Sooner, not later: Book review of Peter Doherty's 'A Light history of hot air'

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    Review of Doherty, Peter, (2007) A Light history of hot air, MUP, 9780522854077

    PETER DOHERTY, an Australian biomedical re­searcher, won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1996 and accordingly has substantial credibility among members of the international scientific community. This book, however, has been carefully crafted for a more general audience, and might well be enjoyed while sitting (hatted and sunscreened) on a beach. The blurb suggests that the contents provide an entertaining, albeit informative, account of the ways in which natural resources such as air, water and hydrocarbons have been harnessed by human ingenuity. But Doherty has a more serious intent, which he deliberately takes time to unfold. The subtext to his light-hearted explanations of how candles, light bulbs and refrigerators work, and how we use a variety of fuels to heat, cool and light our lives, is that this planet is running out of non-renewable energy sources. He suggests that we need to use brainpower and research to find alternatives sooner, not later, if we are to ensure the survival of our children.

    Doherty has a gift for making the complex appear straightforward. In lucid prose, uncluttered by diagrams, be explains how everyday devices, appliances and vehicles are currently powered, and compares today's fuels with those used in the recent past. Deep-water whaling, for example, owed its raison d'être to the eighteenth-century discovery that whale oil, which burned cleanly and brightly, was a wonderful fuel for domestic lamps. Switching on a modem electric light is, of course, even better. In describing how we survived, worked, travelled and played before we had access to modem energy sources, Doherty's emphasis is on how technological developments since the Industrial Revolution have resulted in a cleaner, safer and more convenient environment, at least for those of us who live in the developed world. The cost is ever-increasing consumption of fossil fuel reserves, the production of more greenhouse gases, and resulting global warming and political instability.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages1
    VolumeDecember 2007–January 2008
    Specialist publicationAustralian Book Review
    Publication statusPublished - Dec 2007


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