Which decade was the most inventive in human history? Think of postwar innovation in transport, communications, medicine and space exploration and you might plump for the 1950s or 1960s. Or does technology’s transformation of every facet of life mean we should look to the opening years of the 21st century?
Wrong, says Vaclav Smil. The decade that matters is the 1880s. In those ten years Edison’s first electricity generating stations opened and Benz began commercial production of motor vehicles. These innovations alone shaped the modern world like no other, but then the 1880s added the hydroelectric power station, the first electric street railway, Coca-Cola, the ballpoint pen, the electric lift, the steel-framed skyscraper, deodorants and the vending machine.
By contrast, Smil argues, the advances of the past few decades are really just variations on two fundamental discoveries: microprocessors and exploiting radio waves. So take that, Zuckerberg, Bezos and all you “worshippers of the e-world”, as Smil calls those who think human life has been fundamentally reshaped in the past 20 years.
Fans and Foes in Tech
His mission is to put all sorts of scientific and economic claims in their proper historical and international context. When he examines the data that might support the idea of American exceptionalism, he concludes that, judged by indicators of physical and mental well-being, the US is exceptional mainly because it’s so far behind other affluent countries: big on obesity and infant mortality, low on life expectancy and educational attainment. And the long life expectancy of the Japanese isn’t due principally to their consumption of raw fish, tofu and green tea: it’s just that on average they eat considerably less of everything than the rest of us.
Smil is a combative sort. An academic whose specialisms include energy, the environment and population, he is the author of dozens of books, most of which Bill Gates has read. “I wait for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next Star Wars movie,” Gates has written. The pair share an interest in clean energy, although their worldviews differ: “He’s a techno-optimist, I’m a European pessimist,” Smil says.
That approach is evident throughout Numbers Don’t Lie, a collection of short, provocative essays most of which were originally written for IEEE Spectrum, an engineering and applied sciences magazine. It’s a scattergun collection that analyzes innovation, globalization, environmental questions and historical curiosities (how many people did it take to build the Great Pyramid? Fewer than everyone has always assumed, Smil suggests, and he does the physics calculations to prove it).
The long life expectancy of the Japanese isn’t due principally to their consumption of raw fish, tofu and green tea: it’s just that they eat considerably less of everything than the rest of us.
The most interesting connecting thread is energy, and Smil’s repeated warning that the world is going to rely on fossil fuels for much longer than it hopes. Boris Johnson burbles excitedly that “as Saudi Arabia is to oil, Britain is to wind”. Up to a point, prime minister. But look at the energy required to produce wind turbines. If wind-generated electricity were to supply 25 percent of global demand by 2030, building the necessary turbines would require 450 million tons of steel, and making that steel would use fossil fuels equivalent to more than 600 million tons of coal.
And don’t assume that a higher proportion of renewables will mean electricity gets cheaper. In 2000 the German residential electricity price was as low as $.16/kWh; by March 2019, after vast investment in solar and wind, and with those new renewables, Smil says, supplying more than 20 percent of electricity (though recent reports suggest the proportion was closer to 35 percent and growing) the price had more than doubled.
Technical progress tends not to move at the pace of a Silicon Valley upgrade. Smil thinks of Moore’s law — that the speed or processing power of computers doubles every two years — as Moore’s curse, seeding unrealistic expectations about self-driving cars, 3D-printed body parts and the like.
Boris Johnson burbles excitedly that “as Saudi Arabia is to oil, Britain is to wind”. Up to a point, prime minister.
Some change is miraculously swift, he concedes. Only 120 years separate Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering stop-motion photographs of a moving horse and the Nobel prize awarded for a spectrograph that captures chemical reactions on a scale of femtoseconds — one millionth of one billionth of a second. But solar power has crawled along by comparison. Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect in 1839; early photovoltaic (PV) cells were used to power US satellites in the 1960s; yet by 2018 PV generation supplied just 2.2 percent of global electricity — a fraction of the 16 percent produced by hydroelectric stations, which have proved far more effective at decarbonizing electricity generation in the past 25 years than solar and wind.
For all Smil’s devotion to the facts, his harrumphing can sound thoroughly subjective at times. Britain’s Brexiteers may be deluded about our place in the world, but writing us off as “a deindustrialised and worn-out country whose per capita GDP is now just over half of the Irish mean” doesn’t quite tell our whole island story.
Nevertheless his fascination with numbers is infectious. The total weight of cattle on the planet is 600 million tons, he calculates; the total weight of 7.75 billion humans a mere 390 million tons. This year, the world’s first electric-powered container ship is due to be launched. Great news, but Smil works out that a ship carrying 18,000 containers on a typical nonstop month-long voyage from Asia to Europe would need tons of state-of-the art batteries on board — 100,000 tons, in fact. It’s enough to make a Duracell bunny’s head spin. —Richard Preston
In 1935 British climbers on Everest found a body on the lower slopes leading up to the infamous North Col. It belonged to Maurice Wilson, a fantasist who knew nothing about mountaineering or aviation, but had nonetheless devised a plan two years earlier to crash-land a light plane beneath the mountain and ascend to the top, alone. His rucksack revealed the truth. Pinned to it was a little concave mirror, for making triumphant signal flashes from the summit. Inside was his diary. Its last entry read, “Off again, gorgeous day”, before concluding with a faint, illegible scrawl.
Wilson’s solo, amateur and inevitably fatal attempt on the world’s highest mountain has long been dismissed as a “footnote in the history of mountaineering” — a bizarre interlude between the tragic failure of Mallory and Irving in 1924 and the heroic success of Hillary and Tenzing in 1953. The award-winning journalist Ed Caesar has now expanded that footnote into a drivingly paced yet poignant book — a compelling portrait of a broken man who became so fixated on Everest that he tried to climb it.
Maurice Wilson’s last diary entry read, “Off again, gorgeous day.”
Wilson was born in Bradford in 1898, the son of a textile mill owner. He arrived at the Western Front in April 1918, just in time to face a big German infantry assault. Resisting for hours while 400 of his comrades were overrun and killed around him — fewer than 100 men from his battalion survived — he was awarded the Military Cross for his “pluck and determination”.
A few months later he was hit by machine gun fire and invalided home. And, like so many, Wilson never really recovered from the war. He was left with pain, resentment and the “restlessness and anxiety common to those who had returned from the carnage”. He soon married, but in October 1923 emigrated to New Zealand. By the time his wife joined him, he had taken up with another woman, a fashion designer. A string of inconclusive emigrations and relationships — with other designers and dressmakers, curiously — ensued. He tried Canada and South Africa. Nothing stuck.
By 1932 Wilson was back in London. “He had lost the thread of his own story,” Caesar writes; “he yearned for a plot.” He shared his woes and dreams, and travel stories, with Len and Enid Evans, a childless couple with whom he entered some kind of ménage à trois. They danced together in the West End. He slept on their dressing-room floor. “Who danced with whom?” Caesar wonders. “Who watched from a distance?”
Around this time Wilson suffered a breakdown. He found succor from a faith healer who believed in spiritual fasting, and in mystical accounts of the East. And he found his plot: chancing on an account of earlier Everest expeditions, and hearing about a new scheme to fly over the summit, he had a vision. He would fly to Nepal and climb the mountain alone. He had no experience whatsoever, but that was irrelevant: faith and fasting had made him spiritually indomitable.
Rising in the East
Contemporaries thought Wilson was “crazier than a box of frogs”, but perhaps the craziest thing about his plan was that he carried it through. He bought a secondhand Gipsy Moth from the Scarborough Flying Circus — the price was reduced because of accident damage — and took flying lessons. He embarked on winter walks in Snowdonia. He cut maps into thin strips, covering the whole aerial route. He announced his intentions to the newspapers. Then, to many people’s astonishment, on May 21, 1933, he took off.
The flight alone was a desperate adventure. The 5,000 miles, at 80 shatteringly noisy miles per hour, took a little over a fortnight — and the British government, anxious about a diplomatic incident with Nepal, tried to thwart him all the way. The Alps proved insuperable, so Wilson had to go around. In Tunisia he was briefly arrested. In Baghdad, denied a permit to cross Persia, he had to devise a new route using a school atlas bought in the bazaar. In Bahrain he was ordered to turn around, so he surreptitiously sketched a direct, nine-hour route from a map hanging on a wall and headed for the Indian coast, even though his fuel tanks were barely sufficient. More than once on that last leg he was woken by the sound of his plane entering a dive.
Contemporaries thought Wilson was “crazier than a box of frogs”, but perhaps the craziest thing about his plan was that he carried it through.
The British authorities in India impounded his Gipsy Moth, but “there was no quit in Wilson”. He sold his plane and started off for Everest, on foot, disguised as a Buddhist holy man.
Caesar makes something of this costume. Previous commentators — Caesar is not the first to tell this story — have claimed that Wilson was in some way sexually “deviant”. There was that ménage à trois, and talk of a woman’s shoe found on the mountain; Wilson also took a curious treatise, Sexual Life in Ancient Greece, all the way to Everest. Caesar tracks down a great-nephew, who claims to be taking a secret to his grave, while insisting “he weren’t queer”. Caesar’s tentative conclusion — which is not new and not entirely convincing — is that Wilson was a cross-dresser. Was the whole story, he wonders, “born out of an unsettled sense of his true self”?
Perhaps. Mountaineers have long sought the true self in the mountains. And in a grim sense Wilson found himself on Everest. Without technical skills or equipment — at one desperate point he considered making crampons out of rope and tin cans — he had no chance. Arriving at the base of the mountain on April 16, 1934, he succeeded in climbing little more than 1,500 feet of the 8,000 that stretched towards the summit before that last “gorgeous” day of May 31. He rarely doubted himself. He never gave up. Everest killed him just the same.
The British expedition of 1935 buried Wilson in a crevasse. Since then his body has reappeared and been seen at least four times, the last time by an American climber, who took his jawbone as a souvenir. This book is a finer memorial — an urgent and humane story that invites not mockery of a madman, but pity and admiration. It is a small classic of the biographer’s art. —James McConnachie