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Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity's Unappeasable Appetite for Energy Hardcover – January 17, 2006

4.4 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Ever since cultivating fire, the human species has depended on tapping new sources of energy for survival, writes global historian Crosby (Germs, Seeds, and Animals: Studies in Ecological History). This enjoyable, humorously anecdotal study provides a succinct overview of our voracious "appetite for energy," most particularly the inventive (and indiscriminate) exploitation of sunshine in its fossilized forms—peat, coal, oil and natural gas. The hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic era depended on muscle power to move through their world, and not much changed, Crosby notes, until the advent of the Industrial Revolution, when the first steam-powered engine was invented in 1712 by ironmonger Thomas Newcomen (James Watt, Crosby says, merely improved on Newcomen's design). Advances in harnessing energy trapped in organic matter followed quickly: whale oil used for lighting was supplanted by coal gas, kerosene distilled from petroleum and finally Thomas Edison's light bulb—itself powered by the electricity generated from coal and oil. This history explores how an ingenious and adaptable humankind found ever more efficient ways to harness "concentrated sun energy." Crosby is optimistic about the Earth's future—with the caveat that that future could be bleak without another energy breakthrough. B&w illus. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

The last shall be first: Crosby concludes that civilization has maximized its exploitation of solar energy (whether in renewable or fossilized form) and will have to go nuclear if its energy desires are to be satiated. Tracing the historical route to this impasse, the author's trim tome has a droll tone that should make it considerably more appealing than the current torrent of grimmer, longer, and agenda-driven books on this subject. A veteran ecological historian, Crosby structures his story by the landmarks of energy technology--fire, the dynamo, the internal-combustion engine. And he emphasizes the indolent element of human nature: we like to get more work done with less effort. Surprisingly, cooking starts off Crosby's survey: it eased digestion, increased edibles, and probably helped induce the domestication of animals. These labor savers, Crosby illustrates in anecdotal style, reigned as the muscle-power maximum of energy production until Thomas Newcomen's 1712 steam engine ignited the Industrial Revolution. An entertaining history of the energy conundrum. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (January 17, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393059359
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393059359
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.8 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #134,075 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
In less than 170 pages of lively and entertaining prose, the author presents what essentially amounts to the story of the human race: approximately from the birth of homo sapiens to today. The main theme around which this story is woven is the need for and use of energy. Starting with food (from hunting and gathering to agriculture) to power muscles, all the way to the more energy-dense fossil fuels to power steam engines and (later) internal combustion engines, and culminating with nuclear fission reactors and future prospects for nuclear fusion reactors, the author discusses humanity's quest for greater and greater quantities of energy. The book is well-written and in an engaging style. Although the reader may feel that the author occasionally seems to deviate from the book's main theme, it eventually becomes clear that he is not, but simply meandering his way along towards his original goal. Overall this is a very informative sweeping overview of humanity's quest for energy.
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Format: Hardcover
There aren't many books written for everybody. This one fits squarely in that limited niche. After all, fuel, in one form or another, is a universal human demand. Since the science of energy use and climate change appears to miss many readers, Alfred Crosby has decided to lead readers along a smoother path. It's clear, as the fuel crisis grows more visible and corrective action is in such short supply, the more people understand what is happening, the better. Ignorance of our situation, in Crosby's view, is a major roadblock to prompting us to consider our options carefully.

In this highly readable account, he explains clearly our dependence on fossil fuels and the impact of that reliance. He lines out how human fuel use has progressed over the centuries. Our awareness of the true source of those fuels, our host star, came late. Almost too late. Our energy use has gone through a series of mighty jumps. At one time we used as much fuel as we could consume as food. From that balance we have progressed to using about 115 times as much energy as our ancestors did. How has this circumstance come about?

The sun, of course, is the foundation of all our energy. Ancient trees, covered over with layers of soil turned rock, became the coal foundation for industrial development. Ancient bodies through a similar process became oil, hence petroleum. Your electricity likely derives from those old trees, while your auto belches the last remains of those animal corpses. Even the replacement energy form of wind is solar driven. Nuclear power, especially the promised version of fusion, relies on our knowledge of mechanisms making sunlight. With oil manifestly running out, Crosby notes, more attention must be given to the alternatives.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Some of us have read Alfred Crosby’s earlier books The Columbian Exchange and Measure of Reality, these fit with Children of the Sun and its story of our use of energy.

The European explorers great success in the Americas 500 years ago as explained in the Columbian exchange was exporting deadly germs that decimated American native’s and importing life supporting potatoes and corn. An example of some Children of the Sun getting ahead exploiting opportunities created by germs and plants. Crosby discusses an easily overlooked energy accomplishment, cooking. We are so accustomed to cooking it takes a Crosby to remind us how cooking dwarfs more recent energy accomplishments our cousins, apes and monkeys lack fire, can’t cook and so need huge guts and enormous teeth to chew and digest what we cook. Crosby surprised me by mentioning as an energy accomplishment our long time partnership with dogs. Dogs guard at night allowing us to rest and they also help hunt. Crosby allows that they, like our horses, chose us as much as we them. Not all animals are like this – think of Hyenas and Rhinos. Horses help plow (with our harnesses) and carry.
After discussing agriculture as energy harvesting as well as early work with water wheels and windmills, Crosby moves to mechanization and England. England’s coal and her culture were suitable for industrialization. A landscape as perfect for the appearance of the steam engine as had been the Indus valley with its climate, water and grain for civilization and settlements thousands of years earlier. Savery, Newcommon and Watt were all English. These creators of engines were rooted in coal and trellised on already busy machine shops that could build valves and tight fitting pistons.
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Format: Hardcover
As a short (167pp) and enjoyable history of the place of energy through human history, I can recommend Children of the Sun, by Alfred w. Crosby. This chronological survey of the subject -- spanning from the introduction of fire (at the time when yoga tights were made from mammoth fur) through the various fossil fuels and uses and ending with nuclear - is told with clear prose and is liberally sprinkled with enlightening and entertaining (or humourously disturbing) historical anecdotes, references to names we've heard and trivia. A couple of examples:

1. to amuse Louis XV, "Jean-Antoine Nollet... arranged 180 gendarmes in a circle holding hands and had one of them touch the brass ball in the lid of the charged Leyden jar [early battery]. The shock ran through all 180 instantly and they jumped and gasped in perfect Unison. The King loved it."
2. "The Chicago World's Fair, better known as the Columbian Exposition [ 400th anniversary of Columbus arriving in the Americas] or the White City, was officially opened at a locale a few miles from downtown on May 1, 1893 . (a year late, you may notice, but major demonstrations of a civilizations prowess aren't thrown together in a day.)
3. [ regarding the first ever execution by electricity] The current was turned off; doctors are examined Kemmler and pronounced him dead. One of the witnesses, Dr. Alfred W. Southwick, an advocate of electrocution as a merciful means of execution, declared: "there is the culmination of ten years work and study. We live in a higher civilization from this day." But Kemmler's chest still rose and fell: he seemed to be breathing. The switch was thrown again. Kemmler when rigid again. For an instant there was a blue flame at his neck. His clothes caught fire. There is a very strong smell of burning meat.
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