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What Does Shakespeare Have To Do With 'Energy'? (Trust Us, There's A Link)

May 31, 2018
Originally published on May 31, 2018 7:05 am

Energy, the new book from acclaimed author and journalist Richard Rhodes, starts off not with a scientist or inventor, but with a notable name from a different field: William Shakespeare. The Bard of Avon isn't usually associated with physics or power generation — but he was present when his business partners, Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, ordered the razing of the Theatre in London, with the salvaged wood being used to open the now legendary Globe. (Whether their actions were strictly legal is unclear.)

And that incident is significant in the history of energy, Rhodes contends, as proof that "wood was growing dear, its price increasing," which spurred Britons to make the leap from wood to coal as a source of power. It's one of many fascinating anecdotes in this wide-ranging and compulsively readable new book about the evolution of energy in the modern world.

Rhodes writes that the purpose of his book "is to explore the history of energy; to cast light on the choices we're confronting today because of the challenge of global climate change." He chooses to address his subject matter through biographical sketches of the innovators who tried — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — to change the way the world uses natural resources to run itself. "The literature of climate change is mostly technical; the debate, esoteric," he notes. His history, centered on people, is accessible even to the lay reader; you don't need to be a science buff to follow along.

The book's first section explores the transition in England and America from wood to coal, and the early attempts at creating a steam engine. Rhodes profiles Denis Papin, the inventor of the pressure cooker, as well as James Watt, the Scotsman whose namesake engine, while imperfect, changed the world. We're also introduced to lesser-known names, such as the engineer Richard Trevithick, Jr., a steam locomotive pioneer who once "picked up a sturdy six-foot colleague, rotated him upside down and stamped his boot prints onto the ceiling."

In the second section, Rhodes focuses on the changing technology of light and related fields. He writes about gaslight pioneers William Murdoch and Philippe Lebon, the development of hydroelectricity, and the problem of urban smoke pollution, which plagued cities like Chicago in the late 1800s.

Rhodes doesn't neglect more recent developments in the science of energy. The book's final section deals with newer technology and the problems it's brought to the world. He considers the internal combustion engine and nuclear power, and takes a look at author Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring was published as Americans began to fear the dangers of radiation. Fittingly, he ends with a chapter on renewable energy, noting, "The prosperous West can — barely — afford to produce all its power with renewables if it decides to do so. ... The boats are lining up. There's room aboard for everyone."

Rhodes has long had a gift for making the technical and esoteric accessible to readers whose level of science comprehension is something less than that of a Ph.D. — his 1987 history The Making of the Atomic Bomb is widely considered a classic of the genre. His writing in Energy is no less clear and informative; he's able to explain difficult concepts without patronizing the reader.

And his decision to focus his book on the people behind energy is a good one. He doesn't limit himself to obvious names like Watt and Benjamin Franklin; indeed, some of the more fascinating stories deal with people who lay readers likely won't be familiar with. (One such person is Navy admiral Hyman G. Rickover, who military buffs might know as a pioneer of nuclear power.)

Refreshingly, Rhodes refuses to be cynical about the future of energy and its effects on climate change, even if the topic generally inspires pessimism in environmentalists. "Climate change is a major political issue," he writes. "Most of us are aware of it — increasingly so — and worried about it. Businesses are challenged by it. It looms over civilization with much the same gloom of doomsday menace as did fear of nuclear annihilation in the long years of the Cold War." Rhodes' tone is worried, but not hopeless — he urges action without succumbing to fatalism.

Energy is an excellent book that manages to be both entertaining and informative, and it's likely to appeal to both science fans and those of us who only passed physics by the skin of our teeth. It's also a powerful look at the importance of science: "Far from threatening civilization," he writes, "science, technology, and the prosperity they create will sustain us well in the centuries to come."

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