476: Tom Murphy, part 3: The Science Book of the Decade

June 22, 2021 by Joshua
in Podcast

When I read Tom’s book on sustainability, Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet, I couldn’t believe the book didn’t exist already. I consider it the science book of the decade so invited him back. He shares about his motivation and goals in writing it. You might read my review of the book first, but you can jump into this conversation too.

Here is an excerpt from my review:

He taught a course to non-science undergraduates on the subject, called Energy and the Environment. He used the course to compile his posts, polish them, and make a self-contained comprehensive book. As far as I know, the only one like it, possibly because mathematics is the language of nature, so equations abound, but he explains them, so people who haven’t taken science or math classes since high school can follow.

Showing the math means we don’t have to take his word for it. We can do the math too and think, judge, and act for ourselves. No matter our politics, age, industry, etc, we can access this book equally. The environment involves many branches of science, including physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, systems, and more, as well as fields including engineering, history, politics, philosophy, and more. Murphy brings them together like no other resource I’ve found. Many will shy away from devoting the time that the gravity of our environmental situation demands, but for enabling and empowering every reader to understand, think, judge, and act for themselves, I consider Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet the science book of the decade.

I’ve read and watched a lot of books, videos, and articles. For reference, I consider Sustainability Without the Hot Air by Caltech-trained Cambridge physicist David MacKay the science book of the previous decade, and Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, the science book of the decade before that, by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jørgen Randers. (A video of David MacKay after his book led me to avoid flying, not as a burden but to increase my enjoyment of nature and connection to humans.) Read these three books, and you understand our environment.

But wait, there’s more. Murphy has acted on his findings in his personal life. He didn’t just use an electric car or unplug appliances before doing so was cool, he measured his results and shared how doing so affected his relationships with his wife, peers, and students. He shares his life and profession. This book doesn’t teach raw information, it shares a lifestyle.

I’m not saying the book is easy, only that I find it the most valuable book or resource on the most important area humans have faced as a species, and I’ve read and watched many.

Murphy’s book is glorious. He writes about the wonder of nature, our genius in harnessing it, its limitations, and our folly at not measuring the sofa before trying to jam it into the elevator, or believing the self-serving interests suggesting a “new normal” without justification.

The math is accessible to a non-science undergraduate. To someone with a PhD in physics like me, it is a symphony—pure joy when you understand it, even more when your study it. Beethoven didn’t write his Ninth for one hearing. Yo-Yo Ma has to study pieces and even with my PhD, I have to take time to understand its equations and application. I learn each time I read Murphy. You will too. The payoff is worth it for aesthetic pleasure alone. There are practical benefits to understanding the patterns: unlike Beethoven, the fates of civilization and millions of species, including our own, depend on our understanding and behavior.

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