New Book: Out of Gas

From: Al Koop <>
Date: Sun Feb 08 2004 - 15:36:27 EST

A new book on fossil fuel depletion by the Caltech vice provost and
physicist, David Goodstein, has just come out. This message is
appearing more and more frequently in various public forums. Who knows
when major media and/or political figures will start to make this a
significant issue. What follows is a biography of Goodstein and then
two reviews of his new book, OUT OF GAS: The End of the Age of Oil.


Dr. David L. Goodstein, Ph.D., is Vice Provost and Professor of Physics
and Applied Physics at Caltech, where he has been on the faculty for
more than 35 years. In 1995, he was named the Frank J. Gilloon
Distinguished Teaching and Service Professor. In 1999, Dr. Goodstein was
awarded the Oersted Medal of the American Association of Physics
Teachers, and in 2000, the John P. McGovern Medal of the Sigma Xi
Society. He has served on and chaired numerous scientific and academic
panels, including the National Advisory Committee to the Mathematical
and Physical Sciences Directorate of the National Science Foundation. He
is a founding member of the Board of Directors of the California Council
on Science and Technology. His books include States of Matter (Prentice
Hall, 1975, Dover, 1985) and Feynman's Lost Lecture (Norton, 1996),
written with his wife, Dr. Judith Goodstein. In the 1980's he was
Director and host of The Mechanical Universe, an educational television
series that has been used by millions of students all over the world.

In recent times, while continuing to teach and conduct research in
experimental Condensed Matter Physics, Dr. Goodstein has turned his
attention to issues related to science and society. In articles,
speeches and colloquia he has addressed conduct and misconduct in
science, the end of exponential growth of the scientific enterprise, and
issues related to fossil fuel and the climate of Planet Earth.

Dr. Goodstein has been Caltech's Vice Provost since 1988.

New York Times Review

February 8, 2004

'Out of Gas': They're Not Making More

 The End of the Age of Oil.
By David Goodstein.
Illustrated. 140 pp. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. $21.95.

 If all you knew about David Goodstein was the title of his book, you
might imagine him to be one of those insufferably enthusiastic prophets
of doom, the flannel-shirted, off-the-grid types who take too much
pleasure in letting us know that the environment is crumbling all around
us. But Goodstein, a physicist, vice provost of the California Institute
of Technology and an advocate of nuclear power, is no muddled idealist.
And his argument is based on the immutable laws of physics.

 The age of oil is ending, he says. The supply will soon begin to
decline, precipitating a global crisis. Even if we substitute coal and
natural gas for some of the oil, we will start to run out of fossil
fuels by the end of the century. ''And by the time we have burned up all
that fuel,'' he writes, ''we may well have rendered the planet unfit for
human life. Even if human life does go on, civilization as we know it
will not survive.''

 He's talking about 100 years from now, far enough in the future, you
might say, that we needn't worry for generations. Surely some
technological fix will be in place by then, some new source of energy,
some breakthrough. But with a little luck, many readers of these pages
will live until 2030 or 2040, or longer. Their children may live until
2070 or 2080, and their grandchildren will easily survive into the 22nd
century. We're talking about a time in the lives of our grandchildren,
not some warp drive, Star Trek future.

 And what about that technological fix? ''There is no single magic
bullet that will solve all our energy problems,'' Goodstein writes.
''Most likely, progress will lie in incremental advances on many
simultaneous fronts.'' We might finally learn to harness nuclear fusion,
the energy that powers the sun, or to develop better nuclear reactors,
or to improve the efficiency of the power grid. But those advances will
require a ''massive, focused commitment to scientific and technological
research. That is a commitment we have not yet made.'' Drilling in the
Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, and scouring the energy resources of
national lands across the West might help the constituents of Senator
Ted Stevens of Alaska and Vice President Dick Cheney's friends in the
energy industry, but it won't solve the problem.

 Goodstein's predictions are based on a sophisticated understanding of
physics and thermodynamics, and on a simple observation about natural
resources. The supply of any natural resource follows a bell curve,
increasing rapidly at first, then more slowly, eventually peaking and
beginning to decline. Oil will, too.

 It has already happened in the United States. In 1956, Marion King
Hubbert, a geophysicist with the Shell Oil Company, predicted that oil
production in the United States would peak sometime around 1970. His
superiors at Shell dismissed the prediction, as did most others in the
oil business. But he was right. Hubbert's peak occurred within a few
years of when he said it would, and American oil production has been
declining ever since. There was no crisis, because this country tapped
the world's reserves, and the supply increased along with demand.

 Now Goodstein and many others have shown that the same methods, when
applied to global oil production and resources, predict a Hubbert's peak
in world oil supplies within this decade, or, in the best-case
scenarios, sometime in the next. Once that happens, the world supply of
oil will begin to decline gradually, even though large quantities of oil
will remain in the ground. The world demand for oil will continue to
increase. The gap between supply and demand will grow. But this time the
gap will be real; there will be no other source of oil (from the moon,
Neptune or Pluto?) to flow into the system.

 When the supply falls and the demand rises, the price will go up.
That's no problem, economists say. With the high price, companies will
go after more costly oil, and the market will take care of things.

 Maybe not, Goodstein replies. ''In an orderly, rational world, it might
be possible for the gradually increasing gap between supply and demand
for oil to be filled by some substitute. But anyone who remembers the
oil crisis of 1973 knows that we don't live in such a world, especially
when it comes to an irreversible shortage of oil.''

 In the best-case scenario, he writes, we can squeak through a bumpy
transition to a natural-gas economy while nuclear power plants are built
to get us past the oil crisis. In the worst case, ''runaway inflation
and worldwide depression leave many billions of people with no
alternative but to burn coal in vast quantities for warmth, cooking and
primitive industry.''

 President Bush has pointed to hydrogen as the ultimate answer to our
need for transportation fuels, but Goodstein correctly points out that
hydrogen is not a source of energy. It is a fuel produced by using
energy. We can use coal to produce it, or solar power, or something
else, but it is only a way of converting energy into a form that can be
used in vehicles; it doesn't do anything to ease the transition away
from oil.

 ''Out of Gas'' -- a book that is more powerful for being brief -- takes
a detour to explain some of the basics of energy budgets, thermodynamics
and entropy, and it does so with the clarity and gentle touch of a
master teacher.

 Then Goodstein gets back on message. Even nuclear power is only a
short-term solution. Uranium, too, has a Hubbert's peak, and the current
known reserves can supply the earth's energy needs for only 25 years at
best. There are other nuclear fuels, and solar and wind power might help
at the fringes. But ''the best, most conservative bet for ameliorating
the coming fuel crisis is the gradual improvement of existing
technologies,'' he writes. We can improve the efficiency of lights, tap
solar power with cheap photoelectric cells and turn to nuclear power.
The problem is that we have not made a national or global commitment to
do so. ''Unfortunately, our present national and international
leadership is reluctant even to acknowledge that there is a problem. The
crisis will occur, and it will be painful.''

 I hope Goodstein is wrong. I wish we could dismiss him as an addled
environmentalist, too much in love with his windmill to know which way
the wind is blowing. On the strength of the evidence, and his argument,
however, we can't. If he's right, I'm sorry for my kids. And I'm
especially sorry for theirs.

 Paul Raeburn's next book, ''Acquainted With the Night,'' a memoir of
his children's experiences with depression and bipolar disorder, will be
published in May.

Second Review

 The coming global peak in oil production is a grave concern, according
 new book

PASADENA, Calif.--Ancient Persians tipped their fire arrows with it, and
Native Americans doctored their ails with it. Any way you look at
petroleum,the stuff has been around for a long time. Problem is, it's
not going to be around much longer--or at least not in the quantities
necessary to keep our Hummers humming.

To address the choices society will soon face in the inevitable peaking
of worldwide oil production, California Institute of Technology physics
professor David Goodstein has written a new book titled Out of Gas: The
End of the Age of Oil. Goodstein assumes that global production will
have peaked by about 2010--a view widely held by geologists--and that
the peak itself will be the beginning of serious and widespread social
and economic consequences.

"Some say that the world has enough oil to last for another forty years
or more, but that view is almost surely mistaken," writes Goodstein,
whose past forays into the world of science communication have included
his award-winning PBS series The Mechanical Universe, as well as the
best-selling book Feynman's Lost Lecture.

Goodstein writes that the worldwide peak will almost surely be highly
disruptive, if not catastrophic, considering the difficult American
experience of the early 1970s, when U.S. production met its own peak.
Since then, U.S. production has been on a downslope that will continue
until the tap runs dry.

But even the 1970s' experience would be nothing compared to a worldwide
peak, Goodstein explains. Indeed, the country then experienced serious
gas shortages and price increases, exacerbated in no small part by the
Arab oil embargo. But frustration and exasperation aside, there was oil
to buy on the global market if one could locate a willing seller. By
contrast, the global peak will mean that prices will thereafter rise
steadily and the resource will become increasingly hard to obtain.
Goodstein says that the worst-case scenarios are fairly easy to
envision. At worst, after the so-calle Hubbert's peak (named after M.
King Hubbert, the Texas geophysicist who was nearly laughed out of the
industry in the 1950s for even suggesting that a production peak was
possible), all efforts to deal with the problem on an emergency basis
will fail. The result will be inflation and depression that will
probably result indirectly in a decrease in the global population. Even
the lucky survivors will find the climate a bit much to take, because
billions of people will undoubtedly rely on coal for warmth, cooking,
and basic industry, thereby spewing a far greater quantity of greenhouse
gases into the air than that which is currently released.

"The change in the greenhouse effect that results eventually tips
Earth's climate into a new state hostile to life. End of story. In this
instance, worst case really means worst case."

The best-case scenario, Goodstein believes, is that the first warning
that Hubbert's peak has occurred will result in a quick and stone-sober
global wake-up call. Given sufficient political will, the transportation
system will be transformed to rely at least temporarily on an
alternative fuel such as methane. Then, more long-term solutions to the
crisis will be put in place--presumably nuclear energy for electrical
needs, and hydrogen and solar energy for transportation.

The preceding is the case that Goodstein makes in the first section of
the book. The next section is devoted to a nontechnical explanation of
the facts of energy production. Goodstein, who has taught thermodynamics
to a generation of Caltech freshmen, is particularly accomplished in
conveying the basic scientific information in an easily understandable
way. In fact, he often does so with wit, explaining in a brief footnote
on the naming of subatomic particles, for example, that the familiar
"-on" ending of particles, such as "electrons," "mesons," and "photons,"
may also suggest an individual quantum of humanity known as the

The remainder of the book is devoted to suggested technological fixes.
None of the replacement technologies are as simple and cheap as our
current luxury of going to the corner gas station and filling up the
tank for the equivalent of a half-hour's wages, but Goodstein warns that
the situation is grave, and that things will change very soon.

"The crisis will occur, and it will be painful," he writes in
conclusion. "Civilization as we know it will come to an end sometime in
this century unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels."

Goodstein dedicates the book "to our children and grandchildren, who
will not inherit the riches that we inherited."

The book, published by W.W. Norton & Company, is now available. For
review copies, contact Rachel Salzman at rsalzman@w..., or call
Received on Sun Feb 8 15:37:24 2004

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