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Numbers Don't Lie: 71 Things You Need to Know About the World Paperback – 1 April 2021
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'There is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil' Bill Gates
Is flying dangerous? How much do the world's cows weigh? And what makes people happy?
From earth's nations and inhabitants, through the fuels and foods that energize them, to the transportation and inventions of our modern world - and how all of this affects the planet itself - in Numbers Don't Lie, Professor Vaclav Smil takes us on a fact-finding adventure, using surprising statistics and illuminating graphs to challenge lazy thinking.
Packed with 'Well-I-never-knew-that' information and with fascinating and unusual examples throughout, we find out how many people it took to build the Great Pyramid, that vaccination yields the best return on investment, and why electric cars aren't as great as we think (yet). There's a wonderful mix of science, history and wit, all in bite-sized chapters on a broad range of topics.
Urgent and essential, Numbers Don't Lie inspires readers to interrogate what they take to be true in these significant times. Smil is on a mission to make facts matter, because after all, numbers may not lie, but which truth do they convey?
'He is rigorously numeric, using data to illuminate every topic he writes about. The word "polymath" was invented to describe people like him' Bill Gates
'Important' Mark Zuckerberg, on Energy
'One of the world's foremost thinkers on development history and a master of statistical analysis . . . The nerd's nerd' Guardian
'There is perhaps no other academic who paints pictures with numbers like Smil' Guardian
'He's a slayer of bullshit' David Keith, Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics & Professor of Public Policy, Harvard University
The best book to read to better understand our world. Once in a while a book comes along that helps us see our planet more clearly. By showing us numbers about science, health, green technology and more, Smil's book does just that. It should be on every bookshelf! -- Linda Yueh, author of The Great Economists
Important -- Mark Zuckerberg, on Energy
One of the world's foremost thinkers on development history and a master of statistical analysis . . . The nerd's nerd ― Guardian
A book for anyone confused by statistics or dubious of data in a world where numbers seem to mean everything and nothing. Vaclav Smil's new book reveals why diesel isn't as bad as you think, how much food is really being wasted, what actually makes people happy, and much more. ― BBC Science Focus magazine
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My huge reservation is that the author does not just stick to numbers (unlike the engrossing book The Universe Speaks in Numbers by Graham Farmelo). He is especially vituperative about the UK, see quote below* where personal prejudice seems to show through, and he does not mention the massive advances, both in power contribution and much lowered costs, made in off-shore wind by the UK - contrary to many previous expectations by so-called world experts.
Also, in his measure of countries' worth he does not think to consider the merits of countries simply willing to stand against tyranny: the UK would rate highly in this regard with its prolonged start-to-finish fights against both the Nazis and the Soviet Union. We were, history shows, a very minor player in the defeats of these twin evils but we at least did try and were there slinging a few stones as best we could well before other stronger players "bravely" entered the fight.
There may here be a current relevance with our small efforts to stand out against and call out the EU State, and that may be a reason for his particular animus, as Smil has been I think an adviser to the EU.
*"The UK has become....a deindustrialized and worn out country; another has-been power whose claim to uniqueness rests on having too many troubled princes and on exporting costumed TV series set in fading country mansions staffed with too many servants."
I in fact entirely agree with his withering assessments of both our ghastly princes and our TV series, but his bias shows bleakly though in such subjective statements.
Maybe Covid-19 adds an interesting aspect as well: the one vaccine both conceived and manufactured in the UK may well be the one to "save the world". I am not referring to the financial delusions of a former prime minister here, but the fact that the result of the Oxford/Astra collaboration is by far the easiest to handle (will safely sit in a fridge in a small store in Chad beside the Coca-Cola and root beer cans) and also by far the cheapest ($4 contra the $20-30 cost of the other leading sorts). Also the much maligned, utterly dreadful UK has agreed to make this available to the Developing World at zero profit for ever - no other country has come near to promising that. This will no doubt all just be put down to a massive fluke, but perhaps the author might reasonably consider that the UK has 5 universities in the world's top rank of 20 [QS Rankings], then some balance might just prevail. The entire EU scores NULL points in this particular Eurovision category!
Perhaps Balfour's aphorism (slightly modified) that "there are lies, a significantly higher order of lies, and then there are numbers", might merit further thought.
One third of the topics well-argued would, to me, have made more sense. But that's just my opinion, and...
Overall, a great book that touches on an impressive range of areas with success, there will always be some disagreements when tackling such a broad area. However, that minor downside does not detract from the book and what it achieves, especially in comparison to books which try to do the same.
None of the depth I'm used to from this excellent author, more like headlines and short articles.
I'm already a fan of Smil, so I trusted the numbers he quoted and the context in which they were presented, even though they went against my previously held principles. For example, we learn here that eating meat is ok in moderation, electric cars aren't a good idea unless your country's electricity grid is green-powered. Wind turbine generators use almost as much carbon to manufacture as they produce.
However, he still asserts current global warming is on an unprecedented scale and caused by humans. There are 71 such assertions made here.
This is an excellent entre into Smil's work. Any of these topics can be seen is massive detail in his previous works.
The few areas in which I have any expertise disappointed. The chapter on insulation, for example, is founded on a specious comparison, shorn of context to reach a conclusion that is of no practical relevance.
Perhaps that was a one-off, and the other arguments are great. Or perhaps not.
I bought the book on a whim, seduced by the quotes on the cover. How could such clever people be wrong I thought?