Numbers Don’t Lie - by Vaclav Smil

Numbers Don’t Lie - by Vaclav Smil

Read: 2022-02-23

Recommend: 10/10

This book has covered a lot of aspects of our daily lives: transportation, food, GDP growth, etc. I enjoyed how Vaclav visualized those numbers through his verbal description. They helped me understand the current status of electric vehicles, fossil fuel consumption, and food waste. The immediate changes it brings to my own life are: 1) I feel less anxious about air travel; 2) I will waste less food; and 3) I won’t buy an electric car in the near future.


Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:

  1. For example, French GDP in 2010 was US $2.6 trillion: was that value in current or constant monies, and was the conversion from euros to dollars done using the prevailing exchange rate or purchasing power parity? And how would you know?

  2. These mental exercises will put you in touch with the physical realities of the surrounding world while keeping your synapses firing. Understanding numbers simply takes a bit of engagement.

  3. For every dollar invested in vaccination, $16 is expected to be saved in healthcare costs and the lost wages and lost productivity caused by illness and death.

  4. Polio is perhaps the best illustration of this challenge: the worldwide infection rate dropped from some 400,000 cases in 1985 to fewer than 100 by the year 2000, but in 2016 there were still 37 cases in violence-beset regions of northern Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

  5. Confirmed deaths were always in the numerator, but for the denominator there were three different categories of case definition: laboratory-confirmed cases, estimated symptomatic cases, and estimated infections (based on serology or on assumptions regarding the extent of asymptomatic infections). Resulting differences were very large, from less than 1 to more than 10,000 deaths per 100,000 people.

  6. Correlation between height and earnings was first documented in 1915 and has since been confirmed repeatedly, for groups ranging from Indian coal miners to Swedish CEOs.

  7. The lesson is obvious: the easiest way to improve a child’s chances of growing taller is for them to drink more milk.

  8. The world record lifespan is the 122 years claimed for Jeanne Calment, a Frenchwoman who died in 1997.

  9. However, a human being can easily shed 500 g/m2, enough to remove between 550 and 600 watts’ worth of heat.

  10. an experienced marathoner who covers the 42.2 kilometers in 2.5 hours will metabolize at a rate of about 1,300 watts.

  11. If you lose your job, you count as unemployed only if you keep looking for a new one; otherwise, you never get counted again. That is why, when trying to get closer to the “real” unemployment rate, you must look at the labor force participation rate (the number of people available for work as a percentage of the total population), which has recently been in decline.

  12. Numbers may not lie, but individual perceptions of them differ.

  13. World Happiness Report

  14. In the United States, babies are more likely to die and high schoolers are less likely to learn than their counterparts in other affluent countries.

  15. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in 2019 China’s PPP-adjusted GDP was about 32 percent ahead of the US total.

  16. Facebook—that purveyor of constant selfies—had a market capitalization of almost $575 billion, nearly three times more than Toyota, the world’s premier maker of passenger cars

  17. The Second World War was the last major conflict with a decisive US victory; the rest (Korean War, Vietnam War, Afghanistan War, Iraq War) were hard-to-classify mixtures of (costly) defeats and mutual exhaustion.

  18. Energy, material, and transportation fundamentals that enable the functioning of modern civilization and that circumscribe its scope of action are improving steadily but slowly. Gains in performance mostly range from 1.5 to 3 percent a year, as do the declines in cost. And so, outside the microchip-dominated world, innovation simply does not obey Moore’s Law, proceeding at rates that are lower by an order of magnitude.

  19. Shakespeare’s plays and poems in their entirety amount to 5 megabytes, the equivalent of just a single high-resolution photograph, or of 30 seconds of high-fidelity sound, or of 8 seconds of streamed high-definition video.

  20. Other promised fundamental innovations that are still not commercial concerns include hydrogen (fuel cell) powered cars, magnetic levitation (maglev) trains, and thermonuclear energy. The last one is perhaps the most notorious example of an ever-receding innovative achievement.

  21. Human minds have many irrational preferences: we love to speculate about wild and crazy innovations but cannot be bothered to fix common challenges by relying on practical innovation waiting to be implemented. Why do we not improve the boarding of planes rather than delude ourselves with visions of hyperloop trains and eternal life?

  22. For a long time to come—until all energies used to produce wind turbines and photovoltaic cells come from renewable energy sources—modern civilization will remain fundamentally dependent on fossil fuels.

  23. But, much like all other sources of artificial light, they still cannot match natural light’s spectrum. Incandescent lights gave out too little blue light, and fluorescent lights had hardly any red; LEDs have too little intensity in the red part of the spectrum and too much in the blue part. They don’t quite please the eye.

  24. It would be a lot easier to expand our use of solar and wind energy if we had better ways to store the large quantities of electricity we’d need to cover gaps in the flow of that energy.

  25. In 1913, Michelin introduced the removable steel wheel and hence the convenience of having a spare wheel in the trunk—a setup that has endured to this day.

  26. The 2019 State of the American Commute reported that nearly three-quarters of commuters drive alone to work.

  27. the manufacture of an EV creates three times as much toxicity as that of a conventional vehicle.

  28. This means that the average additional chance of dying while flying is just 5/1,000th of the risk of simply being alive. Smoking risks are 100 times as high; ditto for driving in a car. In short, flying has never been safer.

  29. In a rational world—one that valued convenience, time, low energy intensity, and low carbon conversions—the high-speed electric train would always be the first choice for such distances.

  30. But there is now no realistic hope that the US could ever catch up with China: at 29,000 kilometers of high-speed rail that country now has the world’s longest network of rapid trains, connecting all major cities in its populous eastern half.

  31. The first modern short-stalked wheat (based on East Asian plants) was released in Japan in 1935. After the Second World War it was brought to the US and given to Norman Borlaug at CIMMYT (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico), and his team produced two high-yielding semi-dwarf varieties (yielding as much grain as straw) in 1962. Borlaug won the Nobel Prize; the world got unprecedented harvests.

  32. But, in any case, we would need substantially less wheat if we were to be able—finally—to reduce our indefensibly high food waste.

  33. The world is wasting food on a scale that must be described as excessive, inexcusable, and, given all of our other concerns about the state of the global environment and quality of human life, outright incomprehensible. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization puts the annual global losses at 40–50 percent for root crops, fruits, and vegetables, 35 percent for fish, 30 percent for cereals, and 20 percent for oilseeds, meat, and dairy products. This means that, globally, at least one-third of all harvested food is wasted.

  34. 40 percent of American food goes to waste.

  35. In Britain, total food waste amounts to about 10 million tons a year and it is worth about £15 billion (or nearly $20 billion), but inedible parts (skins, peelings, bones) make up only 30 percent of that total—so 70 percent of wasted food could have been eaten! WRAP also documented the whys of the process: nearly 30 percent of the waste is due to “not being used in time,” a third because of the expiry of “best before” dates, about 15 percent because too much was cooked or served, and the rest is due to other reasons, including personal preferences, fussy eating, and accidents.

  36. WRAP estimates that a dollar invested in food waste prevention has a 14-fold return in associated benefits. Is this not persuasive enough?

  37. The benefits of the Mediterranean diet became widely known after 1970, when Ancel Keys published the first installment in his long-term study of nutrition and health in Italy, Greece, and five other countries, and found it was associated with a low incidence of heart disease. The key traits of the diet are a high intake of carbohydrates (mostly bread, pasta, and rice) complemented by pulses (beans, peas, chickpeas) and nuts, dairy products (mostly cheese and yogurt), fruits and vegetables, seafood, and lightly processed seasonal foods, generally cooked with olive oil.

  38. 100 grams of lean beef has 1.5 grams of saturated fat, compared with 1 gram in skinless chicken breast (which actually has more cholesterol)

  39. The average weight of American broilers rose from 1.1 kilograms in 1925 to nearly 2.7 in 2018, while the typical feeding span was cut from 112 days in 1925 to just 47 days in 2018.

  40. we see lower fat and lower sugar intakes as possibly important co-determinants of longevity.

  41. This means that perhaps the single most important explanation of Japan’s longevity primacy is quite simple: moderate overall food consumption, the habit expressed in just four kanji characters, 腹八分目 (hara hachi bun me, “belly eight parts [in ten] full”)—an ancient Confucian precept, and hence yet another import from China. But the Japanese, unlike the banqueting and food-wasting Chinese, actually do practice it.

  42. The key factors behind the decline have included higher consumption of meat and fish (supplying protein and fat formerly derived from milk) and decades of warnings about the deleterious effect of consuming saturated dairy fat. That conclusion has been disproved, and the latest findings claim that dairy fat may actually lower the frequency of coronary heart disease and stroke mortality—but these findings come too late for the declining industry.

  43. It has been marred by poor quality and even outright adulteration: in 2008, some 300,000 babies and children were affected by drinking milk dosed with melamine, an industrial chemical added in order to increase milk’s nitrogen and hence its apparent protein content.

  44. Bacteria account for about 90 percent of the human body’s living cells, and as much as 3 percent of its total weight.

  45. A smartphone consumes just 4 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually

  46. A framed wall from 1960 had roughly the following R-values: aluminum siding (0.6), thin plywood (0.5), air space (0.9), and drywall (0.5). That all adds up to 2.5. But standard brick (0.8) plastered on both sides offered no more than 1.0. Hence even a flimsy, mass-built North American wall insulated at least twice as well as Europe’s plastered brick.

  47. Both in the United States and in the European Union, buildings account for about 40 percent of total primary energy consumption (transportation comes second, at 28 percent in the US and about 22 percent in the EU). Heating and air conditioning account for half of residential consumption, which is why the single best thing we could do for the energy budget is to keep the heat in (or out) with better insulation.

  48. The Paris Agreement of 2015 was lauded as the first accord containing specific national commitments to reduce future emissions. But actually, only a small number of countries made specific promises, there is no binding enforcement mechanism, and even if all those targets were met by 2030, carbon emissions would still rise to nearly 50 percent above the 2017 level. According to the 2018 study by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, the only way to keep the average world temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C would be to put emissions almost immediately into a decline steep enough to bring them to zero by 2050.

  49. what I have called the four pillars of modern civilization—ammonia, steel, cement, and plastics—which will be needed in Africa and Asia in the decades to come.