I regularly teach classes on energy, environment, climate, etc., for non-science major undergraduates at the University of Oregon. Inspired by some blog comments elsewhere, I thought I’d list list some books on this subject that I like. It’s especially worth noting books aimed at the general, non-specialist reader that are nonetheless quantitative. I firmly believe that it’s impossible to think meaningfully about energy and the environment without basic numeracy and scientific literacy at a level that any college student should be capable of. I’m sure there are many fascinating books out there of which I’m unaware; feel free to make suggestions in the comments.
- Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air by David MacKay (2008)
- Energy, Environment, and Climate by Richard Wolfson (3rd edition, 2017)
- Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet by Thomas W. Murphy, Jr. (2021)
- Energy and Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil (2017)
- The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World by Oliver Morton (2015)
David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air (2008) is very well known and deservedly beloved by many, including me. It’s free! (Free online; I like my inexpensive paperback copy.) The book provides a wealth of estimates: How much energy do we use for cars, food, and gadgets? How much energy can we get from wind, solar, nuclear power, etc.? How are these related, and what can we plan for the future? The book has a wonderful, conversational tone and, by example, illustrates the great insights that can come simply from putting numbers on things. It doesn’t delve into the physics behind energy much, but when it does it’s wonderfully succinct and clear. Its discussion of cars motivated one of my favorites of the class activities I designed (Link). David MacKay was a Physicist at the University of Cambridge and Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. Sadly, he passed away in 2016 at age 48.
Richard Wolfson (W. W. Norton & Company, 3rd ed., 2017)
I read this before first teaching my non-science-majors Energy and the Environment course several years ago. It’s a textbook aimed at a general liberal arts undergraduate audience, covering the basics of energy; the workings of fossil fuel, nuclear, and alternative energy sources; and the science of climate and climate change. The authors is a Physics professor at Middlebury College. The book is very good. I used it as a required textbook once or twice but then stopped, in part because it’s $76, in part because we used only a small fraction of it in a 10 week course, in part because the topics I teach aren’t an ideal match for the book, and in part because the book is beyond the level of the median Univ. of Oregon student (sad to say, but likely true at most US universities). If you’re teaching a course on the subject, I certainly recommend looking into Wolfson’s book.
Thomas W. Murphy, Jr. (eScholarship, University of California, 2021). Like MacKay’s book, this is free online and inexpensive in paperback ($25). Energy and Human Ambitions… is a remarkable and recent book on understanding energy sources and use, taking the perspective of making simple physics-based estimates. It is often wonderful, but often frustrating. The author’s fondness for footnotes drives me up the wall. More importantly, the sizeable Part I isn’t necessary and has a lot content that many people (myself included) would disagree with, namely naïve demographic predictions. I strongly recommend reading this review of the book. Also, I think it will be unclear to the non-science-major student how much of the math/physics that’s presented is necessary, despite this student being the book’s intended audience. (The author is a Physics professor at UCSD.) Nonetheless, the pluses certainly outweigh the minuses, especially in the sections on assessing the abundance of renewable energy sources. The book is an excellent resource, and an impressive accomplishment.
Vaclav Smil (The MIT Press, 2017). Last term, Winter 2021, I taught the Physics of Energy and the Environment in an awful classroom, an old-style setup with a near-vertical wall of seats in front of me and a screen behind that I had to twist my neck to look at. Still, it made clear one of the advantages of live versus online teaching: random interactions. The class after mine in that room was taught by historian Alex Dracobly; we chatted, and he recommended Vaclav Smil’s Energy and Civilization, which I had never heard of. I read it with a near-constant sense of amazement. It’s a monumental tour of all of history that highlights how humanity has harnessed energy, whether its own bodies’, its animals, or its fuels’, to further its aims. Actual numbers, and a solid understanding of the physics that generates them, permeate the book — there’s even an aside on wind power scaling as the cube of wind speed that could be a nice synopsis of about 90 minutes of my Physics of Solar and Renewable Energy class.
Starting about 6 months ago, I’ve been listening to audiobooks while running more than a few miles, and I listed to, rather than read, most of Energy and Civilization. Audio is not the ideal format for this: lists of numbers or dates that I would skim over on a page are painstakingly read by a grandfatherly voice. Hearing about human gaits, strategies to harness animals, and the miserable lives of ancient Roman slaves grinding grain were odd but appropriate accompaniments to pushing myself along the pavement. The book’s perspectives on transitions between energy sources, for example from animals to fossil fuels in agriculture, and the reasons these transitions took a long time are especially relevant to our contemporary situation. Energy and Civilization would make a wonderful textbook for a course that perhaps could not exist: a really integrated blend of physics and history. It’s dense, perhaps too dense, but it’s one of the best books I’ve read in recent years.
I read Oliver Morton’s The Planet Remade (Princeton University Press, 2015) several years ago, and I wrote about it then , so I’ll be brief here. Unlike the other books, this one is really intended as a pop-science book. It’s non-technical and it has a more limited focus: geoengineering. It does a wonderful job of describing the topic and the reasons it’s both appealing and worrying, and how we might manage this tension. (In brief: waiting until we’re desperate to perform experiments is the worst possible approach; there are insightful things one can do now.) I include it on this list because it’s great, because there’s a remarkable lack of non-awful discussion of geoengineering, and because it has very good descriptions of climate and climate modeling.
This is the spot in my posts where I remind the reader about my own recent book, So Simple a Beginning: How Four Physical Principles Shape Our Living World. It has nothing to do with energy in sense of the books above, but the concept of energy pops up from time to time, for example in the role of “thermal energy” in driving the random motion of neurotransmitters, and in the energy required to “melt” DNA before making billions of copies of it. (Links: Amazon and Amazon UK, Publisher, my description).
Today’s illustration A door in Tunisia, which I painted based on this photo.
— Raghuveer Parthasarathy; May 21, 2022