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Numbers Don't Lie: 71 Things You Need to Know About the World

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  4,149 ratings  ·  425 reviews
'There is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil' Bill Gates

Is flying dangerous? How much do the world's cows weigh? And what makes people happy?

From earth's nations and inhabitants, through the fuels and foods that energize them, to the transportation and inventions of our modern world - and how all of this affects the planet itself - in Numbers Don
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published October 1st 2020 by Viking (first published 2020)
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Average rating 3.87  · 
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Nov 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, netgalley
This is a very informative book, approaching a diverse range of topics, from dietary habits, natality, engineering, to climate change factors and GDP. All data are statistics, but what is interesting is their interpretation.

As the author says, "numbers need to be seen in wider contexts", not just taken out from charts.

One example:

"And why do we measure the progress of economies by gross domestic products? GDP is simply the total annual value of all goods and services transacted in a country. It
David Wineberg
Mar 10, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Numbers Don’t Lie is an absolute delight for a reader like me. Vaclav Smil takes an engineer’s approach to dozens of everyday issues and shows how they work – or don’t – by the numbers. If we looked at more things this way, we would be dramatically better off.

The book is a collection of very short articles Smil wrote for an IEEE magazine. He has grouped them into categories like home, transport, energy and so on, so readers can explore the “well what about…” alternatives. This is the book that p
Andrej Karpathy
Dec 24, 2021 rated it liked it
A quick read whirlwind tour of a number of topics, at a pace of only about 2-3 pages per topic. Some fun notes and examples:

- 75% of all births between 2020 - 2070 will be in Africa
- vaccinations have an extraordinarily high benefit-cost ratio, an approx. ~44X return on investment
- estimated heritability of linespace is only ~15-30% (?)
- humans are sweating champions in the animal kingdom, very useful for thermoregulation and endurance even in hot weather
- synthesis of ammonia not only averted t
Dec 27, 2020 rated it it was ok
Finally gave up on this. It's just a series of rants. The most pessimistic, cynical and grouchy book I've read. Yes, there are facts, though mostly lacking reference and explanation, but they're often fairly common knowledge. There's a lot of contradiction too. I gave up after the chapter titled Being Realistic About Innovation. It was basically a rant asking why is humanity focussing on hyperloops when we can't even fix aeroplane boarding. It's just a facile argument. The latter is fixed, it's ...more
Lou (nonfiction fiend)
Sep 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
An essential guide to understanding how numbers reveal the true state of our world and exploring a wide range of topics including energy, the environment, technology, transportation, and food production. Renowned polymath and statistician Vaclav Smil's mission is to make facts matter. An environmental scientist, policy analyst, and a hugely prolific author, he is Bill Gates' go-to guy for making sense of our world. In Numbers Don't Lie, Smil answers questions such as: What's worse for the enviro ...more
Stephanie Jane
Sep 30, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, science
See more of my book reviews on my blog, Literary Flits

Numbers Don't Lie is a collection of numerous short essays which were, mostly, first published in American magazine, IEEE Spectrum, the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. Covering a wide range of topics, the essays are crammed with a lot of information, but their brevity means that I never quite felt as though Smil had explored each of his ideas to a satisfactory depth. I was frequently left with a nagging sense
Mar 22, 2022 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This book is a collection of short essays written by Vaclav Smil that explore various unrelated topics. From a brief exploration of the history of bicycles, the consequences of some countries having increasingly older populations, and showing us how electricity costs us much less than it did decades ago, to some opinions such as the importance of dairy consumption and moderate meat eating not having any adverse health effects, this book has a little bit of everything. However, after having f ...more
Apr 22, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
In the pro- and epilogue Vaclav Smil mentions that the goal of the book is to show that numbers should always be looked at in the context both broader and narrower. Numbers might not lie, but their truth is not always immediately apparent. The book provides 72 example questions plus answers, limiting each question to only a few pages.

While not unexpected, all the examples come at the cost of detail. The author might show that numbers need to be examined from various angles, but, since only very
Udit Nair
First and foremost I really like the way the book is structured. It consists of small articles which the author has written for various publications and now has been compiled here. Since all of them are really short ones one can easily pick up the book from anywhere and start reading. (And can leave in between and restart again at another time).

The main premise of the book is to make us understand the complexity of the world we live in through numbers. It helps immensely in our pursuit of better
Dec 08, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: economics
Weak. Smil's 71 choices did not seem particularly original to me. I think I'd already heard all of the statistics, just from reading newspapers and magazines. Nothing surprised me, and Smil didn't add any insight. Maybe it is nice that Smil has collected them together, but … why do I need to read another article about declining US per capita dairy consumption?

> a dollar now buys nearly 38 times more electricity than it did in 1902. But, during that period, average (again, inflation-adjusted) ma
Pedro Esperanca
Aug 17, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This book helped me better understand a lot of little things I had been trying to wrap my head around.
Such as termal conductivity in different building materials and their cost to the environment.

Reading this book feels like having an ultra factual conversation on a bit of each of the most consequential practical technologies of our time with a team of of specialists, each getting 3 minutes to speak.
Sep 30, 2021 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
One of the rare times I did not enjoy a Bill Gates recommendation.

Book-reader mismatch: too broad, not deep enough (unlike Smil's thorough, challenging, and fantastic Energy and Civilization: A History). In the afterword Smil makes it clear this is mostly a collection of unrelated short essays he wrote for IEEE Spectrum.

In the intro, Smil says "this book is about getting the facts straight" yet some topics and conclusions venture into realms that seem like personal or political conclusions or
Jan 30, 2021 rated it really liked it
I am hesitating between 4 and 5 stars. This book really made me realise I don't know that much about the world. It also made me less optimistic about the future. So I learned a lot (like the world most important stuff if ammonia, steel, cement and plastics) but I lost some as well (my believe in green energy). ...more
Dec 27, 2021 rated it it was amazing
One of the most empowering books I have read in 2021.

The Scientist Vaclav Smil (78) is well regarded for his books in the field of Energy, Technology and Science.
His books happen to be a good source of specialised information.

Numbers Don’t lie is not that book. This book is a compilation of short summaries on 71 interesting topics based on Energy, People, Machines & Devices, Countries, Food etc. In these summaries he has managed to put factual numbers and raise important question which may nev
Alexander Teibrich
Definitely a lot of interesting an insightful facts and figures about the world we live in. I however missed an overarching story line.
Sebastian Gebski
Aug 30, 2021 rated it liked it
A bit overrated.

All the facts are quite well documented and the overall reasoning is good, but I can't honestly say that there was any 'wow effect' ('OMG! I didn't know that, this changes my perspective on X and Y soooo much!'). Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it was all obvious and there were no surprises - far from that.

The chapter(s) I found most interesting? Probably the one about the energy cost of production and maintenance of personal electronics (phone) VS car. And the one about the e
The content is interesting, but each subject is covered too lightly. Wikipedia covers everything in more detail. I won't remember this book. ...more
Aug 13, 2021 rated it really liked it
This is a collection of Smil's columns to 'IEEE Spectrum', the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers: short, nerdy, and entertaining essays, tackling mostly issues of technology and some ramifications to the economy, environment, and human happiness. Smil is a master in quantification and using the Fermi method to make rough estimates that are extremely effective to debunk bullshit and pseudoscientific assertions. I'll certainly look for his other (many) books. ...more
Jan 15, 2022 rated it really liked it
there is no doubt that Vaclav Smil is a very talented and intelligent author. nevertheless, most of the facts in the book were not new to me. only later on did some chapters truly surprise me and kept me engaged. definitely not a must-read, but a good overview of the current world, maybe even an ideal primer for a high-school student eager to have a hollistic overview of the world’s issues.
Payal Sachdeva
Dec 04, 2021 rated it really liked it
A lovely book to know about statistics of eclectic topics, about the things we ignore or don’t appreciate.Numbers are important over the years and the importance of the figures cannot be undermined .
Aish Kumar
Dec 31, 2021 rated it really liked it
Intense, interesting, ingenious : An essential read for anyone and everyone.
Mary Keen
Aug 18, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: audio-overdrive
amazing insight, but much more than math --have recommended to others. Wish i could remember more of his examples! Like the organization too.

well narrated, but i plan to buy a traditional book format when/if the price comes down.

Overdrive @ normal speed
Peta Garside
Jan 09, 2022 rated it really liked it
super interesting and factual look at topics that are usually convoluted and that I have been misinformed on. Bit dreary but it does talk about climate change based in numbers and trends so its bound to not be sunshine and roses.
Nancy Lewis
Numbers may not lie, but individual perceptions of them differ.

I wanted a much more in-depth discussion of each of these 71 topics. And although the title suggests the book contains nothing but facts, much of what's inside is Smil's individual perceptions.
Noah Abraham
Sep 05, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Numbers Don't Lie by Vaclav Smil will have you learning more than you could even want about various sectors, ranging from agriculture to transportation and energy. Almost every page contained factoids that are beyond common knowledge, such as "France gathers approximately 70% of their energy needs from nuclear fusion." Smil divulges into hurdles that face humanity within these various groups and offers potential solutions to these problems. The book is by no means filled with scientific jargon, ...more
Feb 19, 2022 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The book appears deceptive, it looks like the scores of “myth buster” works you find in this information overload age on the shelves - the kind we usually pick up to fill up a few hours in an insufferable flight.
This is a remarkably perceptive book. In this era of specialists and experts, Vaclav Smil stands his ground as an old fashioned polymath, a know all about everything that’s so relevant and urgent. In a delightful sweep through this book, his topics range from climate change and energy t
John Carey
A bit pendantic overall and slow to start, but I see why people like Vaclav Smil. He's arguing for numeracy to help untangle the world's problems, a cause I can get behind. Largely his examples are ways numbers simplify. For example, how much energy do we spend on driving and the real question, how can we lessen it? You could generate a complicated report on number of driving age people, miles traveled daily, average car efficiency, etc. Smil rather simplifies by showing that we drive heavier ca ...more
Aug 24, 2021 rated it it was ok
The thing about saying “Numbers don’t lie” is that they do lie all the time. Numbers, data, and calculations need to be carefully checked to make sure that they aren’t misleading. Unfortunately, I don’t think Vaclav spent enough time doing so.
In one chapter he claims that electric cars are not always better for the environment than gas-powered ones. To support his claim he points out that in many countries, the power grid is primarily coal-based, and that burning coal is dirtier than gasoline. E
Aug 09, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: earth-science, 2021
Not much new information. Most of the data are pretty well known now. The clean and neat format should be a standard for science book though. Many pop science books tried to squeeze many scientific knowledge into a narrative framework. Sure, we are story animals, but we don't read science book to get a story. That's literature's job. A question and answer format make it highly efficient to read. ...more
Raphael Leiteritz
Mar 24, 2021 rated it really liked it
I give this 3.5 stars. Vaclav Smil is a great science writer in general (and I learned a lot by his use of energy as a lens to see the world), but this specific book felt a bit disconnected and superficial to me.

I would much rather recommend https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3... instead if you've never read one of his books.
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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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