Tag Archives: Reading

Vaclav Smil and polymathy

Vaclav Smil is an influential thinker who's seen a spike in popularity after Bill Gates put a couple of Smil's books in his summer reading list. Gates also wrote a very positive review of Smil's Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate. Gates also wrote in a review of Harvesting the Biosphere, one of Smil’s latest books: “The word “polymath” was invented to describe people like him.”

I read some of Smil's books, and I have every intention of continuing to do so. Smil was recently interviewed by Ritchie King on Quartz. A few snippets:

"His book count will hit 34 in December, and he’s published hundreds of academic papers".

"I’m the product of the classical, old-fashioned European education that is broad-based".

"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: so, given 52 weeks a year, this comes down to ~1.5 books a week. Assuming quite liberally that he reads 2 hrs a day every day and that 1.5 books correspond to 400-600 pages, it boils down to one page each 90-120 seconds. Not exceptional, mind you, the exceptional part is being so consistent (1/12 of each day spent reading sum up over 50 years to more than 4 years of reading for 4000 books).

"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."

Very true, read also Smil's book on the effects of the invention of the Haber-Bosch cycle.