Energy and the Unexpected


146 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-19-852516-8
DDC 531'.622




Reviewed by Alex Curran

Alex Curran is a former member of both the National Advisory Board on
Science and Technology and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research
Council. He was chair of the Telecommunications Sectoral Advisory
Committee on Free Trade and the first recipien


Here is a story of three centuries of discovery superbly told. It begins
with the search for better understanding of how steam engines can be
improved in a world known to be ordered and predictable. It ends—at
least for now—with energy’s role in systems ranging in size from
atomic to astronomical in a world in which chaos theory assures us that
the world is neither ordered nor predictable.

It is a complex story and one that begins with craftsmen who have an
intuitive knowledge of what will be effective in steam-powered engines.
Assistance comes from researchers who struggle to understand what heat
really is and to use that understanding to place limits on achievable
efficiencies. From that work comes the First Law: energy cannot be
created or destroyed, or, as the author states, you can’t get
something for nothing.

More basic understanding emerges from the theoretical side with the
recognition of the Second Law: entropy increases. In other words, you
can’t even break even. But entropy is best understood in probabilistic
terms, which threatens the belief that the world is ordered and
predictable. Gradually, that view is shattered by the recognition of the
uncertainty principle and, most recently, by chaos theory, which
demonstrates that long-range predictions cannot be made for many
systems. Contrary to the belief of scientists of the past three
centuries, our world is not orderly.

The panorama of thermodynamics has increased remarkably over the past
three centuries. Initially, steam engines were the focus of interest
both in practice and in theory. Today, the field extends from atomic
processes of radioactivity and fusion to the driving forces of the
stars. The story guides us to current calculations of the age of the
universe and its probable duration. The author summarizes our present
state of knowledge as follows: “we can now say with some confidence
that we know just how the Sun shines.”

The story of three centuries of thermodynamics was created by many
people. Professor Laidler pays tribute to the key participants,
revealing both their strengths and their foibles. This is the story of
scientists who have made a difference, in spite of difficulties
(occasionally of their own making). Written in language understandable
to laypersons, the book will interest those who have an interest in
scientific endeavour, those who are considering a career in science, and
those who wish to more fully understand the role of science today.



Laidler, Keith J., “Energy and the Unexpected,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 19, 2024,