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Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World

Bill Nye, edited by Corey S. Powell (2015), Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World, New York: St Martin's Press,
341pp, ISBN 978-1-250-00714-8 (hardcover) ISBN 978-1-4668-6989-9 (e-book)

Christina Gangemi, Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute, Monash University

Bill Nye is on a mission: he wants to see a better world. One that can deal in a more agile, efficient and effective manner against one of the most significant challenges of our time, climate change. But he's not going to do it all on his own; he's going to use all his enthusiasm and knowledge to bring the next generation along for the ride.

Nye strongly emphasises in his work that we, as a global community, clearly already have the potential to face such a global problem, we just need to do it. As a scientist and engineer, Nye takes a very analytical yet creative and entertaining approach to offer an encouraging push to his readers in hope of motivating the next generation to develop and devise a better, cleaner, smarter and more efficient means to live.

The structure of the book is, for the most part, homologous to the structure of a scientific paper. Most chapters introduce a topic, describe key scientific concepts, outline the key problem, and lead on to an analysis of the technology and solutions currently available to tackle the problem (as well as those ideas that are under current development). It then leads into to a discussion and considerable analysis of the benefits and limitations of each idea in great detail followed by a set of concluding remarks, including future directions. In most cases, I find this form and structure effective; it offers a comprehensive outlook on all aspects of climate change, ranging from climate science itself to nuclear energy, genetically modified crops, biofuels, solar and wind power, batteries and electric cars. Each chapter delves into each area in a comprehensive manner, yet Nye is skilful enough in his writing to make the experience less like reading a textbook and more like a joint adventure and experiment with him.

Nye's writing is all aimed to engage readers in an approachable and active manner such that they can participate by observing or doing simple activities themselves to aid in their learning. For example, when explaining the concepts behind the movement of electricity, Nye encourages the reader to rub a balloon on one's hair to generate a small electrical field (p. 131). Simple activities such as this are an excellent means to allow readers to conceptualise and understand complex scientific principles. They are no longer passive readers, but ones who are encouraged to experiment and observe the world around them through simple, easily approachable tasks. This will certainly serve useful for those who may not directly have had experiences in a laboratory setting as they themselves can transform their home into such an environment for a period of time and thus excitingly walk in the shoes of a scientist.

Nye consistently references his childhood throughout the book, sharing stories of his own adventures and curiosities of the world, such as baking scones and muffins with a solar oven as a boy scout (p. 110). This sparks a sense of inquisitiveness and adventure in the reader, reminding us all that it is this playful curiosity and exploratory approach that could very well aid us in solving such grand problems such as climate change.

Although Nye is eager to share his enthusiasm and hopefully motivate and mobilise others to contribute in tackling such a global issue, his enthusiasm for how things work - for some readers - may eventually cause a loss of engagement. Even as a scientist, I found some of the concepts to steer too far away from the principal issue of climate change to more about explaining how various technologies work. It's almost as if Nye gets a little caught up in his own fascinations as an engineer and thus, could lose some readers along the way. I recommend, that the book could be more appropriately read over multiple sittings rather than in one go in order to sustain engagement.

Another key limitation of this book, in my view, is that it is primarily framed within a Northern American context. Nye references many locations, perspectives and current environments of his resident country that would certainly appeal to a local audience. Given, however, that the issues surrounding climate change affect us all, a broader approach could make the book more accessible for a range of readers.

As a young researcher myself, it is always welcoming to see an experienced scientist and engineer such as Nye share their passion, enthusiasm and desire to communicate and share one's love for science and how things work. This book is one way in which we can continue to foster young, fresh and innovative minds to tackle one of the most pressing problems of our time.

Dr Kirstie O'Neill, LSE Fellow in Environment, Department of Geography and Environment

As a non-scientist (well, rather, a social scientist) I found this book easy to read. Nye relates technical and complicated scientific ideas to real life examples to make them accessible to a broader range of people. Whilst there is an attempt to make this appeal to a broad audience in its informal breezy style, there were still a number of areas that I found difficult to accept. There are some interesting and important points that I would like to have seen developed further, rather than being briefly discussed before being dismissed as unlikely to happen. For instance, it was mentioned that cars and trucks (sic) should be made more efficient but there is no argument in favour of reducing the total number of vehicles on the road. The benefits of cycling are highlighted (p. 185-86), with cycling described as being 30 times more efficient than driving, according to Nye, yet not likely to diffuse widely as people still aspire to purchase a car - how can we make cycling, for instance, a more attractive proposition? These discursive, social practice issues are not tackled in the book.

Nye gives a flavour of the tone of the book from the outset, promoting a position of 'technological optimism', and continues to introduce ideas of geo-engineering and other technological ideas for solving the problems presented by climate change and other forms of environmental change and degradation. Whilst I admire the book for promoting change to an audience that may not be familiar with some of the arguments and ideas, I still felt that it was only a partial view.

Saving the planet, for Nye, is about the human species - there is little recognition of the other species that share the planet. On this point, there were a number of places where 'nature' (non-human species) was swept aside - for instance, adding surfactants to hold bubbles in bodies of water (e.g. reservoirs, the ocean) to reflect sunlight is promoted: 'it seems reasonable [to Nye] that the ocean ecosystems would be okay' (p. 61), whilst tidal barrages (e.g. in France) were described as changing the ecosystem just 'a bit' (p. 127). Another argument that I found problematic was the statement that planting more trees now was a good idea to sequester carbon for centuries, by which time future generations would have had time to address their version of a changed climate. This assumes that future generations will act in ways very different to current generations: we are imposing this 'choice' on them through current inaction. In another example, the storage of solar energy is discussed as a means of keeping air conditioning units running - I would prefer to ask how can we design buildings to reduce the overall demand for artificial cooling. In this way, technology is endorsed to maintain existing (unsustainable) practices rather than thinking about how both can change to reduce our overall demands for energy and resources. Having said this, the book is about science (and technology) and does a great job in discussing a huge range of issues in an accessible way.

A general theme in the book is that using technology can make many processes more 'efficient' - academics and popular authors counteract this view by arguing that efficiency savings are often outweighed by absolute increases in consumption (the rebound effect). Naomi Klein (2014) has argued that the solutions offered by geo-engineering are unrealistic and at risk of failing to find an adequate solution, and may have disastrous impacts in the longer term as we fail to comprehend their unintended consequences.

Towards the end of the book, I found the argument that 'In the developing world, a great many problems could be solved if we in the developed world can find ways to improve infrastructure, pave roads and electrify their countryside' (my emphasis) to be rather colonial. This assumes (perhaps unintentionally) that countries in the global south are not engaged in tackling climate change, and that 'other' forms of knowledge have little to offer in tackling climate change - it may be that traditional forms of knowledge hold important lessons in lessening our impact on the planet.

Since publication, the United States' political situation has changed, raising questions about the role of the government departments that Nye cites as playing a key role in experimenting for climate change solutions, such as the US military. The Trump administration is clear that business-as-usual is order of the day, embracing traditional modes of economic growth using means which have contributed significantly to the acceleration of climate change. For instance, Nye suggests using a carbon 'fee' to reduce the amount of carbon emitted and to make the costs of such emissions fairer - whilst this might have been imaginable under the Obama administration, it is harder to envisage under the new Trump administration.


To cite either of these reviews please use the following details: Gangemi, C OR O'Neill, K. (2017), Nye, Bill (2015), 'Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 10, Issue 1, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite these reviews or use them in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.