I knew when I downloaded this book that I was being a bit of a nerd, using up time that could have been spent listening to riveting fiction swotting up on chemistry, biology and physics. But I couldn’t resist it. Science is a big part of my job (I work in an intensive care unit) but I didn't opt for science at school, and although I know a fair amount about human biology I’m really aware of fundamental gaps in my knowledge concerning the basic sciences underpinning biology and science in general. This lecture series has definitely helped to fill those gaps.
He’s a pretty good lecturer, with a very good knack for explaining complex concepts using simple, helpful analogies. And the series is thoughtfully constructed so that it begins with the most fundamental concepts in science and then builds on this so that the listener acquires an overview of all human scientific endeavour by the end of the series.
Downsides? Well, it’s pretty old. These recordings were made in the 1990s, and whilst the basics of science haven’t changed significantly in those 20 years, you do keep wondering whether some of the modern scientific topics he mentions are still current (e.g. the large hadron collider and recent advances in medicine). He talks about global warming as if it’s just some controversial new theory that some scientists are working on, and the internet isn’t mentioned at all.
If you can tolerate the fact that it is dated and you want to learn more about the fundamentals of science, you should get this book. It is also great value, with 60 lectures for your one Audible credit.
I have read, or listened to, a lot of very gloomy books over the last few years. Unfortunately, I think most of them have probably been telling the truth, so it is quite a relief to listen to a book that paints an optimistic picture of the future.
The authors don’t hide from the fact that we are facing an apparently unsustainable world population growth to 9 billion in the next couple of decades, along with an increasing demand for food and water and a continuing of humanity’s destruction of other species and the environment.
But in this book they do a pretty good job of convincing us that the situation is not as bad as we think, and that we have the ingenuity to solve many of these crushing, dispiriting problems: lack of food, lack of clean water, dependence on fossil fuels, pollution by human and industrial waste, deforestation, destruction of the oceans etc.
Their first job is to convince us that we are inherently pessimistic for a number of deep-rooted psychological reasons, because a pessimistic, suspicious, over-cautious outlook would have increased our survival chances when we were evolving as hunter-gatherers. A hunter-gatherer’s territory was small and involved only a few people and animals, and we aren’t wired to comprehend systems involving billions of people and countless other variables, so we tend to be over-pessimistic. For example, in 19th century London people believed that the city was being overwhelmed by horse-manure. They couldn’t conceive of a workable solution because they couldn’t imagine that a few years later the city would be dominated by automobiles and we would be worried about air pollution instead. Similarly, in later decades we thought acid rain would decimate the environment, but this problem has now been largely forgotten.
When we try to predict the future we tend to think of our rate of progress as being linear, but actually, many of our technologies advance at an exponential rate. An example of this is computer chip technology, where each year the number of circuits packed onto a chip increases exponentially. Problems that currently seem to be unsolvable, like the lack of clean drinking water in the world’s poorest countries, can be solved by the invention of water-purifying technologies. These devices are already being produced and are improving at an exponential rate. The knowledge and spread of such technologies is enhanced and compounded by the exponential growth of communication networks in the developing world resulting from the spread of mobile phone technology.
Similar technological solutions are offered for sanitation (toilets that don’t need water or an outlet pipe, that burn the faeces to generate energy, purify the urine to release fresh water and produce urea as a fertiliser). There are similar solutions offered for many other problems faced by the poor in the modern world. Solar panel technology which increases efficiency exponentially, improved battery technology made from abundant non-toxic chemicals, efficient high rise farms, bacteria that are genetically programmed to manufacture fuels and so on.
These may seem rather far-fetched, but today’s smartphones would have seemed far-fetched 20 years ago, and now they are affordable to almost everyone.
One might object that improving the lot of the poorest billion will only increase population further, so that it always remains unsustainable and beyond the reach of technological advances, but the authors point out that the rate of population growth always falls once people have the basic necessities to bring them out of poverty: Food, shelter, clean water, good sanitation, energy for cooking, heating and lighting, health and education.
It’s a fascinating book, and it offers an optimistic future without the need to radically change the whole global political landscape. I thought the only way to slow the current reckless onslaught towards environmental destruction would be to form some kind of world government which could control and limit emissions, deforestation, overfishing and all the other human activities that are doing so much damage, but this book suggests that we might arrive at a cleaner, better world without the need for drastic government intervention. This view may be overly optimistic, but I have enjoyed the hope.
What a dry subject, nitrogen! It would be hard to write an interesting book about this topic, but the author succeeded. He describes how the planet's population was on the verge of starvation, having consumed nearly all the natural deposits of fixed nitrogen to use as fertiliser, and how nations vied for the last scraps of the chemical in remote outposts of South America.
Nitrogen is, of course, plentiful, in the air we breathe. But in order to be useful as a fertiliser, it must be converted to a solid form. Two German scientists, Haber and Bosch, (excuse any mis-spelling, I never saw these names in written form!) worked tirelessly to solve this tricky problem. Their drama unfolded against the backdrop of a fascinating period of German history, in which nitrogen played an especially important role because of its use in explosives (and hence in warfare).
The theme of antisemitism is also important in the book, because a large proportion of Germany's scientists were Jews.
It is a good story, well narrated, and worth a listen.