Sunday, August 11, 2013

Vaclav Smil - A Polymath

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The other day, while traveling in a plane, the journey was a bit turbulent for a couple of minutes. I was thinking of  the number of factors that need to come together in the right manner for a successful air travel, not to forget the plane itself that is an engineering marvel of metal and electronics. 

The day after that, on my facebook page, i read a comment about a person whose books Bill Gates is racing to read. I read the linked article  and here are a few points/quotes that stood out of my reading the article. For a non-fiction buff like me, his books only mean more addition to my already piling up To-Read List.

Vaclav Smil, a canadian Professor Emeritus, who taught in the department of Environment and Geography at the University of Manitoba until 2011, can rightly be described as an interdisciplinary scholar/ Polymath.

His educational background is quite interesting- to quote Smil "I’m the product of the classical, old-fashioned European education that is broad-based. You want to get your degree in the world, you have to study all sorts of things. I studied what the Germans call the Naturwissenschaften, the natural sciences. Everything from biology to geology. How the clouds are formed, how the animals live, and what makes the rocks. So I know about nature. Period."

About his reading -- "I’ve read about 80 books a year for the past 50 years. I come from cultural breeding. I don’t have a cellphone. When you spend all your time checking your cellphone messages, or updating your Facebook (of course I don’t have a Facebook page) then you don’t have any time for reading."
Note: His book count will hit 34 in December, and he’s published hundreds of academic papers. He is 69 years old.

On his book "Harvesting the Biosphere" - Harvesting the biosphere is still the most fundamental human activity. Without that, everybody’s dead, really. We could do quite well without microchips, or the business site of Atlantic Monthly, the gated communities, Guccis, and high growth GDP. But we cannot do without harvesting the crops and cutting down the wood. No human civilization could ever sever our dependence on photosynthesis.

On the most important invention in the past 150 years -- "If you ask “what has been the most important invention of the past 100, 150 years?” it’s been the synthesis of ammonia. If we could not synthesize ammonia by taking nitrogen from the air, hydrogen from natural gas and pressing them together in the Haber-Bosch cycle… if we could not do this to make nitrogen fertilizers, we could not grow enough food for about 40% of people. So you are talking about something like three billion people. In existential terms, that is the most important invention."

On why a link to Boeing’s homepage on his homepage ?
"Because I like planes. As a guy who thinks about systems, this is one of the ultimate systems things. You have to have perfect materials, you have to have aluminum and steel, you have to have a prime mover—the beautiful engine. I wrote a whole book about the prime movers of globalization, about jet engines and about diesel engines. To fly them, you have to have these electronic controls, and you have to check the weather, and you need satellites and communication. It’s amazing. It’s a super system. Plus, you have to have the airport with the runways built from heavy concrete. It’s a beautiful system."

Link to Vaclav Smil's HomePage
Link to Vaclav Smil's Amazon Page

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