becomes scarce, other sources will have to be found.But our economy not only needs energy inputs, it also outputs things besides what we need. The CO2 emitted by burning oil and coal affects the energy cycles in the atmosphere and in the oceans, which significantly affects the climate of the planet.So here we are. Energy pours out of the sun and onto our planet. All of it is radiated back into space for if it weren't, we'd have heated up into a hellish ball of fire. As it flows through us, it transforms a thin layer of matter, water and air into flowers and fish, trees and elephants. And we harness it turn it into boats and buildings.Let's keep on doing that, and let us ensure that the machine doesn't spin out of control. This wonderful little book is a beginner's guide to working the planet carefully.It's worth noting that Bill Gates highly recommends reading the works on energy by Vaclav Smil. I started with this dense and thorough introduction to the topic, part of One World's Beginner's Guide series. Highly recommended.Vincent Poirier, Québec City