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Energy: A Beginner's Guide

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  878 ratings  ·  91 reviews
With one famous equation, E=mc2, Einstein proved all matter can be described as energy. It is everywhere and it is everything. In this newly updated and engaging introduction, renowned scientist Vaclav Smil explores energy in all its facets – from the inner workings of the human body to what we eat, the car we drive and the race for more efficient and eco-friendly fuels.

Paperback, 240 pages
Published February 14th 2017 by Oneworld Publications (first published 2006)
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Average rating 3.96  · 
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May 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Hugely educational if you have the energy to dive through the content. It's definitely not a beginner's guide but covers a lot of ground from:
- How much of the sun's energy reaches various parts of the earth vs. getting reflected away (about half)
- How much of that is transformed into plant and later animal energy (very little)
- How plant and animal energies are transformed into fossil fuels and how efficient the various types of machines are that consume them (best generators are still only
Aug 08, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: zuck-s-books
3 -- ... I guess. He does do a good job of tying together a really disparate group of topics. Also, it's hard for me to be a fair judge with such gaps in my scientific knowledge. However, I did find the writing fairly irritating. It's not just the discipline snobbism -- a whole chapter devoted to mocking non-scientific usage of the word "energy" (Hello? It's called metaphor.) It's also the fact that Smil, despite his science background, doesn't write in a very linear manner. I found myself havin ...more
Barnaby Thieme
Jul 25, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
Smil has presented a serviceable overview of energy in its manifold forms, from the physical force to metabolic cornerstone to social phenomenon. An enormous amount of factual data is presented with very little connective tissue, leaving the reader to do the heavy lifting of tracking the minutiae and assembling a personal story of what it all means. A useful if unlovely guide to an important topic.
Deepak Gulati
Dec 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An excellent survey of the various past, present and future sources of energy. Densely packed with information. Many sentences in this book state facts that must've taken hour to research.

Given my interest in this general area, I couldn't put it down but I can see why it could be a bit dry for others.
Mar 18, 2020 rated it liked it
Overall an OK book covering the past, present and future of energy in different domains. The author has a seeming superiority complex and often goes on a tangent to showcase that. The book is a little short considering the disparity of the topics. However, there is a lot of interesting data and analysis making it an OK read.
Nirmal Ghimire
Apr 29, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Vaclav Smil is an interesting writer!!! Should be followed if interested in energy!!!
Harsh Thaker
Apr 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
From fuel to food.. how energy drives the entire world.. a beginners guide for non engineers on how energy is required to lift an apple to liftoff of space shuttle
Nico Righeriu
Jul 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
gives a good perspective on the uses of energy now, throughout the history and giving a glimpse into possible energy production and use in the future. Sometimes it feels like an enumeration of facts but is nonetheless worth reading for those interested in this subject.
Masatoshi Nishimura
As someone who's taken chemistry and physics only in Grade 10 highschool, this book is just challenging enough to comprehend.

Vaclav builds a narrative to look at our everyday life from an energy point of view. He even talks about our history/anthropology/culture in that lense (human survival, farming, animal domestication, city development, etc). That was new and eye-opening. It's like learning about economics the first time. Yes, I heard of Elon Musk talking about how energy will be crucial to
Mohamed Katergi
Dec 10, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
First, this book is certainly not a beginner's guide as other commenters stated! It is a very interesting book and rich in information which one might need to get back to. Having said this, I found the index to be quite poor in serving this purpose. Some important information might be lost in the pages and it would be difficult to retrieve them back unless you read an entire section.

Second, I find that the author neglected the significant transition into electric vehicles as transportation means
Nov 04, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Informational and rather comprehensive read on energy, its availability, usage and effects on civilization and everyday life. A bit broader handling of the topic than I expected; at first, it covers the amount of energy available overall (such as solar radiation available, how it transforms to phytomass, and resources in fossil reservoirs), but then goes down what at first seemed mostly like really strange rabbit holes of energy expenditure of a single individual, task, and such.

It did take me
Hendra Putra
If you are interested in understanding the basic concept of energy, it is a useful book. Even though still there are several technical terms in the book, it is still quite easy to understand. It does not talk about the energy such as fossil fuel or renewable energy source only but also explain about photosynthesis in term of energy provider for the human race all this time. And the best part of the book is you can understand the history of energy since the very early human being on earth. what i ...more
William Yip
Feb 09, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: stem
The content became dense at times especially in the first two chapters where the author jumped around frequently to different topics. Overall though, he gave a good history of energy and a good account of near-future trends; how the sun provides all energy first to plants and then up the food chain, how humans used to be limited to subsidence due to primitive tools and low energy usage, how the limitations were erased with the advent of fossil fuels that allowed humans to utilize increasingly so
Jun 26, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: physics, science
...but mostly in the context in humanity and its application. Don't expect to hear a treatise regarding the big bang, energy mass equivalency, or any of the deep relevant questions. He simply cant answer them.

But if you're curious this is like the book "energy and civilization" but in a lighter form.

Lots of stuff on materials, energy conversions from atp to combustion engines. I mean dont get me wrong. This is really some GOOD stuff. BUT, dont read this expecting to have your theoretical physics
David Mytton
Jul 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I found this to be a good introduction to the concept of "energy" and the historical changes of how energy is used in society. A large part of the book is dedicated to that history and the biological processes that involve energy. Only a small part considers how we might move away from fossil-fuel based sources of energy and what the future of energy will be.

It's not supposed be in depth in any area so whilst I would have liked more on that topic, there are plenty of other books which can provi
Ismael Dainehine
Mathematicians/physicists will enjoy this book. Energy talks about physical rather than the social sciences: how energy works, how our production and use might evolve, and how this affects climate change. I had a random intuition recently that the next great leap in physics will come from the realm of thermodynamics. This is a first principles introduction to what energy is, its history, and how it fuels our planet and our bodies. It's not for everyone (it reads like a textbook), but if you're i ...more
May 22, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2020
Written in the typical Vaclav Smil fashion, it reads like a textbook with a lot of technical jargon embedded and is incredibly objectional relative to information on similar topics. That’s the goal of this book though, so it shouldn’t receive any demerits based on this. The book does its job exceptionally well at going over the various facts, ideas, and history of all forms of energy. It’s all-encompassing, so the best way to read it is to skip the chapters which have little relevance or interes ...more
Roel Peters
Although Smil displays strong knowledge on the subject of energy, I can't say this was a pleasant read. The ambition of this book clearly was to give a primer on the energy, how human usage evolved throughout history and the socio-economic econsequences. But this focus isn't always clear from start to end. The first chapters of this book are crammed with facts and figures. On the other hand, the final chapters are very high level.

I've heard many good things about Vaclav Smil, so I guess I simply
Saurabh Kumar Singh
Much more than what I expected

This book turned out to be much more than what I hoped for. It contains review of how plants produce energy, how living things consume energy, historical human energy consumption, modern energy generation and consumption and likely future scenario. Overall a fantastic book for a beginner. Book is full of numbers and statistics. It is not centered around western world, and contains frequent mention of Asia, China, India and Africa. Thoroughly enjoyed the book. Only
Apr 25, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An elaborate explanation of the vastness of energy as a fuel not only for vehicles or machines but of the living organisms. One may find the language to be little intensive but this is one of the best in energy literature. Something that no one is able to say openly this book has said that. Vegetarian people may lack some essential components of diet they require. Why would one read this book is this may help them be aware of their and the surrounding's energy needs. ...more
Dave Hunter
Apr 29, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is exactly the kind of book we should all read before we make that run on Facebook to convince others of our superior intellect.

Seriously, this will broaden your understanding at the over view level of how the energy production, distribution, and consumption systems in our modern cultures work. As the title says, it’s a beginners guide, perhaps not written for an 8th grade education, but not deep enough for graduate work.

Sep 12, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Book contains a lot of interesting facts about energy. If you are into energy, this is good book to read. But it's more like textbook and not much linear. I don't mind that but the problem is that index is not good and some facts can be lost in pages. If you want to use it as reference later, it's better to write notes alongside reading, otherwise you will need to reread whole chapters to find what you are looking for. ...more
Ayibatari Ogounga
Best book on science that I recall reading, although 14 years later is a darn long time to read something that's supposed to contain facts that are to some extent current. Reading this book brought some good old facts which stay the same (like the different energy densities of types of coal) facts which I had to research and correct(like percentage of the world's energy currently supplied by Solar or hydroelectricity). ...more
Andrew Gibson
Short, every word mattered and had value. Very valuable read. Some books hold value against the passing of time, some have subject matter that erode the punchlines quickly and unfairly. Being 13-14 years old and with how much has transpired over those 13-14 years, made me want to see how the narrative changed. Looks like he has another more recent book that might do just this.
Omar Al Kaaki
Jan 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
You can't be an energy expert if you haven't read Dr. Smil's "Energy"...
It covers the very broad meaning of Energy; in one page you're reading about metabolism and eating habits, and in another page you're reading about tectonic plates and volcanoes!

A very interesting read, which becomes more engaging as the pages pass...
Apr 11, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The type of book that you would expect from Vaclav Smil: very well structured and extremely rich in information. The only downside is that some parts are just dry and abstract, for example: the fundamental metabolic pathways, the process of photosynthesis, the working of jet engines, etc. But no worries, there are many explainer videos on Youtube.
Oct 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great overview of the topic and an interesting step through of energy from basic principles to climate, biology, conversion, generation and industrialisation etc. Connects the small and simple to the large and complex. I’ve worked in the field of renewable energy for 15+ years and still found lots of great connections and context here. It’s also not tediously long.
Bernardo Ubaldo
Jan 13, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great survey of the subject

This is my first book by Vaclav Smil. I had heard great things about him, and I was not disappointed. The book is a very detailed short introduction to the topic of energy. My only complaint is that the book is a little dry. Apart from that it is very much worth your time.
Jun 01, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A whirlwind tour of the world's energy sources, usage, distribution, and its impact on the environment. This is a fairly basic book; the usual dazzling Smil insights are only a few. But it definitely juxtaposes interesting statistics and gives interesting perspectives. ...more
Jul 10, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Simple, straightforward overview of energy use, history & possible future. The last chapter is particularly important in stressing the futility of making predictions on the direction of world energy production.
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Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of forty books, including Energy and Civilization, published by the MIT Press. In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.

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