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10th Hermann Staudinger Lecture: "When Coal is Gone"

Nobel Laureate Robert B. Laughlin (Stanford University), May 12, 2011

Regardless of what happens with global warming, the era of fossil fuel burning will come to an end in about six generations. In this talk I shall try to shed some light on this great historical event, and on the present-day energy problem generally, by looking at the transition "retrospectively" from the point of view of a person living in that future time. Of course, this presupposes that the human race survives the transition away from fossil fuel, but that’s a reasonable assumption in light of how extraordinarily adaptable (and prolific) we are. A person living in that time acts like you, looks like you and thinks thoughts not so different from yours. What are those thoughts? What kind of life does this person lead? What is the world like? Are there cars? Are there jet airplanes? Do the lights come on when people flip the switch? What do people study in school about the fossil fuel time, now a distant memory? The answers to these questions turn out to be surprisingly easy to answer given our knowledge of basic physical constraints and human nature. How the transition itself plays out depends on what we do now, but the final outcome does not.