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Energy summary

Vaclav Smil

A Beginner’s Guide

3.5 (143 ratings)
17 mins

Brief summary

Energy by Vaclav Smil is a thorough account of the history, development, and current state of global energy systems. It's an insightful and comprehensive guide to understanding the importance of energy in our lives and its impact on the environment and society.

Table of Contents

    Energy
    Summary of 7 key ideas

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    Key idea 1 of 7

    The concept of energy has developed over centuries.

    Looking at the way we use the word “energy,” it’s clear that most of us aren’t entirely sure what energy actually is. For example, we say that charismatic speakers “energize the crowd,” or that we feel more energetic after rigorous training for our upcoming half-marathon.

    Yet, these are figurative at best. In fact, it’s impossible for us to have more energy after spending hours exerting ourselves. So if it’s not science or physics, what informs our conception of energy?

    In essence, when we talk about “energy,” we’re using a broad term that encompasses various types of energies. The term stems from the Greek word energeia, coined by Aristotle, which signifies motion, action or work. Today, energy is usually thought of as the capacity to do work, i.e., our ability to affect change.

    This kind of work could be as simple as sitting in a room and contemplating the cosmos. Though you may seem inert, your body is indeed working – your heart pumps blood, your stomach digests food, etc. And that takes energy.

    The first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, demonstrates that “energy” is often just an abstract concept that describes the conversion of more varied energies.

    To illustrate this, try rubbing your hands together very quickly. You’ll notice that they get warm. This isn’t because your hands have become “energized.” Rather, as you rub your hands together, kinetic energy (movement) is converted to thermal energy (heat), thus causing them to feel warm.

    Mankind – including scientists such as Joules, Watt and Einstein – has been poring over the essence of energy for centuries. Over the years, scientists have created systems to measure these seemingly mystical energies – such as the International System of Units – and have used them to gain a better understanding of how our world works.

    Energy is indeed a complex concept. Over the course of these blinks, we’ll unravel the mystery and show you the role that energy plays for all living things on our planet.

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    What is Energy about?

    Energy (2006) offers insights into one of the most elusive concepts in the spectrum of human thought: energy. By understanding what energy is, how it has helped us get where we are today, and what dangers our reliance on certain forms of energy poses, we will be better equipped to handle the challenges faced by modern civilization.

    Energy Review

    Energy by Vaclav Smil (2017) delves into the intricate world of energy and its impact on society. Here's why this book is definitely worth a read:

    • With rigorous research and a wealth of data, it offers a comprehensive understanding of energy that is both enlightening and eye-opening.
    • It explores the historical context of energy and how it has shaped civilization, providing valuable insights into our current energy landscape.
    • Through clear and concise explanations, Smil demystifies complex concepts, making the topic accessible and engaging for readers of all backgrounds.

    Who should read Energy?

    • Readers looking for the ultimate explanation of how our world works
    • Physics fans and climate change deniers
    • Anyone who is awed by the miracle of life

    About the Author

    Vaclav Smil is a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, and has published over 400 papers and 35 books, including Making the Modern World and Should We Eat Meat. Alongside his extensive academic career, he has worked as a consultant for several different US, EU and international institutions.

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    Energy FAQs 

    What is the main message of Energy?

    The main message of Energy is understanding the complexity and importance of energy systems for sustainable development.

    How long does it take to read Energy?

    The reading time for Energy varies depending on the reader's speed. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Energy a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Energy is a worthwhile read for those interested in understanding the world's energy resources and their impact on our lives. It provides valuable insights and knowledge for sustainable energy choices.

    Who is the author of Energy?

    The author of Energy is Vaclav Smil.

    What to read after Energy?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Energy, here are some recommendations we suggest:
    • How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil
    • The End of the World Is Just the Beginning by Peter Zeihan
    • Grand Transitions by Vaclav Smil
    • Energy Myths and Realities by Vaclav Smil
    • The Grid by Gretchen Bakke
    • Green Illusions by Ozzie Zehner
    • I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong
    • Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell
    • The Accidental Superpower by Peter Zeihan
    • Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels by Ian Morris