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Powering the Future: How We Will (Eventually) Solve the Energy Crisis and Fuel the Civilization of Tomorrow 1st Edition

4.1 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0465022199
ISBN-10: 0465022197
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Editorial Reviews


Kirkus Reviews
“A work of intricate research free of hype, offering serious pros and cons with a sometimes whimsical flourish.” 

“An illuminating, ultimately hopeful perspective on energy policy.”
Library Journal
“a pragmatic, authoritative look into energy alternatives for general readers.”


Matt Ridley, Wall Street Journal
“[Powering the Future] is written with cheerfully can-do brio and is full of fascinating calculations.... Mr. Laughlin brings a refreshing, upbeat outlook for our energy future.”

“[A] sardonic and vivid exercise in futurology.”
New Scientist
“Laughlin says many useful things with a pleasing directness.”


About the Author

Robert B. Laughlin is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Physics at Stanford University. In 1998 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the fractional quantum Hall effect. He is the author of The Crime of Reason and A Different Universe. He lives in Palo Alto, California.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1st edition (September 27, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465022197
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465022199
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.1 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,614,309 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Ash Jogalekar TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 1, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In the tradition of physicists writing for the layman, Robert Laughlin has emerged as a writer who pens unusually insightful and thought-provoking books. In his "A Different Universe" he explored the consequences and limitations of reductionism-based physics for our world. In this book he takes an equally fresh look at the future of energy. The book is not meant to be a comprehensive survey of existing and upcoming technologies; instead it's more like an assortment of appetizers designed to stimulate our thinking. For those who want to know more, it offers an impressive bibliography and list of calculations which is almost as long as the book itself.

Laughlin's thinking is predicated on two main premises. The first is that carbon sources are going to eventually run out or become inaccessible (either because of availability or because of legislation). However we will still largely depend on carbon because of its extraordinarily fortuitous properties like high energy density, safety and ease of transportation. But even in this scenario, simple rules of economics will trump most other considerations for a variety of different energy sources. The second premise which I found very intriguing is that we need to uncouple our thinking on climate change from that on energy instead of letting concerns about the former dictate policy about the latter. The reason is that planetary-level changes in the environment are so vast and beyond the ability of humans to control that driving a few more hybrids or curbing carbon emissions will have little effect on millennial events like the freezing or flooding of major continents.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book has the rare combination of being very readable yet highly detailed. The author begins with the premise that in about two hundred years (or earlier) civilization will either choose to phase out fossil fuels or will exhaust the supply of fossil fuels. Prof. Laughlin then accounts for various alternative energies: renewables, nuclear, biomass, etc., and the means of generation, transmission, and storage. The book is written in an engaging and insightful narrative format, and in this way Prof. Laughlin acts as a successful intermediary between the world of Ph.D.s in science and engineering and the general college educated public.

After I finished this book and looked at the detailed and high quality bibliography of thirty pages or so, I realized this book presented in short form what a treatise would do in five hundred pages. The book is sufficiently knowledge dense to merit a second reading, and the audiobook version is excellent as well. "Powering the Future" is a relief from overly politicized writings on sustainable energy. For a straight answer on energy, based on virtually indisputable facts from a leading scientist, this book is essential reading.
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Format: Hardcover
I am an applied physicist actively working in the energy sector and reading energy books for the past six years, and Powering the Future was WELL WORTH the money and time spent reading it. The book is highly educational and thought provoking, with many surprising perspectives I had never considered. Laughlin's writing is easy to understand, entertaining, and fun to read. I especially appreciate that he makes clear what is known fact and what is his or others' speculations. Lastly, I loved seeing how a Nobel Prize winning physicist uses facts, physics, and reason to dissect this extremely complicated, highly interrelated set of problems into a series of solvable pieces.

Laughlin leaves political agenda behind to focus on the physics by resorting to a clever literary device: The book takes place 200 or so years in the future, after burning carbon based fossil fuels is no longer possible, either because they have been completely used up (his prediction) or because of carbon legislation. The technologies needed are the same in either case, but not necessarily what you might naively guess -- things get very different when carbon becomes expensive because it's no longer available in the concentrated underground deposits and we instead have to recover it from the air or ocean.

I rank this book amongst the most useful big picture energy books I have read, including:
The Prize by Daniel Yergin
Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air by David Mackay
Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawkins, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins
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Format: Hardcover
The book clearly is the product of a highly intelligent mind, and Prof. Laughlin presents many aspects of the energy/environment complex from an angle that I find truly refreshing, although they often are on a direct collision course with my own views. As a physicist his approach to the topic is not openly ideological. He instead attempts to describe what WILL happen rather than what is desirable. But I do see a few flaws that render the book less useful for the uninformed lay person as it could - and should - be. Since the topic is global in nature, the description should be global as well, spanning history and continents. Laughlin does not do this. He does not question our current economic paradigm and he acts as if "American Nature" is identical to "Human Nature". It isn't. Cultures differ greatly. And it has become clear, too, that the homo economicus is a myth in itself. In reality people do donate money to charity without benefiting. In reality many people do spend more money for products that are (or are perceived as) more environmentally benign. Many people in Europe subscribed to green energy despite higher prices. People do not behave in strictly economic terms. That, like the origin of economics as "barter", and many other aspects of "modern" economics was fantasized up by Adam Smith. Humans simply are not like that. And "reason" does not only refer to economic behavior. Do we sell our children because it might be economically beneficial? Humans never did that throughout history except in life and death situations.

But there is another flaw that I cannot forgive Prof. Laughlin on cultural grounds. On the one hand he clearly states that economic growth and energy consumption are strongly coupled. I fully agree. There is no sign that they could ever be substantially de-coupled.
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