'Energy: A Human History'

Richard Rhodes, Simon & Schuster, 480 pages, $30. Early in Richard Rhodes' new book, "Energy: A Human History," a prominent citizen uses colorful language to lament the state of his polluted city and urge his government to shut down industry or move it elsewhere: "If there be a resemblance of hell upon earth, it is in this volcano [on] a foggy day." Though this could easily apply to modern-day Beijing, the speaker here is John Evelyn, a wealthy horticulturalist and one of the founders of the scientific Royal Society of London — and he's complaining about London in 1659. Evelyn's petition is one of countless stories that elevate "Energy." In this meticulously researched work, Rhodes brings his fascination with engineers, scientists and inventors along as he presents an often underappreciated history: four centuries through the evolution of energy. He focuses on the introduction of each new energy source, and the discovery and gradual refinement of technologies that eventually made them dominant. Whether he is explaining what is meant by the octane rating of fuel or the way Volta's pile — the first battery — worked, Rhodes makes dry and often technical subjects not just digestible, but a pleasure to consume. For Rhodes, energy and geopolitics are intimately connected, and his optimism is clearly strained by the enormity of the challenge posed by climate change. Nevertheless, by the end — and despite the book's shortcoming on modern-day industry — one gets the sense of boosted confidence about the ability of technology and human ingenuity to solve what seem like insurmountable problems.