Know-It-All Energy by Brian Clegg: Review

Know-it-all Energy

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

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Know It All Energy by Brian Clegg
ISBN: 9781577151616
Published by Wellfleet Press on September 1st 2017
Genres: Energy, Essays, Reference, Science
Buy on Amazon US | The Book Depository | Barnes & Noble | Buy on Amazon UK

I became slightly suspicious of the credibility of Know-It-All Energy when I read the publisher’s blurb. “Each idea, no matter how complex, is explained in 300 words and one picture, all digestible in under a minute.”

Under a minute? 300 words? That’s some reading speed for light fiction, far less a book that is covering topics such as potential energy, entropy, fuel cells and superconductors.

Actually the whole book seems to have been designed for people in a rush. Each of the 50 topics also has a “3-second thrash” – the key in a single sentence. Then the “3-minute thought” expands on this (although it only takes 20 seconds to read). Maybe the publishers have discovered that people simply don’t want to sit down and spend more than a few minutes reading about energy?

High-quality production

The book itself has clearly NOT been put together in a rush. It is beautifully produced and excellently laid out. Each of the 50 topics has its own double-page spread. The main text per topic is clear and concise, and would I believe be understandable by anyone not having studied physics to any level. For those who have, there is still plenty of meat. Topics extend to dark energy, entropy, zero point energy and quantum electrodynamics.

Seven chapters

Chapters cover The Basics, Natural Energy, Storing Energy, Transmitting Energy, Converting Energy, Going Green, and Energy & Entropy. Each chapter has its own glossary. This is very useful to refer to when reading a particular chapter. But going to the book to look for the definition of a particular term would be more tricky. It may involve searching through all seven glossaries.

Half of every double-page spread is taken up with an attractive collage of pop-art. Lovely as they are, personally I would have preferred a greater weighting given to text rather than a 50:50 divide between text and illustrations.

Excellent for a quick browse

Through its strong focus on easily accessible “chunks” of information, this is a book that can be easily picked up and flicked through in brief moments.

In this respect it’s an excellent concept that is very well implemented. It’s attractive to look at, with a modern design, and it’s easy to navigate. Both “energy amateurs and professionals” will find something to read, understand and be challenged by.

Some major omissions

Unfortunately, the content of six of the 50 topics left me rather disappointed.

On the topic of Coal, the book positively asserts that coal “is responsible for the production of more than 40 percent of the planet’s electricity,” without any reference to it being a major contributor to the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions and hence rising global temperatures. Oil apparently has no ill-effects at all when burned.

On Solar energy, the expert (Brian Clegg) appears keen to explore the realms of fantasy (e.g. solar panels in space) rather than the reality of the huge solar farms on the planet. Or the fact that solar power is the fastest-growing source of global energy.

Wind power is apparently waylaid by not just one but three environmental concerns (that’s two more than was acknowledged for coal). The first is bird strikes, although Clegg does admit that a turbine causes fewer bird injuries than a single cat. (If so, then why say it’s an issue?). The other two issues are sound and visual pollution. On these he goes into detail, without getting to the positives. (E.g. wind looks set to become the cheapest form of large-scale power available.) And where does he get the idea that “wind power has dropped somewhat in favor”? Has he not read of its massive deployments from the North Sea to China?

Batteries as a means of energy storage are confined to lead acid, alkali or lithium-ion. There’s no mention of the latest energy storage technologies such as zinc-bromide gel, designer carbon and silicon batteries.

When discussing biofuels, the focus is entirely on their production from living plants. There is no mention of biofuels being derived indirectly from agricultural, commercial, domestic and industrial waste.

A decade out-of-date

Despite being edited in 2017 (it gives the death of George Olah as 2017), Know-It-All Energy is not in step with the times.

It has a chapter on Going Green, but there’s no significant mention of why it’s necessary to go green. For a book written in 2017 on energy, to have nothing to say on the energy transition, seems a remarkable omission. There’s nothing on peak energy. Nothing about decarbonization of energy production. Nor on a low carbon economy, climate change or the Paris Agreement.

The Introduction does state that “we have become aware of the impact our energy habits are having on the planet” but does not explain what these are. It mysteriously says that “green mechanisms” are necessary to minimize that effect.

A mixed verdict

The overall impression given by the book is that green technologies are far from cost-efficient, their deployment is unsure, but thankfully coal and oil are still around and are actually not at all that bad.

Much of Know-It-All Energy is excellent. But key areas give a totally incorrect impression of the state of the planet and the renewable energies that are set to play key roles in its future.

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20 responses to “Know-It-All Energy by Brian Clegg: Review

  1. Wow that was in indepth review Denzil. Arrgh yes, Coal , the pioneer of the industrial age. Yet no one mentions the biggest producer now of our green house gas is Manure..
    I am sure we have a much cleaner, cheaper energy resource at hand that some one some where has invented, but the major players are still pushing their companies profit margins.. And so I am not surprised that some major omissions were found.

    A great read Denzil, Here’s to the future of renewable energy, that does not affect our environment..

    Have a Wonderful New Year, may it be filled with Harmony, Good Health and Happiness. 🙂

    See you Next year my friend 🙂 Sue

    • Denzil

      That’s a good observation Sue. It would be healthier for people and the planet if the amount of meat the world consumed / the number of cattle on the planet were both reduced. Thank you for your good wishes. I return them with compound interest!

  2. I like balanced reviews like yours. Unfortunately I hardly ever read scientific non-fiction myself. My brains were not developed for those things. 😉

  3. As a visual learner and one who spends much time on the right side of my brain, anything on physics or chemistry that could entice me to learn more in less time would be an attraction. But the omissions you mention are quite serious, and that environmental issues as pertaining to energy today is fairly glossed over would have me telling the author to go back and do his homework! Even if it is a visually appealing product. 🙂

  4. When I read the title of this book I thought for sure it was going to promote green energy production. How disappointing to read that it doesn’t. You’ve given a balanced opinion Denzil. Happy New Year to you and your family.

  5. Really interesting points Denzil. There is so much to learn in the world that it’s helpful sometimes to have bite size information, especially when I wouldn’t pick up a book on physics! But interesting to note the bias in what is a supposedly up to date book. By the way I noticed you posted on The Peregrine – I’m avoiding that one as I haven’t read it yet – I’m finding it a little hard going at the minute and am currently comfort re-reading all my favourite author’s books!

    • Denzil

      I too revisit favourites from time to time Andrea, and always manage to find much new material. Blessings to you for the year ahead. I always look forward to reading your posts.

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