'Numbers Don’t Lie' Is Vaclav Smil’s Most Accessible Book Yet

The author writes a book that's easy on the eyes and the brain. Call it Smil Lite.

Smil book


Every book by Vaclav Smil includes a quote from a certain tech billionaire: "There is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil." The problem with Smil's writing is that it is often a slog. The books are dense and long. Even that billionaire said of Smil's book "Growth": "it’s not for everyone. Long sections read like a textbook or engineering manual." But as I noted in my short review of Growth, "It took me six months to get through this book, but when you finally do, your brain explodes."

That's why Smil's recent book "Numbers Don't Lie– 71 Stories to Help Us Understand the Modern World" is such a joy. It is not an engineering manual, but a romp through Smil's brain. The author describes it as "an eclectic book, with topics ranging from people, populations, and countries, through to energy use, technical innovation, and the machines and devices that define our modern civilization. For good measure, it closes with some factual perspectives on our food supply and eating choices, and on the state and degradation of our environment."

Each of those general categories contains one or two-page chapters with often obscure titles like "how sweating improved hunting" (our ancestors could not outsprint an antelope, of course, but during a hot day they could dog its heels until it finally collapsed, exhausted) or "the surprising story of inflatable tires" (invented to smooth the ride of John Dunlop's son's tricycle). He also uses the opportunity of this eclectic mix to have a few rants that might not have fit in other books.

A favorite of mine is "What makes people happy?" Here, Smil looks at that annual World Happiness Report and those claims that the Danes are the happiest people on earth. I wondered why such happy people have the second-highest consumption of antidepressants in Europe (just after Iceland) but Smil goes after the numbers behind the claims of happiness:

"As with all indices, this one contains a mix of components, including a notoriously questionable indicator (national GDP converted to US dollars); answers that cannot be easily compared across cultures (perception of freedom to choose); and scores based on objective and revealing variables (healthy life expectancy). This mélange alone indicates that there should be a great deal of skepticism regarding any precise ranking."

In his section on the inventions that made the modern world, Smil doesn't focus on the usual suspects, going instead after small electric motors: "This combination of ubiquity and power range makes it clear that electric motors are truly indispensable energizers of modern civilization."

I have written that we are still living in the world that resulted from the second industrial revolution that started in the 1880s and got much of that from Smil's earlier books, but he does a great summary here: "The 1880s were miraculous; they gave us such disparate contributions as antiperspirants, inexpensive lights, reliable elevators, and the theory of electromagnetism."

However, he does sometimes expose himself as a bit of a crank, concluding this sentence with: "...although most people lost in their ephemeral tweets and in Facebook gossip are not even remotely aware of the true scope of this quotidian debt."

weight to payload ratio

Vaclav Smil

The sections on transportation, food, and the environment are all full of gloriously obscure tidbits of information, some humor, and some depressing facts. Cars are terrible because of their weight-to-payload ratio and just keep getting worse:

"Cars got heavy because part of the world got rich and drivers got coddled. Light-duty vehicles are larger, and they come equipped with more features, including automatic transmissions, air conditioning, entertainment and communication systems, and an increasing number of servomotors powering windows, mirrors, and adjustable seats. And new battery-heavy hybrid drives and electric cars will not be lighter... And so the outlook is for ever-better engines or electric motors in heavy vehicles used in a way that results in the worst weight-to-payload ratios for any mechanized means of personal transportation in history. These cars may be, by some definition, smart—but they are not wise."

But perhaps even worse than the car is the cellphone. Smil doesn't own one but calculates they are solid embodied energy and carbon, and since they don't last nearly as long as a car, on the basis of lifecycle analysis, they are almost as bad.

"Portable electronics don’t last long—on average, just two years—and so the world’s annual production of these devices embodies about 0.5 exajoules per year of use. Because passenger cars typically last for at least a decade, the world’s annual production embodies about 0.7 exajoules per year of use—which is only 40 percent more than portable electronic devices!"

In food, we find that by weight, the dominant creature on the planet is the cow. "The cattle zoomass is now more than 50 percent larger than the anthropomass, and that the live weight of the two species together is very close to a billion tons," writes Smil.

He concludes with a discussion about carbon, and about keeping the global rise in temperature below 1.5°C. He is not optimistic.

"That is not impossible—but it is very unlikely. Reaching that goal 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."

He notes the "four pillars of modern civilization"—which controversially lists ammonia, steel, cement, and plastics—are all major emitters of carbon, but are all needed to feed and house growing populations in Asia and Africa for years to come.

"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."

It may end on a bit of a downer, but the book is just chock-full of so much information and insight. It is Smil Lite—a bunch of little firecrackers in your head instead of your brain exploding, but it doesn't take six months to read either. It's a great introduction to the mind of a great thinker. And when we start going back to cocktail parties, readers of this book will have so many impressive facts and insights at the tip of their tongues.