Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Posted by Arjendu on September 25, 2013

I have been reading about energy — both fossil fuel and non-fossil-fuel — for the last few weeks. It’s part of an attempt to understand something new during my sabbatical and re-tool for my return the physics department and to the classroom.

As I read, I plan to post comments on books and articles that I’ve read. I will start with those that are not very technical.

The first is ‘Powering the future’ by Robert Laughlin. This book takes the perspective of looking at how the world will use energy in about 200 years or so. Taking this long view allows Laughlin to not get too deep into analyzing the technology race between different non-fossil-fuels. It allows him to cut to the bone of the physics behind sources of energy, and do ‘back-of-the-envelope’ sort of calculations to predict how it will work out in the long-term future. His analysis is extremely compressed (the actual text is 122 pages, though there are a further 90+ pages of endnotes including citations and calculations) and the brilliance of his thinking shows. (He *is* a Nobel Prize winner in Physics after all, though about something far from the topic of this book — on the Quantum Hall Effect). He is also a provocative and entertaining writer (there is a remarkable section on robots and how they will tend compressed-air energy storage on the bottom of the ocean, for example). I enjoyed the book tremendously and it clarified the intellectual landscape for me (albeit as a physicist) in a way that previous books had not managed. I would recommend this book strongly to anyone looking for a broad sweep understanding, though I do believe you’d probably benefit a lot more from it if you have a technical background.




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