Simple Science is Sometimes the Best Science


Many people think that important science always involves sophisticated mathematics, high-powered supercomputers, or expensive technical instruments. A recent book demonstrates that this is not always the case. David MacKay, Professor of Physics at Cambridge University, published a very influential book in 2009 titled "Sustainable Energy: Without the hot air", available for free download at http://www.withouthotair.com/. A review in Physics World stated it is ‘a book every budding physicist should read – and perhaps also … the one every working physicist would like to have written.’ This book has probably had a greater impact on science and society than any other scientific publication in the last couple of years, but it involves physics no more complicated than application of Newton’s laws of motion. MacKay uses data, logic, and simple math to arrive at important conclusions. He systematically calculates the maximum amounts of energy that can be produced by renewable energy sources in Britain and shows that it is not physically possible to meet Britain’s energy needs using renewable energy alone. This conclusion is very important, but MacKay also shows why some forms of renewable energy such as solar are much more promising than others such as biofuels. His conclusions will help determine where future scientific research funds will be funneled and therefore what path research on renewable energy will take. Though the science MacKay used is simple, the conclusions are important enough that he was appointed as the chief scientific advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change shortly after the book was published. Britain is now conducting studies to decide whether to support large-scale deployment of tidal power, the form of renewable energy that MacKay most strongly endorsed for Britain in his book.

The enormous impact of MacKay’s book may help dispel some misconceptions about science. Important science doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated, and sometimes it is published in books rather than scientific journals (remember "The Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin and "Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica" by Isaac Newton?). Society needs clear-headed thinkers like David MacKay to show us how to address some of the pressing scientific problems of our time such as global climate change and peak oil. And the general public can learn a lot about the future of society by reading MacKay’s book.

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About johncayers

John C. Ayers is a Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University. As a geochemist he specializes in sustainability and also the chemistry of natural waters. He has been PI on 5 and co-Pi on 2 grants from the National Science Foundation, and has a publication h-index of 14. He has been Associate editor of American Mineralogist and Geochemical Transactions of the American Chemical Society, and does GIS consulting for the ERS group. He is currently writing a book titled " Sustainability: The Problems of Peak Oil, Global Climate Change, and Environmental Degradation."
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