Mark Twain says, “The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” In that spirit, here are five great books I’ve read lately that you should read, too.
1. The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date
Anyone who reads a lot on the Internet knows that facts are second-class citizens to hyperbole, rumor, and flat-out wrongness. But what’s more alarming is that so much of what we once thought were scientific facts end up being disproved. Textbooks used to teach that a human cell had 48 chromosomes. More than one-third of all animals once classified as extinct are later rediscovered. Depending on the field, huge numbers of studies once considered “groundbreaking” can’t be reproduced in subsequent trials. “Medical knowledge about cirrhosis or hepatitis takes about forty-five years for half of it to be disproven or become out-of-date. This is about twice the half-life of the actual radioisotope samarium-151,” Arbesman writes.
This book will change your perspective about nearly everything you read, regardless of the subject.
2. The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World
Yergin won a Pulitzer Prize for his first book, The Prize. The Quest follows up with what I am convinced is the most detailed-yet-readable summary of how global economies find, secure, and maintain energy ever written. It is an utter tome at more than 800 pages, but you’ll hardly notice; it’s a thrill to read.
Here are a few things I learned from The Quest:
1). Even though America hasn’t built a new nuclear power plant in three decades, nuclear energy output has nearly doubled, as average operating capacity has jumped from 55% in 1980 to 90% today. “That improvement in operating efficiency is so significant in its impact that it can almost be seen as a new source in electric power itself,” Yergin writes.
2). “86 percent of oil reserves in the United States are the result not of what is estimated at time of discovery but of the revisions and additions that come with further development.” In other words, we don’t necessarily need to find more oil. We just need to find new ways to extract more from what we already know we have.
3). “In 2000 shale was just 1 percent of natural gas supply. By 2011 it was 25 percent, and within two decades it could reach 50 percent,” Yergin writes.
Most important, I now realize that the appropriate answer to the question, “Why can’t we just do [latest overly simplified energy idea],” is usually, “Because that costs a trillion dollars and would only supply a small fraction of what we actually need.”
3. Here’s the Deal
David Leonhardt is one of the most thoughtful and coherent economic writers of our time — you just might not recognize his name because he doesn’t write much anymore.
Here’s the Deal — a short e-book that will set you back $1.99 — lays the federal budget bare, exposing exactly what’s causing our deficits, what poses the biggest risk to future deficits, and how we might address the nation’s growing debt. He doesn’t yell or spout ideology. He uses numbers.
“Eventually,” Leonhardt writes, “the country will have to confront the deficit we have, rather than the deficit we imagine. The one we imagine is a deficit caused by waste, fraud, abuse, foreign aid, oil-industry subsidies and vague out-of-control spending. The one we have is caused by the world’s highest health costs (by far), the world’s largest military (by far), a Social Security program built when most people died by age 70 — and, to pay for it all, the lowest tax rates in decades.”