Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Review of Numbers Don't Lie: 71 Stories to Help Us Understand the Modern World by Vaclav Smil

Vaclav Smil's new Numbers Don't Lie was written in 2020 and published last year, and it is mainly a compilation of his's monthly essays written for IEEE Spectrum, the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers from 2014-2020. (See our favorite IEEE article, Metcalfe’s Law is Wrong.) Some highlights from the book:

  • Vaclav Smil is a dimensional analyst: "You should also try to calculate the volumes of objects you encounter (people always underestimate the volume of thin but large objects), and it is an outright entertaining proposition to calculate (without any electronic help) the differences in orders of magnitude as you read about the latest national income inequalities between billionaires and Amazon warehouse packers (how many orders of magnitude separate their annual take?), or as you see a comparison of average national per capita GDP rates (how many orders of magnitude is the United Kingdom above Uganda?). These mental exercises will put you in touch with the physical realities of the surrounding world while keeping your synapses firing." 
  • For example, "the Great Pyramid's potential energy (what is required to lift the mass above ground level) is about 2.4 trillion joules. Calculating this is fairly easy: it is simply the product of the acceleration due to gravity, the pyramid's mass, and its center of mass... lifting the stones would thus require about 5.5 million labor days." 
  • Why no one really knows how bad covid is: "The numerator (death certificates stating the cause of mortality) is obvious and in most countries that count is fairly reliable. But the choice of denominator introduces many uncertainties. Which 'cases'? Only laboratory-confirmed infections, all symptomatic cases (including people who were not tested but displayed expected symptoms), or the total number of infections including asymptomatic cases?" 
  • Is Smil on #milktwitter?: "the easiest way to improve a child's chances of growing taller is for them to drink more milk." 
  • Impressed to see that "peak hourly sweating rates can surpass 2 kg/m2," you'll find this to be true if you hike in hot weather. 
  • The Decline of the West: "the growth of megacities offers a perfect illustration of receding Western influence and the rise of Asia. In 1900, 9 of the world's 10 largest cities were in Europe and the United States;" now the only one in the Americas or Europe is Mexico City. 
  • He predicted that implementing Brexit wouldn't really matter: "three-quarters of British food imports come from the EU, but Spanish vegetable growers and Danish bacon producers will remain as eager to ship their products as the British consumers will be to buy them, and hence there will be no demand-destroying taxes or pricing." Also points out that (as we know) the UK "is already more deindustrialized than Canada, historically the least industrialized Western nation... no overnight switch in political arrangements can turn this historic tide." "What the UK has become: an aging nation; a deindustrialized and worn-out country whose per capita GDP is not just over half of the Irish mean (something that Swift, Gladstone, or Churchill would find utterly unfathomable); another has-been power whose claim to uniqueness rests on having too many troubled princes..." 
  • Why Japan lost: "in 1940, the United States produced roughly 10 times as much steel as Japan did, and during the war the difference grew further." "Japan is not only the world's fastest aging major economy (already every fourth person is older than 65, and by 2050 that share will be nearly 40 percent), its population is also declining." 
  • Speaking of manufacturing: "if you rank countries by per capita manufacturing value, then Germany, with about $10,200 in 2018,came out on top among the big four, followed by Japan with about $7,900, the United States with about $6,800, and China with only $2,900." 
  • Some things that aren't going to change: "Diesels power virtually all container ships and all carriers of vehicles and bulk commodities such as oil, liquefied natural gas, ores, cement, fertilizers, and grain. They also power nearly all trucks and freight trains. Most of the items that readers of this book eat or wear are transported at least once, any usually many times, by diesel-powered machines, often from other continents... [they] are here to stay. There are no other readily available mass-mover alternatives that could keep integrating the global economy..."
  • "[O]utside the microchip-dominated world, innovation simply does not obey Moore's Law, proceeding at rates that are lower by an order of magnitude." 
  • "After a slow start, [nuclear] reactor construction began to accelerate during the late 1960s, and by 1977 more than 10 percent of US electricity came from fission, rising to 20 percent by 1991. That was a faster penetration of the market than photovoltaics and wind turbines have managed since the 1990s." "Wind turbines are the most visible symbols of the quest for renewable energy generation. And yet, although they exploit the wind, which is as free and as green as energy can be, the machines themselves are pure embodiments of fossil fuels." "Perhaps the best long-term hope is to utilize cheap solar electricity to decompose water by electrolysis and use the produced hydrogen as a multipurpose fuel..." 
  • If you wanted to have an ultra-large container ship powered by electric batteries (at an energy density of 300 Wh/kg), with a range from Asia to Europe, it would need 100,000 tons of batteries which would take up 40 percent of the maximum cargo capacity - impossible. "To have an electric ship whose batteries and motors weighed no more than the fuel (about 5,000 tons) and the diesel engine (about 2,000 tons) in today's large container vessels, we would need batteries with an energy density more than 10 times as high as today's best Li-ion units. But that's a tall order indeed: in the past 70 years, the energy density of the best commercial batteries hasn't even quadrupled." 
  • Electricity prices have fallen more than two orders of magnitude over the last century, and electric lights have gotten about an order of magnitude more efficient, with the result that a particular light intensity (lumens) has fallen three orders of magnitude in price. Some of this improvement has taken place just in recent decades, with the result that readers may notice that leaving a light on is not as big of a deal as it once was. Note that electricity prices in "green" places like Germany and California have reversed this trend, with prices rising quite substantially as wind and solar have gained market share. 
  • Regarding energy transitions: in 1992, "fossil fuels provided 86.6 percent of the world's primary energy. By 2017, they supplied 85.1 percent, a reduction of a mere 1.5 percent in 25 years. This key indicator of the global energy transition pace is perhaps the most convincing reminder of the world's continued dependence on fossil carbon. Can a marginal slip of 1.5 percent in a quarter-century be followed in the coming 25-30 years with the substitution of some 80 percent of the world's primary energy for non-carbon alternatives...?" 
  • Plus, "several key economic sectors depend heavily on fossil fuels and we do not have any non-carbon alternatives that could replace them rapidly and on the required massive scales. These sectors include long-distance transportation (now almost totally reliant on aviation kerosene for jetliners, and diesel, bunker fuel, and liquefied natural gas for container, bulk, and tanker vessels); the production of more than a billion tons of primary iron (requiring coke made from coal for smelting iron ores in blast furnaces) and more than 4 billion tons of cement (made in massive rotating kilns fired by low-quality fossil fuels); the synthesis of nearly 200 million tons of ammonia and some 300 million tons of plastics (starting with compounds derived from natural gas and crude oil); and space heating..." 
  • "Displacing 10 billion tons of fossil carbon is a fundamentally different challenge than ramping up the sales of small portable electronic devices... the latter feat was achieved in a matter of years, the former one is a task for many decades." 
  • "For generations, beef was the United States' dominant meat, followed by pork. When annual beef consumption peaked in 1976 at around 40 kilograms (boneless weight) per capita, it accounted for nearly half of all meat; chicken had just a 20 percent share. But chicken caught up by 2010, and in 2018, chicken's share came to 36 percent of the total, nearly 20 percentage points higher than beef." The reason is that "no other domesticated land animal can convert feed to meat as efficiently as broilers..." Beef is inefficient which is why eating good beef is now a status symbol. 
  • His concluding note: "Reaching that goal [net-zero emissions] would require nothing short of a fundamental transformation of the global economy on scales and at a speed unprecedented in human history, a task that would be impossible to do without major economic and social dislocations." "The contrasts between the expressed concerns about global warming, the continued release of record volumes of carbon, and our capabilities to change that in the near term could not be starker."

A great thing about Smil is that he (rightly) considers smartphones and advertising website businesses (like Facebook) to be completely irrelevant compared with more important technologies like steel, electricity, nitrogen fertilizers, and shipping.

He says that we can't replace fossil fuels without major economic and social dislocations. We know that Bill Gates reads everything he writes. Has Bill Gates decided that it's worth imposing some economic and social dislocations on the rest of us in order to reduce carbon emissions? 

Our copy of Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas--Not Less just arrived. So far, it seems like a polemical version of Smil's more recent work - that which one might call "carbon realism".

Why would someone who is so concerned about rising carbon dioxide levels (and who knows that there is no way to having rising standards of living without rising carbon dioxide levels) also be so concerned with research into pandemics and biological warfare?



Viennacapitalist said...

I am curious whether Smil also has something to say on the energy requirements of server farms. I would guess that running those operations is very energy intensive. What would a tripling of energy costs do to all those scaleable cloud based business models? I am frankly surprised no one is talking about that…

CP said...

He doesn't, but I understand that this book does:

Same author:

Anonymous said...

(In a way, the same can be said for Alex's "Center for Industrial Progress." This is an outfit that trumpets "progress" but which doesn't really believe in actual, human progress in the fields of energy technologies. For these folks, oil and coal are just the very best we can ever do. In this sense, Alex and oil-worshipers are like those teamsters back in the 1920's arguing against cars: fundamentally unimaginative and totally out of touch with the dynamic, creative realities that make humanity great. Energy technologies that do not need to search for, discover, extract, transport, refine, and burn fuel are the future. Why? Simple economics. Each one of those steps -- searching, discovering, extracting, transporting, refining, and burning -- cost money. (This does not include the cost of clean up and waste processing, which are both staggering.) Nuclear, solar, geothermal, wind, waves require none of those inputs. It's just a matter of time and infrastructure deployment. And this is because of Alex's second truth: Humans have always -- always -- moved towards cheaper, cleaner, and better energy. The idea that we've somehow reached the peak of what we can do as a species with regards to energy consumption and production is not only factually and historically bogus, it's philosophically and morally flawed. Disgusting, really.)

Anonymous said...

Nuclear, yes.

Alex talks about nuclear in the book.