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Book Review: "Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper" by Robert Bryce

Arthur Herman

At the heart of the computer revolution is Moore’s law, named after Intel’s co-founder Gordon Moore, who predicted that the number of transistors on integrated circuits would double every two years. As the Manhattan Institute’s Robert Bryce notes in “Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper,” Moore’s law explains why the average smartphone today carries a quarter-million times the data-storage capacity of the computer onboard the Apollo 11 spaceship that went to the moon in 1969.

Mr. Bryce argues that a similar dynamic, making less do more, drives virtually every technological change that has created the modern world, from cars and airplanes to advanced medicine, strategic metals and the iCloud. Technological innovation, in short, has a particular character—a dynamic of improvement that accelerates and amplifies (“faster”) while requiring, by any consistent unit of measure, less space and material (“smaller,” “denser”) at a lower cost (“cheaper”).

Mr. Bryce’s engrossing survey has two purposes. The first is to refute pessimists who claim that technology-driven economic growth will burn through the planet’s resources and lead to catastrophe. “We are living in a world equipped with physical-science capabilities that stagger the imagination,” he writes. “If we want to bring more people out of poverty, we must embrace [technological innovation], not reject it.” The book’s other purpose is to persuade climate-change fundamentalists that they are standing on the wrong side of history. Instead of saving the planet by going backward to Don Quixote’s windmills, they need to take a progressive approach to technology itself, he says, striving to make nuclear power safer, for instance, and using the hydrocarbon revolution sparked by fracking and deep-offshore exploration to bridge the way to the future.

“Smaller Faster” starts with historical examples of how technology does more with less, like the printing press in the 16th century and, not least, the automobile in the 20th, which combined the power of a technological leap (the internal combustion engine) with the efficiency of mass production. Mr. Bryce focuses in particular on the vacuum tube, designed in 1906 by Lee de Forest, the man also credited with inventing the radio.

The discovery of the vacuum tube, Mr. Bryce says, was a revolutionary event. By trapping the energy generated from the free flow of electrons and directing it to boost a small AC current into a much larger one, de Forest created electric amplification—which the transistor and integrated circuit would multiply exponentially. A figure from the early history of computers, Bell Labs’ William Shockley, explained the change this way: “If you take a bale of hay and tie it to the tail of a mule and then strike a match and set the bale of hay on fire, and if you compare the energy expended shortly thereafter by the mule with the energy expended by yourself striking the match, you will understand the concept of amplification.”

Something similar happens, Mr. Bryce implies, with the conversion of energy through the use of fossil fuels. The amount of energy that can be generated from a gallon of diesel or a cubic meter of natural gas is staggering compared with that of a solar panel or wind turbine. And technology itself makes hydrocarbons ever more cost-efficient, whether by delivering more miles per gallon for cars or by creating faster drill bits that make oil and natural-gas extraction cheaper.

The problem with wind and solar power is that no one has figured out how to set the bale of hay on fire. So while the cost of solar photovoltaic modules has fallen, their energy density—the amount of energy stored in a given volume or mass—lags far behind hydrocarbon fuels, let alone nuclear power. The other favorite of environmentalists, wind power, does even worse. As Mr. Bryce observes, wind turbines generate, on average, one watt of power per square meter. The land devoted to wind power would have to grow every year by 375,000 square kilometers—roughly the size of Germany—simply to replace the average annual increase in CO2 emissions from hydrocarbons.

That’s not going to happen. President Obama likes to call oil “yesterday’s energy.” But “for the vast majority of the world’s population,” Mr. Bryce argues, “the cheapest and most reliable forms of energy are, and will continue to be, hydrocarbons.” Anyone who thinks that he is doing the world a favor by compelling the switch from fossil fuels to wind and solar is consigning billions of people to a life of poverty and darkness.

Still, Mr. Bryce is no climate-change denier—he notes that every shift in energy consumption from coal or oil to natural gas makes a dent in the emission of greenhouse gases. And he is bullish on solar energy. But the future of solar, he says, depends on the more-with-less dynamic—e.g., finding better ways of storing and amplifying the energy drawn from sunlight—and such change will come about only by private capital meeting consumer demand for affordable energy—not by diktat or subsidy.

If one looks at the history of government-sponsored green-energy initiatives, both in the U.S. and Europe, it is hard to disagree. Governments can play a role in supporting basic research, but the assumption by regulators and politicians that they can pick technology winners better than the market has been proved wrong time and again. And as the Solyndra debacle shows—the solar-cell manufacturer received a half-billion dollars in subsidy before filing for bankruptcy—politicians tend to distort energy development by favoring organizations with clout and approaches with which they feel ideological sympathy. The virtue of the marketplace, Mr. Bryce reminds us, is that it brings as many minds as possible to the task of innovation—for the benefit of everyone, not just a few power elites.

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