The Science Book of the Decade: Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet, by Tom Murphy

May 30, 2021 by Joshua
in Art, Education, Nature, Nonjudgment

I didn’t think of how small my building’s elevators were when I bought a sofa after moving into my current apartment. It didn’t fit. The deliverymen tried to bring it up the stairs too. They made the first landing, but couldn’t make the turn to go up the next flight.

They had to take it back. I ended up paying a $300 restocking fee plus big tips for the deliverymen’s extra efforts. Plus I lost weeks with no sofa. Now I know my home’s limits. Living within them is no problem when I know them, only when I didn’t. A few minutes of measurement and geometry could have saved me that trouble and improved my life.

Can homo sapiens’ elevator, also known as Earth, fit us all in? As with my sofa, maybe a bit of calculation is worth saving the trouble of finding out after it’s too late. We’re past the point of eyeballing it. Our sofa is our population. The restocking fee might be civilization or billions of lives.


I doubt even those who study sustainability most can answer Important questions like

  • Can fusion save us? Will it?
  • What works between solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal, and other options? What doesn’t? Why not?
  • What unintended side-effects are we missing?
  • Do we risk losing civilization? If so, how great is the risk?
  • If we take the gloves off, can geoengineering and other last-ditch efforts work?
  • How hard will saving it be?
  • What do we have to do to make it?

These questions have answers, whether we find them out or not. There are a lot of books on the environment. I’ve read a lot of them. Most just describe our situation and what will happen if we don’t fix it. Some talk about what we can do, but they don’t help us understand. They don’t describe the patterns, just the results or instruction. We have to trust the writer.

We’ve all heard to eat less meat. How much less? Will all the things they tell us to do solve the problems? How can I tell? What if I don’t eat less meat? Between eating meat or not, why can’t I see any difference in the world? Should I bother trying or just enjoy life to the max?

We’re just told the problems and what to do. Maybe school should have taught us but it didn’t. After decades of poor science education, few teachers know how to teach science. They spout facts and instruction. Most analysis and activism is done without context or knowing nature’s patterns, based on feelings. Some envision a world of 10 billion thriving, others a collapse well before.

Sustainability leadership is my life passion and frankly I don’t find most resources on the environment useful or readable. From the IPCC report Greta Thunberg gave to Congress to An Inconvenient Truth to articles suggesting “one little thing you can do for the environment,” they describe results and tell us what to do. They don’t help us understand beyond “coral reefs are bleaching” and oversimplifications like “CO2 acts like a blanket.” We have to take their word things like biodiversity is good and pollution is bad.

Even knowing all the data doesn’t tell us the patterns. Will buying an electric vehicle matter? Does flying matter? How much? Enough to save lives? How can I tell, or do I have to take your word for it? Most of all, what about when they clash with other values? What if someone else says jobs or energy security is more important? Is there conflict? If so, how do we resolve it? What if we don’t want to emit greenhouse gases but our mother is sick, flying distance away? Or we feel our job depends on it? What about someone else saying the economy depends on my buying more stuff?

Only knowing data but not patterns, we can’t think or decide for ourselves. We throw up our hands. For generations we’ve said we’d act and in fact we have, yet we keep lowering Earth’s capacity to sustain life and society. Could our ignorance be causing our attempts at solutions to augment the problems? Might our current attempts at solutions be exacerbating the problems. Are we on a road to hell paved with good intentions?

A New Hope

Tom Murphy’s new book, Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet, changes all that. It empowers us to understand, think, and act for ourselves.

Murphy earned his PhD at Caltech and teaches at UC San Diego. A decade ago he started the Do The Math blog, where he did more than answer the questions above. He showed how he found the answer so you can too, so you can think for yourself. I called it the best site on the internet (tied with Low Tech Magazine).

Murphy’s sofa-doesn’t-fit-in-the-elevator moment came in 2006, shortly after moving to San Diego, considering the value of his home. He wrote:

I pored over articles on the matter, and found two camps. One camp provided rafts of alarming quantitative analysis of the peril: sub-prime lending, soaring price-to-income ratios, unprecedented unaffordability by average families, vulnerability to any weakness in other sectors. The other camp said that the housing market was manifesting a new normal, that San Diego’s universal appeal would prevent a price drop, that scary lending practices were easily skirted by re-financing before interest payments ballooned. I chose to go with the quantitative analysis over the hand-wavy platitude-based set of beliefs, and am glad that I did.

He sold at the height of the market. On seeing the success of applying quantitative analysis over hand-wavy platitude-based opinion to life, instead of moving to finance like many physicists, he applied it to the environment. He saw hand-wavy platitude-based beliefs and couldn’t stand it. He began applying physics to how we create energy, population, and so on in Do the Math.

To the chagrin of his dedicated audience, since 2015, he posted only once. He told me on one of his appearances on my podcast that he had answered the most important questions so didn’t have more to write.

But he wasn’t done. The blog was an unorganized string of posts. 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.

Learning math and physics here is like learning biology and chemistry when you start gardening or sports. You don’t need to start with anything. You won’t reach your potential, but you won’t get injured either. You’ll learn by doing. Any gardener will soon learn about species and seasons. Lifting weights taught me anatomy and diet. Sailing will teach you tides and fluid dynamics.

Math doesn’t give answers. It doesn’t have values. People Do.

Humans have values. What we consider good, bad, right, and wrong stands outside math and science. Euclid derived all of Euclidean geometry from five axioms but he had to start with them. Likewise, math lets you get from your values to what to do but it doesn’t tell you your values.

Engineers often think math tells you answers. They promote nuclear power for not emitting CO2 or electric vehicles because they are more efficient, but do our deepest values include avoiding CO2 emissions and efficiency?

Murphy describes how nuclear fission and fusion work, their hurdles to implementation, and so on, but then treats the science and technology as only the starting point to decide their value. Most analyses and people confronted with waste and pollution see more efficient sources and less polluting sources as the solution. Obviously, they pollute less, right? Not so fast. You have to do the math. What patterns have we followed before? If we follow them again, what will happen? People familiar with systems may expect systems to behave differently than their elements alone. Murphy does the math and suggests clean fission and fusion would compound our problems. Don’t believe him? You can do the math yourself, but if you just feel confident based on hopes, dreams, and fantasies, you’ll benefit most from his book.

Most science books tell you results of experiment or predict some outcome based on some model. The IPCC reports, for example, tell you our best understanding of our climate measurements and where, given our patterns, we’ll end up or could end up if we change our behavior. The results show lots of numbers. They do math but they don’t enable you to do math. Books like the Uninhabitable Earth describe such predictions in prose, again not enabling you to do math.

Who Should Read It

After generations of this nation denigrating science, math, nature, and education of them, I’m under no preconceptions of how popular this book will become. People feel guilty thinking and talking about the environment when their responsibility comes into play. Still, everyone can understand it. You’ll love it when you work through it.

Every policymaker, CEO, and media programmer will benefit their audiences from knowing this book. Even if leaders don’t read it enough to understand it, this book enables them to have on staff or retainer someone who understands the math from doing it. That leader can choose not to talk in equations. He or she may even wave his or her hands and speak in platitudes, but can start from understanding, not ignorance.

Why You’ll Love the Math

I wrote how mathematics is the language of nature and that Murphy’s book is a symphony. The video below of a master class will illustrate what I mean (and put a big smile on your face, there are more of his videos here). Ben Zander is a conductor, musical director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and bestselling author. He speaks sometimes in English but other times through the piano. Because music is the language of music. Zander can’t communicate in English the sound and meaning of music where a few notes on the piano communicate everything.

As music communicates music, equations describe nature. I know people more fluent in music will hear more than I do from Zander, but I love what I hear and value hearing what I can. You will gain as much reading Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet.

Enjoy the book!

Here is a video Tom and some peers made of the book:

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