Many environmentalists believe that carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels will cause a climate crisis toward the end of this century. Environmentalists also raise the alarm that we have reached "peak oil" and that fossil fuels will run out by the middle of the century. That both views cannot be true rarely seems to bother those who hold them. Either consequence, we're told, makes the world's conversion to a low-carbon energy system an urgent matter.
Robert Laughlin, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in quantum physics, takes a rather different view. He thinks that "one can't find much actual global warming in present-day weather observations" and that "the final demise of carbon burning is so far away, perhaps ten generations, that it's quite irrelevant to energy problems of today." And so in "Powering the Future" he takes up the problem of energy use two centuries from now, on the assumption that it will take that long for us to run out of, or give up, fossil fuels.
The book is written with a cheerfully can-do brio and is full of fascinating calculations—he says that damming Canadian rivers and flooding 0.5% of its land surface, for instance, would provide hydro-power to meet all the world's electricity needs for a month. As a physicist he brings useful insights to the solar, nuclear and even garbage-incineration debate.