Size: How it Explains the World

From the New York Times bestselling author of How the World Really Works, a wide-ranging look at the most fundamental governing principle of our world: size, whose laws, limits, and peculiarities offer the key to understanding health, wealth, and even happiness

“No one writes about the great issues of our time with more rigor or erudition than Vaclav Smil.” — Elizabeth Kolbert

To answer the most important questions of our age, we must understand size. Neither bacteria nor empires are immune to its laws. Measuring it is challenging, especially where complex systems like economies are concerned, yet mastering it offers rich rewards: the rise of the West, for example, was a direct result of ever more accurate and standardized measurements.

Using the interdisciplinary approach that has won him a wide readership, Smil draws upon history, earth science, psychology, art, and more to offer fresh insight into some of our biggest challenges, including income inequality, the spread of infectious disease, and the uneven impacts of climate change. Size explains the regularities—and peculiarities—of the key processes shaping life (from microbes to whales), the Earth (from asteroids to volcanic eruptions), technical advances (from architecture to transportation), and societies and economies (from cities to wages). This book about the big and the small, and the relationship between them, answers the big and small questions of human existence:

  • What makes a human society too big? What about a human being?
  • Which alternative energy sources have the best chance of scaling and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels?
  • Why do tall people make more money?
  • What makes a face beautiful? How about a cathedral?
  • How can changing the size of your plates help you lose weight?

The latest masterwork of “an ambitious and astonishing polymath who swings for fences” (Wired) Size is a mind-bending journey that turns the modern world on its head. 

May 16, 2023 SIZE  published in the US (William Morrow) and the UK (Penguin).

Explaining the key processes shaping size in nature, society and technology, Smil busts myths around proportions – from bodies to paintings and the so-called golden ratio – tells us what Jonathan Swift got wrong in Gulliver’s Travels – the giant Brobdingnagian’s legs would buckle under their enormous weight – and dives headfirst into the most contentious issue in ergonomics: the size of aeroplane seats.

It is no exaggeration to say this fascinating and wide-ranging tour de force will change the way you look at absolutely everything.

Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure

From the New York Times-bestselling author, a new volume on the history of human ingenuity—and its attendant breakthroughs and busts.

The world is never finished catching up with Vaclav Smil. In his latest and perhaps most readable book, Invention and Innovation, the prolific author—a favorite of Bill Gates—pens an insightful and fact-filled jaunt through the history of human invention. Impatient with the hype that so often accompanies innovation, Smil offers in this book a clear-eyed corrective to the overpromises that accompany everything from new cures for diseases to AI. He reminds us that even after we go quite far along the invention-development-application trajectory, we may never get anything real to deploy. Or worse, even after we have succeeded by introducing an invention, its future may be marked by underperformance, disappointment, demise, or outright harm.

Drawing on his vast breadth of scientific and historical knowledge, Smil explains the difference between invention and innovation. He then looks at three different types of inventions.

Inventions that failed to dominate as promised:

  • Airships
  • Nuclear fission
  • Supersonic flight

Inventions that turned disastrous:

  • Leaded gasoline
  • DDT
  • Chlorofluorocarbons

Inventions we have long been promised (and that would be highly beneficial):

  • Travel in vacuum (hyperloop)
  • Nitrogen-fixing cereals
  • Nuclear fusion

Finally, he offers a “wish list” of inventions that we most urgently need to confront the staggering challenges of the twenty-first century.

Filled with engaging examples and pragmatic approaches, this book is a sobering account of the folly that so often attends human ingenuity—and how we can, and must, better align our expectations with reality.

February 14, 2023 MIT Press published Invention and Innovation

MIT Press published Invention and Innovation on February 14.

From the New York Times-bestselling author, a new volume on the history of human ingenuity—and its attendant breakthroughs and busts.

The world is never finished catching up with Vaclav Smil. In his latest and perhaps most readable book, Invention and Innovation, the prolific author—a favorite of Bill Gates—pens an insightful and fact-filled jaunt through the history of human invention. Impatient with the hype that so often accompanies innovation, Smil offers in this book a clear-eyed corrective to the overpromises that accompany everything from new cures for diseases to AI. He reminds us that even after we go quite far along the invention-development-application trajectory, we may never get anything real to deploy. Or worse, even after we have succeeded by introducing an invention, its future may be marked by underperformance, disappointment, demise, or outright harm.

Drawing on his vast breadth of scientific and historical knowledge, Smil explains the difference between invention and innovation, and looks not only at inventions that failed to dominate as promised (such as the airship, nuclear fission, and supersonic flight), but also at those that turned disastrous (leaded gasoline, DDT, and chlorofluorocarbons). And finally, most importantly, he offers a “wish list” of inventions that we most urgently need to confront the staggering challenges of the twenty-first century.

Filled with engaging examples and pragmatic approaches, this book is a sobering account of the folly that so often attends human ingenuity—and how we can, and must, better align our expectations with reality.

How the World Really Works

What makes the modern world work? The answer to this deceptively simple question lies in four “grand transitions” of civilization – in populations, agriculture, energy, and economics – which have transformed the way we live.

We have never had so much information at our fingertips and yet most of us don’t know how the world really works. This book explains seven of the most fundamental realities governing our survival and prosperity. From energy and food production, through our material world and its globalization, to risks, our environment and its future, How the World Really Works offers a much-needed reality check – because before we can tackle problems effectively, we must understand the facts.

American edition of How the World Really Works was published in New York on May 10, 2022

American edition of How the World Really Works was published in New York on May 10, 2022. Here are the links to the book’s reviews in New York TimesWashington PostNew ScientistKirkus Review, Reason and NETZERO Watch, as well as an excerpt published in TIME

www.nytimes.com/2022/05/11/books/review/how-the-world-really-works-vaclev-smil.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/05/25/inconvenient-truths-about-decarbonizing-economy

How the World Really Works review: The tech that underpins society | New Scientist

HOW THE WORLD REALLY WORKS | Kirkus Reviews

Civilization Runs on Ammonia, Plastic, Steel, and Cement—for Now (reason.com)

https://www.netzerowatch.com/how-the-world-really-works-a-scientists-guide-to-our-past-present-and-future/?mc_cid=90ada3c8ef&mc_eid=052b174209

https://time.com/6175734/reliance-on-fossil-fuels/

How the World Really Works

What makes the modern world work? The answer to this deceptively simple question lies in four “grand transitions” of civilization – in populations, agriculture, energy, and economics – which have transformed the way we live.

We have never had so much information at our fingertips and yet most of us don’t know how the world really works. This book explains seven of the most fundamental realities governing our survival and prosperity. From energy and food production, through our material world and its globalization, to risks, our environment and its future, How the World Really Works offers a much-needed reality check – because before we can tackle problems effectively, we must understand the facts.