About numbers (Part I, Science)

I read, recently, an excellent book. Or, to be accurate, I am in the process of reading it. I haven't yet reached the conclusions section; so its not the opinions raised or the conclusions reached by the author that I find compelling; its just the methodology. I would strongly recommend this book to any person even remotely interested in modern environmental issues and global change, in general, and in renewable energy in particular.

The book is entitled “Sustainable Energy — without the hot air” and has been written by David JC MacKay, professor at Cambridge. You can buy it at Amazon for twenty Euros, you can freely download from the web at www.withouthotair.com.

What is special about this book is that it is about numbers. In the preface, the author himself endorses “Numbers not adjectives”. This is that drives the whole analysis. Numbers in science can be very complex. The author, a technology professor himself, fully appreciates this difficulty. The challenge he embarks upon is to explain in simple words what we can expect from renewable energy. He religiously respects the mandates of science and common sense. All the scientific complexity is however addressed in the annexes; the main text can be followed by almost every person with a grammar school level of mathematics. For those seeking to understand the full complexity of the issues, details are presented in the annex.

The author, step by step, builds two stacks; that of our energy needs (demand) and that of what renewable energy can supply to us, under assumptions of a true, massive, exploitation of these, many, technologies (supply). Again, I haven't yet reached the point where the result is disclosed; which stack is higher and how much. For the moment I am enjoying the extraordinary style of the book; what I would epitomize as a rare example of “true science made simple”.

Renewable technology is strongly debated. There are all sort of views around. All the way from “the ultimate solution” down to a “silly romantic nonsense”. All views have typically serious people among their ranks. Many motives may drive this diversity; wishful beliefs, economic interests, psychological needs to condemn or to praise, and many more.

In retrospect, when reading this book, I realized the practical impact such books can have. Because of their powerful approach, based on numbers, which respect science, they can restrict this vast range of views. At least, for the vast majority of good willed people. Who put truth above selfish interests or strong inner psychological drives, including religion.

In other words, we may have so many views about renewable energy because such, solid and number based approaches, have not yet become mainstream. Of course, even in science there are errors, there are limits of confidence. In real life, there is hardly ever one solution only. Rather a spectrum of possible solutions. However only numbers can draw the borders between science and superstition or meta- science approaches. Only numbers can provide for hypothesis assessments, can assign probabilities to them, can restrict the spectrum of potential truth that, without science, will easily expand from heaven to hell.

This book will help realize or recall the true power of numbers.

The question now is: why have such rigorous, number-based, approaches appeared so late. This debate on renewable technology is ongoing for 20-30 years. Why did it take so much time?

Difficult to say. Is it manipulation by specific economic interests? Lots of people see conspiracies everywhere, especially when economic interests are at stake. I sort of reject this conspiracy scenaria. I don't think that any economic interest can manipulate western type democracies.

Answers are often simple. I would say that I tend to believe that such approaches take so much time to appear in the literature, because at the end it may simply be extraordinarily difficult to be both a true scientist, understanding the full complexity of numbers and, at the same moment, a person able and willing to report on this complexity is a way understandable by the broader audiences.

This is the rare triple skill of Professor McKay. He commands the science in its full broadness and complexity and has no intention to use political and public appealing and flattering nonsense as cheap substitutes. Then he has the ability to communicate this complexity to the people. And finally, he is not the person that will be manipulated by any economic interest; even more, he has the will to push forward, driven by the moral of reporting important scientific truths for the benefit of society.

Sadly, there are not many people, of this caliber and integrity, around.

(to be continued...)

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