How the World Really Works | Vaclav Smil

Summary of: How the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future
By: Vaclav Smil


Get ready to embark on an incredible journey through the history of energy conversion and its impact on our lives. In ‘How the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future’ by Vaclav Smil, we delve into the fascinating world of energy, beginning from the early microbes performing photosynthesis to the latest innovations in solar and nuclear power. The book examines the milestones in human history, from the harnessing of fire to modern agriculture and fossil fuels, shedding light on how energy conversion has reshaped our environment and redefined our existence. As you read this summary, you’ll gain valuable insights into the workings of the world and appreciate the link between energy conversion and human evolution.

The Evolution of Energy Conversion

Life began with energy conversion when simple, single-cell microbes emerged over three billion years ago. These microbes used solar radiation to access nutrients, created organic compounds, and produced oxygen through photosynthesis. Energy conversion continued with the discovery of fire by humans, which made indigestible food edible, kept shelter warm, and protected against dangerous animals. The domestication of animals expanded the use of kinetic and mechanical energy previously generated through human muscles. Fossil fuels such as coal were discovered after 1600, giving rise to the steam engine, the first industrial workhorse. The modern age brought forth new energy sources such as crude oil, water and wind turbines, geothermal, nuclear, and solar power, shaping every aspect of human existence from work, food, travel, and communication. The miracle of modern life is linked to the evolution of energy conversion.

The Power of Conversions

Energy conversion is the foundation of life and has empowered human beings to dominate the world. In the late 19th century, Ludwig Boltzmann, a founder of thermodynamics, proposed that energy is the core of everything, while Erwin Schrödinger, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, suggested that each organism feeds on free energy, and the organisms that best capture this energy have the evolutionary advantage. So, what is energy, and how does it work? In simple terms, energy is the ability to do work, such as causing movement or producing a change of configuration in a system. All energy can be converted, and the conservation of energy is the first law of thermodynamics, which means it cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed into another form. As an example, consider a cardboard box sliding down a loading bay ramp: when it was at the top of the ramp, it had potential energy, which was converted into kinetic energy as it sped down. However, as it slowed due to friction, the kinetic energy was transformed into thermal energy, which heated both the box and the ramp. Homo sapiens, according to Schrödinger, have the evolutionary advantage since they excel at capturing free energy, which is available for useful conversions, such as agriculture.

Fueling the World’s Food Production

The world’s population has increased threefold over the last sixty-nine years, leading to a higher demand for food production, yet despite the double increase in population, there has been a corresponding decline in undernourished individuals, which begs the question of how food production has kept up with this demand. The answer lies in the hybrid nature of modern food production that depends on two types of energy conversions – solar radiation and fossil fuels. Photosynthesis is as old as life itself and accounts for the first type of energy conversion. The use of fossil fuels, on the other hand, catalyzed production growth as it powers labor-saving machines that are essential to harvest crops and other energy-consuming processes in food production. Nitrogen, the most important indirect energy input in farming, is another critical component of food production. Although plants require nitrogen to grow, they can’t access it in a usable form readily. The production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers fueled by natural gas revolutionized food production, resulting in a significant yield increase that allowed us to almost feed eight billion people. However, it came at a cost – a greater dependence on fossil fuels.

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