'Physics for Future Presidents'

'Physics for Future Presidents'
August 26, 2008

Looking for a gift for Barack Obama or John McCain? Richard A. Muller's new book might help them (and the rest of us if they read it). Muller, a physics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has written Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines (Norton). Muller also teaches a course with the same name. The book reviews a series of current policy debates -- terrorist capabilities to set off weapons of mass destruction, the energy crisis, global warming -- and explains the science. The style is serious and non-polemical, but Muller isn't afraid to criticize either. Many scientists have questioned the Bush administration's commitment to using research, but Muller also criticizes those who oppose nuclear power, which he argues is much safer than critics acknowledge.

Muller responded to e-mail questions about his book and the issues it raises.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: I literally hope the future president will read it. We live in a high tech world, and most major issues have a high tech component. Physics is the foundation of much high tech. The president can go to his science advisor for details, but should already understand the fundamentals. Perhaps even more important is that the president must be a leader sufficiently confident with science to be able to show the public in a non-partisan way that his policies are correct. Of course, anybody who is voting for the future president could also benefit.

Q: How much science should a president (or state legislator or business leader) have? What's a minimum knowledge base to respond to the analysis you provide here?

A: The president doesn't need to learn the math, but does need to know the physics. Which effects are most important, and which are negligible? Exactly why did the World Trade Center collapse? Why did the North Korean nuclear explosion fizzle? What is the scientific value of putting humans in space? What are the main culprits in global warming? How severe is the warming so far, and what is expected? Which solutions will really address the physics, and which are only "feel good" or "set an example" measures? What is the future of solar, wind, batteries, and nukes? These are all things the president, or any concerned citizen, can master.

In the book I cover five broad topics: terrorism, energy, nukes, space, and global warming. These are all important. There was a lot more I could have covered, but I wanted each page to discuss topics that are obviously key for the president or other leader to understand. I challenge the reader to find a page that is unimportant. (There are some -- but they are not easy to find.)

Q: How do you think McCain and Obama are doing with regard to science issues?

A: It has not been easy to judge. Both candidates seem to shy away from discussions of science and technology, perhaps because public misunderstanding could cause a misinterpreted sound bite to hurt their campaigns. Eventually, when elected, the president will have more time to explain the issues. The president must be the country's physics teacher. I'm hoping that either candidate, when president, will be able to explain to the public the technical aspects of terrorism, energy, nukes, space, and climate change.

Q: Some scientists have accused the current administration of playing politics with science -- or of doing so in a way that is worse than the approach of previous administrations. Is this charge fair?

A: Politicians play politics with everything, sometimes because they don't understand the science, and sometimes because they believe that the public doesn't understand. Everyone has been guilty. My goal is to teach science and improve the decision making in the future, not to judge past actions.

Q: Do you think science should be a nonpartisan issue?

A: It is possibly the only field that can be truly nonpartisan. The science I describe in my book should be accepted by all. Science doesn't have a monopoly on truth, and it does make mistakes, but is has a better record than most fields of usually being right. My role is to give the science, not my opinion. At the end of each section, I do have a short part with opinion, but I tried hard to keep that separate.

Q: Because your book is about physics and not biology, you don't have to cover issues like stem cell research -- science topics that have been very controversial. Could a similar book be written on "biology for future presidents" or does the nature of those debates make it more difficult?

A: I agree that such a book is needed too. We live in a high tech world in which many if not most major issues have a science component. It is difficult for a leader to make correct decisions if he or she doesn't understand the science and technology. Many people think that science, particularly physics, is beyond their comprehension, but that is wrong. If they haven't learned physics, it is either because they had poor teachers, or because the teachers emphasized too much math. I hope my book will help show that the science and technology are accessible, and that our leaders need to learn and understand these subjects.



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