Powering the Future

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305

Reference Library

"Even the most unreconstructed fossil fuel apologists will admit that in 200 years, oil and coal will probably be found mainly in museum exhibits. How those museums will keep the lights on is still anyone's guess, but physicist Robert B. Laughlin is optimistic that humanity will have plenty of options by the time the last drop of petroleum is gone. In this sardonic and vivid exercise in futurology, Laughlin explores a world in which nuclear power, algae biofuels, and gas made from animal waste help keep civilization running. In his vision, billions of robots on the ocean floor tend tanks of compressed air that power turbines, the Southwest in known affectionately as algae country, and energy traders make their fortunes speculating on the price of chicken manure gas." - Eric Powell, Discover Magazine, November 2011.

"A work of intricate research free of hype, offering serious pros and cons with a sometimes whimsical flourish." - Kirkus Reviews

"Laughlin brings a refreshing, upbeat outlook to our energy future." - Matt Ridley, Wall Street Journal

I wrote Powering the Future at the behest of several colleagues, who independently came to me with concerns about the increasingly unscientific nature of the public discourse about energy. It was a tough problem, they pointed out, because all of the essential facts were already in the public domain but people were not paying attention to them - or getting mixed up when they did pay attention. Part of the difficulty was that slogging through technical literature, difficult and time-consuming in the best of times, had become hopeless even for most scientists because of the sheer mass of material involved. But the other, more sinister, part was that the subject had become extremely politicized. The warring parties had been issuing such volumes rhetorical simplifications that they'd overloaded everyone's brains. One could only cope by telling a wicked joke about the end of the world and changing the subject.

The solution I eventually settled upon had two parts. The first was to divorce energy from climate. This decision outraged a lot of people, for climate is obviously more important than energy in the very long run, and it seems morally reprehensible to separate out the more important thing and discuss it later. However, energy is a much simpler matter to deal with than climate and, perhaps more to the point, a more imminent trouble. The end of fossil fuel - and the terrible warfare that might accompany it - is an event only a few generations away, whereas the climate is a matter of eternity. It is my experience that you solve big problems by dividing them into smaller ones and dealing with the most urgent first. The second part was to write science fiction. The central premise of Powering the Future is that we travel to a time, roughly two centuries from now, when nobody burns carbon out of the ground any more, either because they've banned the practice or because it's gone, and ask: What happened? As is the case with much science fiction, this is not really a discussion about about the future at all but a discussion about the here-and-now packaged in a way that is politically neutral. Events that will take place many generations from now obviously don't threaten any living person's incomes or livelihoods. They can therefore be talked about abstractly, and without bringing up the rather more important (to most people) matter of who is going to pay for what.

The book's prose is filled with humor (some of it obviously black) for a reason. My idea of an effective book of science is Darwin's Origin of Species - something that functions on many levels and can be read either for pleasure or for scientific authority, depending on one's wish. I feel very strongly that science has nothing to do with learned opinions, but rather has to do with doubting things and checking them - preferably with an experiment - and always in a way that is witnessed, i.e. in a way everybody can understand. Moreover, it is my experience that all truly important matters in science are simple, albeit sometimes astonishing. Opacity and dullness constitute one of the surest tipoffs I know that a scientific work is unimportant - as in, "not even wrong," in the words of Wolfgang Pauli. Accordingly, I have worked very hard to make my prose sparkle with fun, even though the subject underneath is deadly serious.

The need to make the book both fun and authoritative is why it's nearly half references. Technical detail is a highly unusual feature for a trade publication, where the normal rule is that every equation diminishes sales. However, in this case it is essential, for the only way to talk authoritatively about a highly politicized subject is to enable every (alleged) fact to be checked easily. This kind of openness is extremely scary for authors, for some mistakes are bound to slip through no matter how assiduously one hunts them down and kills them, and some readers are bound to find these mistakes and conclude from them that the author is a liar and/or ideologue because some of his facts are false. Nonetheless this is what good scientists always do because they are ultra-paranoid about saying wrong things in public and correspondingly committed to the discipline of detailed referencing to expose their own mistakes. The bulk of these references - at least the ones not protected by copyright - are also available at the electronic library I created as I wrote. There is unfortunately no search facility at this library (yet), so the only easy way to navigate it is through the book's prose, which links references logically to subject.

(Basic Books, New York, 2011). (Piper Verlag, Munich, 2012).

Last updated: 20 Nov 11