It was Eunice Newton Foote, an American scientist and women's rights campaigner living in Seneca Falls, New York, who first warned the world that an atmosphere heavy with carbon dioxide could send temperatures here on Earth soaring. This was back in 1856. At the time, no one paid much attention.
Our Biggest Experiment tells Foote's story, along with stories of the many other scientists who helped to build our modern understanding of climate change. It also chronicles our energy system, from whale oil to kerosene and beyond – the first steamships, wind turbines, electric cars, oil tankers and fridges. Alice Bell takes us back to climate change science's earliest steps in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the advancing realisation that global warming was a significant problem in the 1950s and right up to today, where we have seen the growth of the environmental movement, climate scepticism and political responses like the UN climate talks.
As citizens of the twenty-first century, it can feel like history has dealt us a rather bad hand in the climate crisis. In many ways, this is true. Our ancestors have left us an almighty mess. But they left us tools for survival too, and Our Biggest Experiment tells both sides of the story. The message of Our Biggest Experiment is ultimately hopeful; harnessing the ingenuity and intelligence that has long driven the history of climate change research can mean a more sustainable and bearable future for humanity.
Dr Alice Bell is a journalist and historian of science. She was a lecturer in science communication at Imperial College for several years, where she also developed an interdisciplinary undergraduate course on energy and climate change, working with scientists, engineers and medics across the college. From Imperial, she moved to the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, before shifting to freelance journalism. Alice was a key contributor to the International Council for Science's blog on climate policy in the run-up to the UN Paris talks and launched the innovative storytelling website How We Get to Next, as well as lecturing in digital journalism at City University. She set up the science-policy blog at the Guardian and has also written for The Times, New Scientist, New Humanist and Mosaic.
"Alice Bell's Our Biggest Experiment reads like a "chocolate box of a book" – regaling readers with a curated history of the people, science, politics, and technology that have intersected with the current climate crisis. She deftly weaves subtle and lesser-known details about the brilliant (and sometimes eccentric) individuals who have worked out how to measure and describe what we, as a species, have wrought upon Earth."
"The climate crisis is so overwhelming it can be easier not to engage with the problem. However, Alice had me every step of the way. She guides the reader on an international journey through time, focusing not on statistics but the complex human story and fascinating characters that have led us to where we are now."
– Maddie Moate
"A highly enjoyable rabbit hole of a book. Alice Bell chronicles the science and history of climate change in an intuitive manner that glides easily from one episode to the next. It's a sweeping narrative of industry, energy and atmospheric science, and much of Bell's achievement lies in artfully assembling pieces of the climate puzzle scattered across time and space."
– New Statesman
"Our Biggest Experiment is a spectacular achievement – the definitive history of the most consequential issue of our time. Majestic in scope, it offers not one but two epic stories – how we changed the world, and how we came to realize what we've done – told through Alice Bell's charming, witty, and authoritative writing."
– Ed Yong, The Atlantic
"Vibrant and wonderfully detailed . Alice Bell brings to life the characters and corporations from the past whose names we all know, from Tesla and Watt to Esso and Shell. You might think it's more important to focus on the future of our planet, but only by understanding our history can we start to shape what happens next. Read this and be energised to save the world."
– Rowan Hooper, New Scientist