June 8, 2014

Review Corner

We call our species homo sapiens--wise man--but we are, in fact, homo faber, man the creator. We have changed the face of this planet with our tools and structures, and we will continue doing so. Assuring future prosperity requires that we continue exploring the atom and exploring deep space.
This describes Karl Popper's "World 3" (coming soon to a Review Corner near you) but it captures Robert Bryce's anti-Malthusian Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong.

Moore's Law applies to and is well-accepted in the microprocessor sector. A newer faster smaller cheaper computer is almost as predictable as a user's story of the older, bigger, slower, and more expensive equipment he or she began using. (Having a brother who worked on mainframes, I have learned not to get into one-upsmanship in that area...)

But Bryce expands it to all fields of human endeavor: Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper energy, agriculture, transportation, music -- everything where innovation is allowed, and sometimes, even where it isn't.

The trend toward Smaller Faster is not dependent on a single country, company , or technology. Nor is it dependent on ideology. Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper has flourished despite Marxism, Communism, Socialism, Confucianism, and authoritarian dictatorships. It might even survive the Republicans and the Democrats.

Leo Fender gets a shout out for empowering the individual in music with the tools to be heard in the theatre, and then the same technology's allowing The Beatles to be heard around the world on the Ed Sullivan Show.
The vacuum tube allowed musicians to be heard as individuals, and in doing so liberated millions of people. Lee De Forest, the Alabama-born inventor who perfected the vacuum tube, would eventually win more than three hundred patents. But none of his other inventions would ever be as important as the vacuum tube.

The book is great for a modernist like me. I'd put it beside Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist [Review Corner] or David Deutsch's The Beginning of Infinity [Review Corner]. Those are sacred texts to a technocrat like me, but what Bryce may do better is to directly take on and negate the neo-Malthusians, who -- if I may borrow from Popper again -- would "take us back to the caves."
Collapse anxiety pervades the rhetoric of many of the world's most prominent environmentalists as well as some of the biggest environmental groups. They abhor modern energy sources as despoilers of earth's beauty and natural order and cling to the idea that we humans have inappropriately sought to subdue nature for our own shortsighted, materialistic, and short-term benefit. In their view, we humans have sinned so much against Mother Earth that even the weather has turned against us.
[...]
The facts are simply indisputable: never have so many lived so well, or so free. Yet despite this astounding progress, there remains an entrenched and powerful interest group that believes we humans are doing too much, that we must reduce our consumption of everything, return to our agrarian past and employ what one prominent catastrophist calls "a new civilizational paradigm." Following such a path would be disastrous.
[...]
McKibben and his fellow travelers believe that salvation lies in pursuing low density in both energy production and food production. But the precise opposite is true. Density is green. It's only by increasing the density of our energy and food production that we will be able to meet the demands of our growing population. And yet, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and many other groups want to pave the world with low-density wind turbines.

ThreeSourcers will also enjoy the quantitative nature of the book advances are measured and compared to what they replaced and back to what was used in antiquity.
The original Model T was equipped with a 2.9 liter engine that produced 22 horsepower (about 16,400 watts) and weighed about 300 pounds (136 kg). The result: gravimetric power density of nearly 121 watts per kilogram. That power density was 73 times that of a horse, 12 times that of the Boulton & Watt design and about six times that of the engine Corliss had introduced in Philadelphia three decades earlier.

The energy section will warm the hearts of ThreeSourcers, if read on Kindle, at 0.44°C/µW -- energy density, near and dear to all.
That Obama and Kennedy, both of whom went to Harvard, claim that a super-high-energy density substance that can be deployed for innumerable purposes, from pumping well water in Kenya to emergency generation of electricity in Lower Manhattan, is somehow bad or even yet, tyrannical, is nonsense on stilts. Rather than talk about the tyranny of oil, the two Harvard grads might as well complain about the tyranny of physics-- or better yet, the tyranny of density.

Detailed Appendices describe the units used and data sources for the quantitative sections. For all its factual content, the book is an easy and enjoyable read. Five Stars, easy.

Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at June 8, 2014 10:04 AM
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