Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines

By Richard A. Muller; W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. (2008) ISBN 978-0-393-06627-2, 380 pages, $26.95

Based on his popular course at the University of California at Berkeley where he is a professor of physics, Richard Muller has prepared a primer on the major scientific aspects of four major issues that future presidents will have to face. Each section is followed by a two or three page summary in the tradition of issue briefs prepared by political staffers. Muller carefully avoids mathematics and complex jargon unless he defines his terms so that the book is accessible to a reader who is not a physicist. At the same time, he is careful to present multiple facets of the complex issues he writes about. While he avoids math, he does not duck complexity.

The first section, "Terrorism," treats the difficulty of screening passengers, the chance that terrorists will obtain nuclear weapons including dirty bombs, and other methods of mass destruction that terrorists might employ including bioweapons. The second section, "Energy," focuses on the economics of using different types of energy. Muller is careful to provide basic definitions of energy and power and does a nice job of relating energy stored, say in gasoline or liquid hydrogen, to energy stored in food. The next section, simply called "Nukes," begins with a nicely nuanced discussion of the dangers of radiation that is clearly designed to ameliorate the public’s sometimes irrational fear. Although the material is accessible to a non-scientist, the discussion avoids simplifying complex issues and neither dismisses nor exaggerates the hazards of nuclear radiation. The remainder of the chapter contains a description of the operation of nuclear weapons and nuclear fission and fusion reactors. The discussion is clear and the author is careful to separate his personal political positions from his description of the science.

The final sections of the book are respectively titled "Space" and "Global Warming." "Space" presents the basics of spaceflight and then focuses on the uses of space, particularly for obtaining information both civilian and military. The section includes a tutorial on the various wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation and the way they are used as well as a discussion of the pros and cons of manned spaceflight. Muller uses the complexities of global warming to illustrate a solid discussion of the way in which presentation of data can distort science and force an erroneous conclusion. He separates the facts that the scientific community considers solid (that in the last 50 years, the average global temperature has risen and that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased ) from the question of the degree to which both effects are anthropogenic. He attempts, quite successfully, to demonstrate how the complexities of the climate system such as clouds hamper our ability to predict regional effects of the changes in the Earth’s climate as well as details of global effects.

With Physics for Future Presidents, Richard Muller has produced a very readable and scientifically correct discussion of physics that both political leaders and concerned citizens need to understand. Physicists will find this book a quick read and an interesting introduction to applications of the physics they already know. However, its primary target is non-scientists who will make policy decisions based on this science. For this audience, it is excellent reading.

Any physicist who simplifies complex physics so that it is accessible to non-physicists necessarily neglects exceptions to general rules and subtleties that concern experts in the field. This book is no exception. In a few spots, for example in the introduction to the section on global warming, Muller is reduced to emphasizing his own excellent scientific credentials, and asking the reader to trust him. However, he has done an A-plus job of explaining where the physics ends and the policy discussion begins. It would make excellent supplementary reading for an introductory course in physics for students who are not majoring in science.

Lastly, the book would benefit by an annotated bibliography with a few major sources on each issue, aimed at the worried staffer who has been told to establish her principal’s position on one of these issues. She would want to read more deeply about one of these issues and could use help in identifying accessible sources that are scientifically credible. In spite of these minor flaws, Muller has done one of the best jobs I have seen in making very complex physics both interesting and available to policy makers not trained in science who need to understand it.

Ruth Howes
Professor Emerita of Physics
Ball State University

This contribution has not been peer-refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.