Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines ,

Richard A.
W. W. Norton
New York
, 2008. $26.95 (380 pp.). ISBN 978-0-393-06627-2

Richard Muller’s Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines appeared in the midst of a bitter presidential campaign that highlighted the need for a book of this sort.

Muller, a professor of physics, teaches a popular course with the same title at the University of California, Berkeley. His narrative is organized around five problem areas: terrorism, energy, nuclear technologies, space innovation, and global warming. Its spirit is expressed in an aphorism from the 19th-century humorist Josh Billings, “The trouble with most people isn’t their ignorance, it’s knowing so many things that ain’t so.” Muller often cites two fellow physicists as influences on his thinking: Richard Garwin, a renowned experimental physicist who has advised administrations of both political parties and, especially, California Energy Commissioner Arthur Rosenfeld. Like Rosenfeld, Muller passed through Luis Alvarez’s research group at Berkeley en route to a career that has included deep involvement in science and public policy.

Muller admirably resists the temptation to use his new book as an excuse to teach a lot more physics than its stated target audience—future US presidents—needs to know. The important physical principles are stated clearly, and detailed computations are confined to endnotes. The text is an easy read, even a page-turner. The author frequently addresses a hypothetical future president directly, with statements like “this is something you had better remember” or “you’ll have the hard job of explaining this to the public.”

While taking the menace of terrorism seriously, Muller also aims to calm irrational fears. A repeat of the September 11 attacks is highly unlikely, according to the author, because the simple step of providing a securely locked flight deck has thwarted any similar takeover attempts by hijackers. Yet a mid-sized private aircraft—a crop duster is Muller’s example—would make an effective suicide bomb, given the high energy content of its fuel. Muller points out that such a collision into, say, a crowded football stadium might claim enough lives to satisfy Al Qaeda.

Radioactive material dispersed by a chemical explosion—via a “dirty bomb”—does not strike Muller as a realistic threat. The bomb would be terribly difficult to assemble and deliver, and even if the radioactive material were dispersed over a significant area, few of its victims would suffer acute radiation sickness. Inducing cancer deaths decades into the future would hardly satisfy a dedicated terrorist. As for nuclear weapons, Muller thinks the worst threat is not that terrorists could build one but that they might obtain one from a rogue state or from an individual who has access to a stockpile. A vigorous campaign, explains Muller, by intelligence agents posing as potential buyers can do much to neutralize the threat.

In the area of energy, Muller is careful to distinguish among short-, mid-, and long-term solutions and “non-solutions.” In the short term, he suggests revival of the Fischer–Tropsch process of turning coal into oil, a method used by Germany during World War II. But oil companies are loath to invest in the technology when OPEC can easily keep the price of natural oil below that of the synthetic product. Biofuels have promise, Muller points out, but corn-based ethanol is a bad choice in light of its high production costs and impact on global food supplies.

In the midterm, nuclear power seems a wise environmental choice, and Muller particularly favors the pebble-bed, modular reactor technology because of its inherent safety. Wind and solar power both show promise, too, but neither is likely to be a magic bullet. Hydrogen power falls into the nonsolution category: The author rightly points out that hydrogen is not an energy source but a medium for storing and transporting energy. For the long term, the Holy Grail is fusion power, which he fervently hopes for but fears may never come: Progress has been slow and the goal is still a long way off.

But the obvious strategy for dealing with the energy problem is conservation, according to Muller. Rosenfeld has described the benefits of conservation as not just low-hanging fruit, but “fruit already on the ground.” The monumental inefficiency of an economy built in the era of cheap energy is obvious. The technology to improve the situation already exists and is rapidly advancing. Muller is confident that our grandchildren will someday drive hybrid cars that get more than 100 miles to the gallon. The design of our homes and household appliances still leaves much room for improvement. Rosenfeld has estimated that investment in energy conservation typically yields returns of about 20%, and the business community is showing signs of at last taking note of its economic advantages.

Global warming earns Muller’s detailed scrutiny, for it is the most complex of the problems we face. He implores his future presidents to give great weight to the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In an admittedly uncertain area, the series of reports by the IPCC in 2007 represent the best thinking of some of our best scientists and policy makers. Muller discusses at length the sources of uncertainty in our understanding of human influence on the climate; he details some of the bad science, and the good, that has been done in studying global warming.

Still, Muller has little doubt that Earth is indeed warming—and he has little doubt that humanity is responsible for a good deal of it. Now that the dust of the recent election season has settled, one can only hope that our new president will find the time to actually read this valuable work.

Robert March is a professor emeritus of physics and participated in the integrated liberal studies program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His main interests are in particle physics and astrophysics, and in teaching physics to nonscientists.