Graeme Wood


Hail to the Chief Scientist

Originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines

By Richard A. Muller

W.W. Norton; 380 pages; $26.95

The late William F. Buckley famously said he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. No one, to my knowledge, ever asked him to choose between the Berkeley phone book and the UC Berkeley faculty. I suspect the conservative Buckley would have held his nose and opted for the faculty – if only in hopes that a few right-wing economists might compensate for the liberal yahoos that he imagined made up the rest of the professoriat, to say nothing of the population at large.

The latest book by Richard A. Muller, a polymath in Berkeley’s physics department, conceals artfully whether its author is a Buckleyite, a yahoo or, for that matter, a Buckleyite yahoo. “Physics for Future Presidents” condenses Muller’s popular physics course at Berkeley into a handful of chapters about the key scientific issues that an American chief executive from either party will face.

The book is not political. It doesn’t mention, for example, John McCain’s climate-change policies or Barack Obama’s academic research on the intersection of modern physics and legal theory. And except for a forcefully argued section about nuclear waste disposal, it remains resolutely modest in its advice, preferring to hide its politics behind its science and opine only in arguments that can be settled by appealing to mathematics or known physical laws.

The light of science shines bright, and the dark corners it reaches are more numerous than one might think. In Muller’s book, global climate change receives, as predicted, a great deal of attention and ink. Nuclear weapons do, too: Future presidents have to know the different types of uranium and plutonium bombs, since each presents different threats and requires different types of technical know-how by the nations that possess them.

But even low-tech questions yield to treatment by physics. Muller has lucid explanations of how the World Trade Center collapsed and why the greatest threats posed by terrorists are still from conventional weapons rather than biological (hard to deliver and not worth the effort) and nuclear (way, way beyond al Qaeda’s expertise). The burning jet fuel that took down the twin towers packed many times more energy per pound than TNT. Bombs and gas still kill the most people for the least cost and risk.

Muller’s section on nuclear weapons and radiation is a neat little gem of science writing and a model for unhysterical explanation of an inherently fraught subject. It turns out to matter greatly what type of nuclear weapons North Korea has tested, to indicate both what damage Kim Jong Il can do – so far, all the tests have been duds – and how he acquired his bombs. Thinking prospectively, too, Muller gives simple advice on how to identify countries that are trying to make bombs from scratch. Look for countries that import maraging steel, he says, but don’t play a lot of golf. (Maraging steel’s main use, other than the manufacture of high-end clubs, is to make gas centrifuges for enriching uranium.)

On the subject of energy, the insights are more equivocal. Muller points out the potential of solar power, which is indeed impressive: Just 1 square kilometer of direct sunlight at midday produces the same power as a large power plant.

But the problems of energy turn out to have at least as much to do with environmentalists and economists as they do with physics. Solar power still costs too much, wind farms kill too many birds (although far fewer than, say, cars), no one wants to flood a valley for a hydroelectric dam, and geothermal power simply isn’t ready.

And it isn’t clear that economy-crippling carbon taxes and huge investments in present technologies would be money well spent, especially when one considers the alternative of being patient, studying the problem and dedicating more research money to more effective climate interventions. Muller can explain why solar power is expensive today, but it takes an economist – William Nordhaus of Yale – to tell us just how expensive it would be to wait a few more decades and try to find a better solution.

Muller knows the limitations of science well, and it is a credit to his modesty that he nearly always leaves the political questions to the reader (who is addressed throughout, somewhat preciously, as if he or she were the president-elect of the United States). Nevertheless, he might have profited from being slightly less tentative in discussions of politics, since physics does have to enter the practical world somehow. Even a few paragraphs on the role of scientific and technical advisers in the executive branch would be welcome, since these are the people who actually implement scientific policy.

To take one example, Muller mentions an incident in which U.S. nuclear expert Michael May went to Pyongyang to determine whether the North Koreans really had reprocessed fuel into plutonium, as they claimed. The inspector asked to hold the plutonium in his bare hand to feel its warmth and weight. The North Koreans hadn’t anticipated this seemingly bold gambit, but they let him hold it anyway, and thereby, perhaps unwittingly, gave the United States evidence that their reprocessing had succeeded. May knew the plutonium would be safe to touch, since its alpha-particle emissions wouldn’t be able to penetrate the dead skin of his hands.

We don’t expect the next president to be so scientifically adept that he can juggle fissile material at state dinners; presidents seek expert advice on many subjects, and only a rare politician will know as much about economics as Ben Bernanke or as much about asymmetric warfare as David Petraeus. And although I’d certainly prefer to have a president conversant in the scientific issues Muller raises, one who knows the issues only vaguely but retains and listens to advisers of Muller’s stature may be just as effective.

What’s most disturbing is that we expect presidents to be ignorant of the most basic science in this book. Would you be surprised if, in a debate, a presidential candidate showed that he knew the difference between horsepower and a kilowatt-hour? I would. This is a low bar, and I wish both candidates could surpass it, with or without Muller’s counsel.

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