Pages: 384 (Trade Paperback)
Publisher: W.W. Norton and Company
Date: September 21, 2009
This is the eighth science-themed book I’ve read this year, and while it is one of the least specific, covering a range of topics, it is also quite interesting. Muller’s purpose in writing this book is laid out right in his title: he wants to be able to explain, in layman’s terms, the important scientific questions (or policy decision informed on science) that a new President must face. While the odds that I’ll one day become President are pretty long (seeing as how I’m not American), I still found the book to be both informative and accessible.
Physics, subtitled The Science Behind the Headlines, is actually a shorter version of a textbook Muller wrote called Physics and Technology for Future Presidents: An Introduction to the Essential Physics Every World Leader Needs to Know. This textbook is based on a course he teaches at University of California Berkeley, and it’s used to teach core physics at a who’s who of top US universities, including Harvard, Purdue, and Northwestern. The book is considered definitive by experts, but if its first year university science focus and writing doesn’t put it out of reach for most readers, its price likely will (it retails for over $80.00). Enter Muller’s simplified and shorter work, a version intended for those of us who aren’t taking first year physics, or prefer be able to afford to both read and eat. He’s also recently released a second book drawn on the same material, this one focusing exclusively on energy, titled appropriately enough Energy for Future Presidents. It looks as though he may be intending to create a series, as both books use the same subtitle.
The book is neatly divided into five major sections: Terrorism, Energy, Nukes, Space, and Global Warming. This is not to say that nukes or global warming are, per se less important than terrorism or energy; rather, Muller begins with immediate issues, moves to those with long-term effects but that need a near-term focus, and ends on two that promise to potentially be important for millenia to come. Below, I’ll give a brief synopsis of what Muller covers in each of his five sections.
The terrorism section is broken up further into four chapters, covering everything from the possibility of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons, to the most likely attacks to occur in the near future. Muller applies Occam’s Razor here, claiming that it is highly unlikely that terror groups will ever get their hands on effective nukes due to their sheer complexity, size, and the difficulties inherent in their transport, but that’s not to say that there aren’t a score of other possible forms attack might take. In fact, he figures that future attacks will look a lot like past ones: explosives, hijackings, things that get a large reaction for a small investment. Anything larger than that generally takes larger players and their commensurate resources, and that necessarily moves the act out of the realm of terrorism and into institutional violence, whether domestic or war related. He ends the topic by admitting that terrorism is, ultimately, less of a science issue, and more of a psychological one: how do we understand the terrorist mindset?
The section on energy covers three main topics: why we use oil, what using oil means, and what are our alternatives moving forward. He’s honest about the attractiveness of fossil fuels in general, as they have a tremendous weight to energy ration, but he’s quick to point out their many drawbacks, not least of which is that there is a finite supply, and the US does not produce enough to meet its own needs. He suggests that alternate sources are the future, but that it will require heavy investment to realize potential. For me, he’s singing to the choir – as soon as I win the lottery, I’ll be buying a Tesla Model S in order to do my part.
This section focuses on the history of nuclear weapons, the efforts being made to reduce and restrict their possession, how they kill, and what to do about them in the future. While he does quote a friend of his, an expert on nuclear weapons, as believing that there is a 50% chance that a nuclear device will be exploded in anger in the next ten years, Muller disagrees, fearing a biological attack as much more likely. One of the more interesting parts of this section of the book is his discussion on the actual effects of a nuke on a population center. As you might expect, the individual danger of a bomb are fairly limited, causing immediate devastation in a small radius, and having a decreasing effect the further one goes from ground zero; however, the danger really lies in volume, and the possibility for escalation once the genie is out of the bottle. He ends the section by dealing with the elephant in the room: nuclear waste. This is the real problem with nuclear technology, and he points out that even the most secure bunker is not guaranteed to stay secure for the next ten thousand years or so, the amount of time needed for some of the more dangerous radioactive byproducts. For this, he is not able to provide any concrete solutions.
Muller’s primary focus in this part of the book is the application of robotic technologies to space. He recognizes that manned spaceflight is romantic, that it is part of the American national identity, that it is inspirational for young people around the world; but he suggests that it is little more than that. Robots can almost always do the same job better, for less money, and with less risk involved. While he is being coldly rational, the better part of myself (or is it the romantic?) disagrees vehemently. I fall more on the side that Neil deGrasse Tyson takes, arguing that without manned spaceflight, America would not have excelled in engineering and the sciences as they did in the 1970s and 80s. The people that went into those fields were, by and large, inspired by the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs of the 60s and 70s; without further such programs, science education may very well stagnate – something which already seems to be happening.
Here, Muller gives the appearance of sitting on the fence, admitting that there is still some contention over what, if any, effect humans are having on climate change (Muller uses the now out of vogue term “global warming,” but it isn’t an entirely accurate term based on current understanding). However, he then turns to say that regardless of human involvement, the Earth is heating up, and we need to do something about it now. Hiding our heads in the sand (or worse, a President hiding his or her head in the sand) will only serve to allow the problem to get worse before we take necessary steps to fix it. I think the sop he gives at the beginning regarding anthropocentric versus natural causes is a way of recognizing that his potential audience (future Presidents) are partisan by nature, and one party (think elephants) tends to deny that climate change is even happening. Hopefully, future presidents will listen to Muller’s warnings.
Steve’s Grade: B+
Muller is an expert in his field, and has a long history of writing science books for the layperson. Physics takes a science-based approach to topics that are important not only to future presidents, but to all of us. Readable and informative: recommended.
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