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Numbers Don't Lie: 71 Stories to Help Us…

Numbers Don't Lie: 71 Stories to Help Us Understand the Modern World (original 2021; udgave 2021)

af Vaclav Smil (Forfatter)

MedlemmerAnmeldelserPopularitetGennemsnitlig vurderingSamtaler
414492,078 (3)Ingen
Titel:Numbers Don't Lie: 71 Stories to Help Us Understand the Modern World
Forfattere:Vaclav Smil (Forfatter)
Info:Penguin Books (2021), 368 pages
Samlinger:Dit bibliotek

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Numbers Don't Lie: 71 Stories to Help Us Understand the Modern World af Vaclav Smil (2021)


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Mostly useless trivia. ( )
  Paul_S | Aug 2, 2021 |
70 some chapters on energy, population etc.. Smil distills large complex topics to their mathematical essence and you feel enlightened. The problem is, they are large complex topics for a reason. Throughout I was thinking "yeah but" there is so much missing. With short zingers on big things, it's easy to leave out contradictory information. It's entertaining and interesting, but reality is complex. Smil is at his best in live lectures, from which many of these chapters derive, too bad he couldn't narrate. ( )
  Stbalbach | May 30, 2021 |
Numbers Don’t Lie is an absolute delight for a reader like me. Vaclav Smil takes an engineer’s approach to dozens of everyday issues and shows how they work – or don’t – by the numbers. If we looked at more things this way, we would be dramatically better off.

The book is a collection of very short articles Smil wrote for an IEEE magazine. He has grouped them into categories like home, transport, energy and so on, so readers can explore the “well what about…” alternatives. This is the book that proves/disproves what people routinely toss off as factual. It is an air-clearer of real use to all and sundry.

And it’s entertaining. Along the way, Smil interjects the occasional plea for sanity, such as simply improving home insulation rather than trying to invent sic-fi geo-engineering brainstorms, which are at best unproven and at worst dangerous. But always technologically difficult and impossibly expensive.

Take education, for an example of disproving by the numbers. Smil says “Politicians may look far and wide for evidence of American exceptionalism, but they won’t find it in the numbers, where it matters.” In 2018, he says, the OECD test results showed American 15 year olds reading below those in Russia, Slovakia and Spain. In science, they ranked below the mean, and in reading, just two points above average, far from the top where Americans think they routinely place.

The stats also say Americans are more likely to die within a year of birth, live shorter lives and be less likely to learn. One of my favorite OECD stats, which Smil missed, is that American teens lead in just one category – self-esteem. They too think they’re all exceptional.

He can also take a fun side trip. He lauds the 1880s as a time of great innovation, something we never think about. The 1880s saw a bunch inventions and product launches that we still employ today: Quaker Oats, light rail, bicycles, the Wall Street Journal, revolving doors, elevators, cash registers, Coca Cola, vending machines, ballpoint pens, and Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, no matter what they intend calling it going forward.

It’s not all encompassing, however. Smil’s paean to the diesel engine is all about how efficient it is, how powerful, how its fuel is closer to raw and therefore less expensive, and on and on. But he totally neglects to mention that diesel exhaust is a listed carcinogen, dirtying the atmosphere far beyond its share of an already terrible situation.

In writing about energy, Smil cites nuclear fusion as “the most notorious example of an ever-receding innovative achievement. “ It is always the next big thing in clean, economical nuclear power, and like Donald Trump’s healthcare plan, is always just around the corner. Watch for it, you’ll see. But it never comes.

I very much appreciate the common sense he exhibits repeatedly throughout. He says we know airplane boarding does not work, but we “persist in proven failures”. We could board planes from the front and the back, we could abolish reserved seating or implement a pyramid system. Why not just fix boarding instead of dreaming of hyperloop trains, he asks.

He questions economic stats and forecasts. He says GDP “rises not only when lives get better and economies progress, but also when bad things happen to people or the environment. Higher alcohol sales, more driving under the influence, more accidents, more emergency room admissions, more injuries, more people in jail – GDP goes up. More illegal logging in the tropics, more deforestation and biodiversity loss, higher timber sales – again, GDP goes up. We know better, but we still worship high annual GDP growth rate, regardless of where it comes from.” In addition to all the things GDP gets wrong, the whole concept is misleadingly pointless by the numbers.

But then, there are times when Smil gets carried away, to the point where most readers will not be able to fathom what he’s writing about: “Under photopic conditions (that is, under bright light, which allows color perception), the luminous efficacy of visible light peaks at 683 lm/W at a wavelength of 555 nanometers. That’s in the green part of the spectrum – the color that seems, at any given level of power, to be the brightest.” I don’t know how many times I have read that, but I still couldn’t explain it anyone else. Or to myself.

On the other hand, his explanation of the perceptible differences in incandescent vs fluorescent vs LED vs sunlight describes exactly what about each one makes it uncomfortable or acceptable. Because the differences are measurable. Fluorescents are low pressure and produce only monochromatic yellow (they are too blue), so they aren’t used in homes. LEDs produce light for three to four hours a day for 20 years, a huge savings over incandescent bulbs, but “they still can’t match natural light’s spectrum.” Too much in the blue range, not enough in the red. Incandescent lights gave out too little blue, fluorescents too little red. “They don’t please the eye.” Sunlight wins top place, hands down and as yet unmatched.

He points out that a lumen of electric light costs 1/2500th of what it cost in early in the 20th century. So lights are everywhere, and far brighter than they have ever been.

Smil tackles fear of flying with stats from 2017, when he says he spent more than 100 hours in large jets. He says the four airlines that flew him had their last fatal accidents in 1983, 1993, 1997 and 2000. Who looks up stats like that? You are safer in the air than in an American hospital, he says, where deaths from viruses, bacteria and errors are increasing (to the point where the healthcare system is the second biggest cause of death in the USA). His advice to all: keep flying and avoid hospitals.

As to food, who but an engineer could come up with this analysis? Meat production breaks out as pork , 40%, chicken 37% and beef 23%. Their total was 300 million tons in 2018. But beef is by far the most expensive to get to market. It takes 11,0000 liters of water to produce one pound of beef. 60% of all crops go to raising beef. Horribly inefficient and wasteful. What if, he says, we adjust the mix to 40% pork, 50% chicken and 10% beef? We would then have 30% more chicken, 20% more pork, while halving the environmental burden. Yet total tonnage would then actually rise to 350 million tons, feeding far more people. This is doable and desirable. Just change the government incentives.

Disclosure: I freely admit I am predisposed to like this book, for a couple of reasons. One, I had a mentor who like Smil, was also a Czech refugee, also a scientist/engineer, also living in Canada. He, like Smil, not only taught me to look at the figures behind the “facts”, but assemble them properly to understand their context. He became my closest friend for a good two decades, and I helped him publicize a number of causes to promote the truth against the myths and outright lies. But where Smil became a professor emeritus and has published 40 books, Bohumil Jerabek earned himself a deck of patents on everything from vacuum cleaners to chainsaws, and had a lab so well equipped that engineers from the National Research Council came to play at his house on weekends. He would have loved this book,roared in laughter at many of the claims that are so true, and had he known Smil, they would have been best friends forever.

Two, Numbers Don’t Lie is very much like my own book, The Straight Dope, or what I learned from my first thousand nonfiction reviews. I too assembled a book around topics so it was more than just miscellaneous trivia. I too assembled it from reviews I had published over a ten year period. I too dragged the salient facts into the spotlight to promote knowledge beyond the rumors. And I too made it easy to read and digest in bite-sized chunks that stir the brainwaves.

So in my mind, the fast-reading and fun Numbers Don’t Lie is a wonderful experience that provides something for everyone.

David Wineberg ( )
1 stem DavidWineberg | Mar 10, 2021 |
Weak. Smil's 71 choices did not seem particularly original to me. I think I'd already heard all of the statistics, just from reading newspapers and magazines. Nothing surprised me, and Smil didn't add any insight. Maybe it is nice that Smil has collected them together, but … why do I need to read another article about declining US per capita dairy consumption?

> a dollar now buys nearly 38 times more electricity than it did in 1902. But, during that period, average (again, inflation-adjusted) manufacturing wages nearly sextupled, which means that in a blue-collar household, electricity is now more than 200 times more affordable … a lumen of electric light for a working-class household is now approximately 2,500 times more affordable than it was in the early 20th century

> While food balance sheets of virtually all affluent Western nations (be it the US or Spain, France or Germany) show a daily availability of 3,400–4,000 kilocalories per capita, the Japanese rate is now below 2,700 kilocalories, roughly 25 percent lower. ( )
1 stem breic | Dec 9, 2020 |
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