“Physics for Future Presidents” by Richard A. Muller

With any political issue, there are often as many opinions on the nature of the problem and form of the ideal solution as there are people in the room.  In this book Muller tries to cut through the chaff, writing as a Presidential Science Adviser of sorts, explaining the science behind these problems and solutions.  (Of course, even scientific results can be colored by personal politics, but I’m sure Dr. Muller is totally impartial.  [Right?  Right??])

Pretty interesting read; actually echoed a lot of what I read recently in The World in 2050.  I’ve captured some of the more interesting points in my notes below, following Muller’s main sections for the book.

Terrorism

  •  The collapse of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11 was due to the intense heat of the jet fuel-fed fire, which weakened steel columns until they buckled under the weight of the building.  The impact and explosion was not a big factor.  This brings up an obvious point — gasoline and other fuels have very high energy density, which is why we like them, but that also makes them much more practical for terrorists to use such commonly available materials than exotic stuff like bio or nukes.
  • Continuing that thought — it is very unlikely for any non-state sponsored terrorist group to be sophisticated enough to build a nuclear weapon, large or small.  Even if they could construct a relatively simple “dirty bomb,” the threat is not too high: if they want to affect a lot of people, then the radioactivity will be diluted over a large area and probably be unnoticed.  If they want to affect a small area, then they don’t kill many people … also with any dirty bomb situation, the ones most at risk of a problematic dose of radiation are the terrorists themselves, during construction and deployment of the weapon.  The biggest danger with a dirty bomb is probably the likelihood of the public to panic.
  • Post 9/11 security procedures (TSA, etc.) seem to be working well — we’re basically requiring suicide tactics in order for terrorists to be able to do anything, and those terrorists willing to die for their cause are typically not the sharpest tools in the shed so are easily caught.

Energy

  • Coal is very cheap and there is a lot of it.  It’s even possible to make oil from coal via Fischer-Tropsch (thanks, Nazis!) but not economical until a certain price.  Fears about running out of oil are unfounded — price will increase, driving more exploration and extraction but also will make alternatives like coal more viable.
  • Solar is very promising, but needs much cheaper cells (and probably cheaper battery storage technology) before it gets profitable and starts taking off.   Solar cars are never going to be mainstream, simply due to size … even 100% efficient solar cells on a typical car roof will only generate a few horsepower, whereas most cars today require 50-200 hp.
  • Hybrid cars are a good idea because they cut energy use, but not a money saver – any fuel savings get blown away when the batteries (finite number of charges) need to be replaced, a point many current hybrid owners and enthusiasts have not reached.

Nukes

  • As currently designed, nuclear power plants (fission) cannot produce an atomic explosion, even if all safety mechanisms fail.  We should be building more of them, and keep that fusion research going!
  • Waste storage has been grossly mischaracterized … it is not really necessary to secure waste for tens of thousands of years; it will “only” take maybe 300 years for radiation to fall to natural radiation source levels, which we implicitly deem “ok.”  300 years is still a long time, but makes the storage solution much more manageable.

Space

  •  “The space shuttle is big engineering; it is the dream of man in space; it is an adventure.  But it is not safe, it cannot be made safe, and it is not done for science.”  Unmanned is clearly the cheaper and safer route, if our motivation in space is really scientific research.

Climate

  • IPCC is the only climate group worth listening to, per Muller… very conservative, careful, and scientific approach.  They predict 95% chance that observed global warming is not due to natural variation, and 90% chance at least some of the warming is human-caused.  (Interesting that the 10% ambiguity is due to difficulty in modeling the effect of cloud cover.  Clouds seem to be part of a global warming negative feedback loop: higher temp -> more evaporation -> more clouds -> reflect more incoming sunlight.)
  • Combating climate change if difficult due to the abundance of coal, the a very dirty fossil fuel.  Even if the US drastically cuts fossil fuel use, the world is still going to be in trouble, because China and India will soon surpass us and have no intentions of cutting back.
  • Muller’s solution is to make conservation a bigger priority.  Don’t prohibit or deprive people of energy; just make it more profitable for them to use less, eg by making more energy-efficient products.  Muller calculates that a 2% annual overall energy efficiency increase will lead to a population 10 billion Earth in 2100, all living a current European standard of living but using half as much energy as today.  Sounds good; pour those R&D dollars into making more efficient fridges and stuff!  (Probably another side of this is let energy prices increase … attach more of the true cost to the dollar cost, if there is one.)

Here’s one of my own ideas about dealing with climate change: maybe it is time to accept the fact that it is probably going to be hotter, and start to work on developing drought and heat resistant crops.


Physics for Future Presidents is available from Amazon.

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