October 27, 2005


The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy.  By Peter W. Huber & Mark P. Mills. Basic Books. $26.

The Mind at Night: The New Science of How and Why We Dream. By Andrea Rock. Basic Books. $26.

     The Bottomless Well is about as counterintuitive as a book can be – doubly so in the wake of the fuel-supply disruptions that occurred after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita damaged many Gulf of Mexico oil rigs and refineries.  Manhattan Institute senior fellow Peter Huber and physicist Mark Mills tell us, with an absolutely straight face, “Energy is infinite.” And they are not talking about all the energy in the universe – which is indeed infinite, or near enough to it.  They are talking about energy availability right on good old Earth.  Huber and Mills know they are propounding “seven great energy heresies,” and propound them they do: 1) The cost of energy has less to do with the cost of fuel over time, and more to do with the cost of hardware needed to process the fuel; 2) so-called waste is actually a good thing, because most waste occurs when we refine even more energy; 3) as technology gets more efficient, people consume more; 4) the competitive advantage in manufacturing is swinging toward the U.S.; 5) humans will always demand more energy; 6) raw fuels are not running out – the faster we extract them, the faster we find more; and 7) the American pursuit of high-grade energy is actually good for the global environment, not bad for it.  Huber and Mills argue some of these points more effectively than others.  They are especially good with their benefits-of-waste discussion, their increasing-consumption analysis, and their demand-always-increases argument.  Their graphs and charts – there are many – are fascinating, such as one showing that the cost of lighting has dropped ten-thousand-fold in the last 200 years.  But their text is sometimes self-contradictory: one paragraph says that “while it lasted, the 55 mph speed limit slowed people down and this limited how far we drove and (indirectly) what we opted to drive,” but the very next one says, “no one honored the 55 mph speed limit.”  And their correct argument that we find more fuel all the time does not fully address the fact that discovering fuel is very different from obtaining it, in light of cost and political pressures.  Indeed, Huber and Mills generally tend to downplay political realities, even though those realities largely shape the modern energy industry.  Still, this is a highly thought-provoking work with some trenchant thinking and an unusual take on perpetual talk of an “energy crisis.”

     Speaking of bottomless wells: the mind certainly seems to be one, and we dig deeper into it all the time in search of understanding and meaning.  The most cogent analysis of dreaming, Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, is now more than 100 years old and still highly valuable to psychoanalysts.  But dream investigation is increasingly occurring through forms of science of which Freud did not even…well, dream.  Brain imaging has brought neuroscientists into dream discussions, and it is their research – and other hard-science dream studies, dating to the 1950s – that Andrea Rock explores in The Mind at Night.  The book is breezily written and frequently anecdotal, e.g., Paul McCartney dreamed the melody of “Yesterday,” then thought when he woke up that he had heard it somewhere before.  Rock throws lots of information at the reader, entertainingly if not with analytical clarity: she concludes, rather lamely, that “the role of dream-rich REM sleep undergoes an evolution within each individual.”  But the journey to that non-conclusion is an enjoyable one, thanks to stories like the one about cats that leap up and stalk prey or attack imagined enemies during REM sleep.  We may have gained as many questions as answers in the century since Freud’s seminal work on dreaming, but those questions are fascinating to contemplate.

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