104 of 111 people found the following review helpful
on September 2, 2008
What drew me to this book was not so much its title, although it is quite intriguing, but its author. I had read a couple of Professor Muller's books in the past and found them to be very engaging as well as models of clarity. This book is no exception. Using logical scientific reasoning, the author addresses various topics that a future president would likely need to deal with. The topics are: terrorism, energy, nuclear matters, outer space and global warming. Removing any mythology and misinformation that may be associated with these issues, the author carefully analyzes them from a physics perspective; this is to help any future presidents in making solid well-informed decisions. The contentious matter of global warming is dealt with particularly well; in fact, it is one of the fairest and most level-headed discussions of this matter that I have read thus far. A set of notes at the end of the book contain a few simple calculations that complement some of the statements in the main text. However, a reader who is math-phobic need to not worry since the notes are not essential to fully appreciate the book's content. The writing style is very clear, accessible, authoritative, friendly and quite engaging. This informative book can be enjoyed by anyone, especially those interested in the use of a logical scientific approach to address important world issues.
47 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 2008
This book is not for the casual reader, but it is a must-read for those who pride themselves on being well informed in any one of the five important issues discussed in this book: Terrorism, Energy, Nukes, Space, and Global Warming. The author has ordered the subject matter according to what he believes are the most pressing issues that will confront the new President. While passionate about the subject material, the author is refreshingly detached in reaching his conclusions, as a physicist should be.
When I recommend this book to my better-informed friends, the most frequent question I get back is, "What does he say about Global Warming?" Those who are looking for pithy sound bites will be disappointed. Those who fear a boring professorial-type lecture will be pleasantly surprised. Dr. Muller presents well thought-out rationales for each section, and his delivery has been refined in the classroom by teaching non-physics students at the University of California, Berkley.
I appreciate Dr. Muller's respect for his readers (and future Presidents.) He does not try to impose a hidden agenda upon us. Dr. Muller clearly states his premises and the physics of his findings flows nicely from them
Here is a sketch of my views, as a physicist, on what the reader can expect.
Terrorism: Dr. Muller discusses the high energy content in the jet fuel carried by each hijacked airplane that hit the towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11. He later describes the likely limitations of a terrorist's dirty bomb. He reminds us that Jose Padilla, an American with extensive al-Qaeda training, proposed to build a dirty bomb. Padilla was directed instead to blow up two apartment buildings using natural gas.
Energy: Dr. Muller hits us with a number of "surprises," such as, gasoline delivers 15 times the energy of an equal weight of TNT; coal is 20 times cheaper than gasoline for the same energy; a square mile of sunlight at midday receives a gigawatt of power. He points out that gasoline holds 100 times more energy, pound for pound, than the high quality expensive batteries in cell phones. (Hence, although he owns a hybrid car himself, he is skeptical about the future of all-electric cars until batteries or fuel cells can be greatly improved.)
Nukes: Here he includes both nuclear weapons and nuclear power. After explaining how to estimate the dangers of exposing many people to radioactivity, he discusses the difficulty of building nuclear weapons. He describes how to build safe nuclear reactors, such as Pebble Bed reactors.
Space: Dr. Muller's believes that science should be the central goal of government space programs. Consequently, he advocates robotics rather than manned space travel. He uses a number of examples to illustrate rocket propulsion, orbits, spy satellites, stealth bombers, meteorite impacts, etc.
Global Warming: This is the most balanced and competent treatment of climate change that I have found. After a chapter on climate history, Dr. Muller discusses the Greenhouse Effect. The evidence brings him to the conclusion that most of the buildup of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is manmade. He then classifies the various kinds of distortions and exaggerations that have plagued this subject over the last decade. Next, he focuses on what he sees as the real task: reducing carbon dioxide. After a discussion of "Non-solutions," he addresses solutions. The centerpiece is a concept that he calls "Comfortable Conservation," by which he means better ways to accomplish a task that is less polluting and often cheaper. Florescent light bulbs are an example.
80 of 96 people found the following review helpful
We don't expect our presidents to be literal rocket scientists (though it would be nice if one of them every so often was at least a metaphorical one), but we ought to expect them to know enough about science to surround themselves with the very best advisors. The troubling truth of the matter is that presidents, like most Americans, know little about science, even though public policy is increasingly dependent on scientific expertise. So author Richard Muller, who teaches science to nonscience majors at UC-Berkeley, has written his Physics for Future Presidents not only for future presidents but also current citizens.
The book isn't an easy read, and there are enough graphs and equations to set aflutter the hearts of even the most intrepid of nonscientists. But Muller recognizes this possibility, and recommends that nonscientific readers go for the big picture, not allowing themselves to get bogged down with details that might be too complicated on a first run-through. And the big picture--or rather big pictures--he wants us to understand are the science behind bombs and biological weapons likely to be used by terrorists (chapters 1-4), the fossil fuel crisis (chapters 5-7), nuclear energy and nuclear weapons (chapters 8-14), space technology, including space weapons (chapters 15-19), and global warming (chapters 19-25). Especially helpful are the "Presidential Summaries" in which Muller offers convenient wrap-ups of each of the five topics he discusses and some quick public policy recommendations.
My guess is that many readers will find his section on global warming the most interesting and contentious. Muller concludes that global warming is a reality, but one which has been exaggerated in certain ways. Other conclusions that will doubtlessly be contested by some include his claim that disposal of nuclear waste from power plants isn't really a problem (pp. 173-77) and that there's no viable alternative to fossil fuels in sight (in this regard, by the way, Muller agrees with James Howard Kunstler's conclusion in the latter's brilliant The Long Emergency).
It's in the arena of public policy recommendations that Muller, I think, falls short. His answers are too often quick and easy. (Quick example: when it comes to public policy, we (meaning the US but presumably any other country too) "have no right" to insist that China (or presumably any other country) cut back on pollution creation. The implication of this is that the international community has no moral authority--a scary conclusion. And even though Muller claims to be letting science speak for itself in every chapter but one (p. 173), science, performed as it is by opinionated humans, rarely speaks in neutral terms, especially in a book like this. Perceptive readers will pick up on Muller's interpretation of what he considers to be basic data, especially when it comes to global warming trends.
Still, a very helpful, very good book. Even if presidential candidates don't actually read it, it's good that voters do.
73 of 94 people found the following review helpful
on March 24, 2009
The 5 star and 1 star reviews are both credible. It's easy, interesting science reading, but his policy conclusions sometimes steamed me. If you can read it with an open mind and healthy skepticism, then it's 5 stars--enjoy it! If you will gullibly swallow everything he says, then it's a toxic 1 star for you. I give it 3.5.
On the positive side, it's fascinating to learn that a chocolate chip cookie has half the energy of the equivalent weight of gasoline and much more energy than the equivalent weight of either TNT or bullets. Nor did I know that Bush's "nukular" pronunciation is common at some of our weapons labs nor that global warming is likely to increase, not decrease, antarctic ice.
Learn how stealth technology avoids radar, how infrared is used to spot marijuana growing in an attic, or how x-ray backscatter spots illegal immigrants in a truckload of bananas. Such unusual facts abound, and make this eminently worthy of reading--albeit with some skepticism.
On the negative side, it sometimes seems that he segues between science and politics such that policy recommendations falsely appear to have been proven by hard science. It sometimes (not always) smells a bit like conservative politics masquerading as pure science--exactly what I hoped this book intended to expose.
His discussion of nuclear waste is an example. Even if you buy his calculations (I don't), he begins with the premise that we already have it and must put it somewhere, argues for the benefits of putting it in Yucca Mountain, and then subtly leaves the reader with the impression that he has therefore dismissed valid objections to this aspect of nuclear power. He evades the real questions, such as whether we should generate MORE nuclear waste, how the corporations who profit from the nukes can possibly be charged and trusted to pay for the $100 Billion dollar disposal facility and the cost to maintain it for centuries to come, and whether the prevailing powers (government, regulators, corporations) can be trusted to actually follow the prescribed practices. Remember that we dumped 22,000 barrels of atomic waste into the ocean just 20 miles beyond the Golden Gate (San Francisco) into the 1970's--long after we knew better. The nuclear industry, like most large corporations, has demonstrated that they are simply driven by short term profit and are not above evading regulations, colluding with regulators, buying politicians, and otherwise putting profits above public welfare. (That might almost be a definition of a modern corporation.) Granted, these points are NOT PHYSICS, but HE deviates from physics whenever it suits his agenda.
I also felt that he failed to do justice to the horrors of depleted uranium munitions. Our soldiers with Gulf War Syndrome and Iraqi parents of malformed children are likely to have a different viewpoint, which you can get from the documentary Beyond Treason.
He does make some good points about nuclear--for instance pebble bed reactors in place of China's dirty coal power--and I find myself concurring that further consideration may be warranted. But if even the U.S. can't use radioactivity responsibly then how can we expect China or other developing nations to follow all the protocols and safety requirements? (I had some experiences with the Three Mile Island Citizen's Monitoring Network that left a deep distrust of the industry.)
9/11 theorists will be disappointed that he accepts the standard explanations and has not addressed any of the unanswered questions. For example, he barely addresses the third building that fell that day, nor the rate at which it fell (nearly free fall). (At least he could provide a calculation for the time of fall where the falling mass accretes stationary floors as it accelerates.) Nor does he examine the physics of the total "vaporization" of the titanium engine parts of the jet that struck the pentagon nor how it is that the engines and vertical stabilizer left no imprint on the building facade.
He acknowleges the Hubbert's Peak of oil but dismisses it, saying that we can simply convert coal to gasoline whenever oil stays above $50/bbl. This might be true, but it leaves the reader complacent about peak oil, and it's not until later, in other contexts, where he discusses the environmental costs of coal. See The Party's Over by Heinberg and The Long Emergency by Kunstler for a widely divergent viewpoint.
He explains why solar-powered cars are impractical but should have explicitly make it clear that he's referring only to photovoltaics upon the vehicles themselves and not to broader strategies of solar powered transportation (e.g. solar charging of batteries or fuel cells). I often had the sense that he wanted me to unconsciously draw broad conclusions from narrowly specific examples. Later, he returns to autos in much better detail.
He is dismissive of photovoltaic power as not yet economically viable today (economics, not physics). (Isn't there some sort of Moore's Law for photovoltaics???) But his economics don't include the macroeconomic principal of externalities, like the environmental, human, and military costs of fossil-power electricity that are borne by societies, nations, or the whole planet rather than the individual. One of the functions of govenment policy is to provide incentives to bring the individual's actions into concert with a globally wholistic highest benefit (e.g. tax incentives for solar).
His later chapters do discuss photovoltaic advances and slightly touch on externalites by explaining carbon credits. He even mentions the "tragedy of the commons" in passing. Likewise, I find many of my criticisms at least partially addressed when he revisits a subject in later chapters, so that by the end of the book it felt more complete. Topics are scattered and much is repeated.
I'm appalled by his shameful treatment of recycling, which he categorizes as a "nonsolution." He says, "...you don't want to recycle newspapers or use biodegradable plastics--at least not as far as global warming is concerned." Granted, a pile of newspapers kept in your basement will sequester carbon, but the inattentive reader may interpret this as a license to discard those papers, where they will burn or rot, releasing their carbon, while more trees are cut down to replace them.
Worse is his treatment of plastics, which he considers to be merely an asthetic nuisance. While it's true that plastic waste sequesters carbon, plastics break into microscopic particles which still retain their hydrocarbon chains, and these are working their way up the ocean's food chain, killing both by lining stomachs with indigestible particles and by leaching phthalates and other deadly chemicals that have made their way up the chain to humans. Regions of the ocean now contain 46 times more plastic than plankton, and the plastic-induced diminishment of ocean life is NOT carbon neutral. For a primer, see the plastics campaign at greensangha.org.
Further, he completely ignores recycling of other substances. For example, recycling of aluminum saves vast amounts of energy. His dismissal of recycling isn't physics and isn't truthful. One wonders whether he has an ulterior motive or is simply lazy. Like much of this book, take it as one man's opinions and not as peer-reviewed science.
Nor can I forgive his cavalier dismissal of population pressure and derisive laughter at Malthus.
I was more impressed with his treatment of global warming, where I thought he was balanced and had an agenda for uncovering the whole truth, for better or worse. He debunks some evidence, supports others, acknowledges uncertainties, warns against propaganda in either direction, and agrees that we should error on the side of caution.
As a believer in anthropogenic climate change, I was dismayed but educated by his treatment of the widely publicized graphs of CO2 & temperature for the past 600,000 years. We've seen that CO2 concentration and temperature are tightly correlated, and I had been led to believe that evidence was stronger for causality in the direction of CO2 forcing temperature (greenhouse effect). He gives a mechanism for reverse causality: that warmer oceanic waters release their stores of CO2 while cooler waters absorb more, and this is substantiated by an 800 year lag. Further, he points out that the most salient feature, the large swings every 100,000 years, are indisputably caused by a wobble in the Earth's orbit. So the largest feature of this "smoking gun" evidence is in fact proven to be causality in the opposite direction from that implied by the likes of Al Gore. I humbly concede the point.
In defense of his balanced perspective on global warming, he says, "The real danger in shouting that the sky is falling is that it might not fall right away and people will lose interest."
In regards to energy & climate, he wisely says, "emphasis must be on technologies that the developing world can afford," by which he may mean we must develop carbon sequestration technology for developing nations to scrub their coal emissions.
Overall, many of the facts are interesting, and I can agree with his political policy conclusions half the time. Most irritating is his pro-nuclear position, which he failed to substantiate in any meaningful detail.
In conclusion, I highly recommend reading this but strongly caution against forming belief systems or policy positions based solely upon it. Read it warily, and take it to be yet one more source of data for open-minded appraisal.
ADDENDUM OCT 2013: Interesting comment about the author from Wikipedia: "The Charles G. Koch Foundation ... funded a $150,000 study by UC Berkeley physicist Richard Muller who initially concluded that climate change data was flawed, but later reversed his views, supporting scientific consensus."
63 of 82 people found the following review helpful
on July 22, 2008
Buy this book! Read it, and understand it. Then buy one for your Senators and Congressman, and insist they read and understand it. Richard Muller, a physics professor at Cal Berkeley and researcher at Laurence Berkeley Labs, has written a highly accessible book that treats some of the most important, yet misunderstood, topics of our time. He treats, in understandable language, the physics and some of the economics of terrorism, energy, nukes, space, and global warming. You will get no politics. In fact, you probably will have no idea who he might vote for. But you will learn the key facts, questions, and alternatives on the vital issues. You will be amazed at what you didn't know, what you knew that actually isn't true, and what the real alternatives for solutions likely are. You will be outraged at the ignorance of our politicians, policymakers, television news anchors and commentators, as well as newspaper editors and columnists. But you will not be bored.
Professor Muller reveals the real story, the promise and the limitations of solutions to topics such as these: Nine-Eleven, terrorist nukes, the next terrorist attack, and biological terrorism; key energy surprises, solar power, and the end of oil; radioactivity; nuclear weapons, nuclear power, nuclear waste, and controlled fusion; space and satellites, humans in space, and spy satellites; history of climate change, the greenhouse effect, evidence and false evidence, non-solutions, real solutions, and new technologies.
My personal biases: I have a background in both physics and management, and practiced both during a 35-year career with NASA. I do not know Professor Muller, but have admired his work since I discovered his "Physics for Future Presidents" podcasts on iTunesU. I highly recommend this book.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
While cleverly titled as a book for future presidents, "Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines" is an excellent resource for all, particularly for those who have been confused and/or dismayed by conflicting opinions and data on important science-based global issues of the day - terrorism, energy, nukes, space, and global warming. Physics Professor (UC Berkeley), "MacArthur Fellowship" winner, and now author, Richard Muller, does an excellent job in setting the record straight for a global public victimized by "experts" and politicians who have been distorting, exaggerating, and cherry-picking the evidence to advance personal agendas as well as by the fourth estate, the mainstream media, who has been complicit with news bias and an intellectual laziness in ferreting out the facts.
This very well written and easy to read book has been written for the lay audience. Those who take the time to read "Physics for Future Presidents" will be well informed and well prepared to discuss these issues from a position of knowledge rather than opinion drawn from the lay press. You will learn about the difference between uranium and plutonium bombs, the difficulty of enriching uranium (Iran), the most probable future terrorist attacks, the truth about solar power and all other alternative energy sources, the realities of human space travel, the science behind low to high orbit satellites, the probability of cancer resulting from radiation exposure, the future of oil, the real cost of energy, and the importance of energy conservation.
"Physics for Future Presidents" covers the most essential facts and ideas enabling readers to understand the science behind the headlines, to discern distortions and personal agendas, and to participate fully in any discussion with friends, families, and associates. I have found this, despite my technical and science background, to be one of the most useful books I have read over the past four years. Muller does an excellent job in entertaining while laying out scientific principles critical to understanding today's world simply.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Large numbers of us out here in the real world did not major in (or even take much beyond required) science in college. We are the humanities majors who prefered English or Psychology to Physics or Chemistry. This also means that often a scientist isn't what the rest of us might call a "clear" writer. Meet Richard Muller. He writes with clarity all of us can understand. We, as citizens, are more able to take a stand on public policy for having read this book. He covers the science of terrorism, energy, nuclear matters, outer space and global warming. Some of the reviewers who give him fewer than 5 stars on this book do so because he sometimes over simplifies, but I guarantee you will be better informed after reading the book.
There are a few things left out. For instance, using solar cells to make energy he covers, but not using evacuated tubes to heat your water. He talks about geothermal energy but not ground source heat. And I felt he could have given more emphasis to the incremental results from all of us doing a little something. But these are small things in a book that is important for informed citizens.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 31, 2010
I find it highly comical that the negative reviews come from obvious progressive environmentalists and global warming alarmists. The author is a Prius driving Berkeley professor, not a conservative of any stripe. There is a lot of "physics for poets" level of education on the science behind important areas of policy concern, largely related to energy, the military and the environment. It is sound and level headed, with great effort on the part of the author to stick to the science and avoid political bias.
That isn't to say he avoided policy entirely or was necessarily correct everywhere. His section on global warming points out some of the big exaggerations of the Al Gore alarmist crowd, including for example the suppression of the Medival warming period in the infamous hockey stick chart hoax. The author states his belief that global warming is a real problem, but worries that the hyperbole will cause loss of credibility when the public figures out it was duped in a number of areas. I don't think the author fully appreciates the potential danger for destroying the credibility of science in general rather than just in this particular policy area. Until there is a deeply serious, intellectually honest top to bottom reassessment of the science behind global warming this risk remains. It is the equivalent for science of the sex scandals for the Catholic church. Very damaging in a fundamental way to an otherwise worthy institution.
His greatest contribution on the topic of energy in my view is some simple calculations showing that small improvements in energy efficiency every year coupled with lowered population growth mean that it is entirely feasible for the entire population of the planet to enjoy first world living standards over time with less global energy consumption than we have today. His prescriptions on how to go about this energy efficiency might be off a bit, but directionally correct. He also repeats what most savvy observers say that what really matters is what happens in India and China. The global warming regulations in my own state of California may destroy our economy, but they won't matter a bit even if you buy into global warming alarmist theory completely.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2011
I just finished reading this book, having checked it out of my local public library. Now I want to own a copy; it's at the top of my non-fiction "want list."
For perspective, it's very hard to get a five-star rating out of me. Usually I can find some minor flaw, not significant but enough to knock a star off the rating. In this case, while the book isn't perfect (what book is?), what flaws it has are so inconsequential as to not warrant mention.
This book is a wonderful summary of many of the science-based issues that are likely to face the President of the United States in coming decades, and the basic facts and physics around them. The book is divided into sections: Terrorism (specifically, the weapons and methods terrorists are likely to use), Energy (focusing on oil and solar power), Nukes (both weapons and energy), Space, and Global Warming.
In his Introduction, Dr. Muller cites a Josh Billings quote (often misattributed to Mark Twain, and sometimes to Will Rogers): "The trouble with most folks isn't their ignorance. It's knowin' so many things that ain't so." He addresses many of the commonly-held myths about these topics in a way that most scientific laymen can understand, and with a tone that recognizes the reader's probable laymanship without being condescending.
Among the covered topics where I either un-learned something I thought I knew, or that addressed myths I'd heard repeatedly, were the Kyoto accord, solar power, dirty bombs, spy satellites, nuclear waste storage, clean coal, and the 2001 anthrax mailings. If you have an opinion on any of these topics, read this book; you'll find facts that will either back you up or change your mind.
The book was published in 2008, and intended for the candidates (and their supporters) in that year, but it will remain relevant for the 2012 elections and beyond.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 8, 2012
This book is fantastic. I have recommended it to all my friends and family. This book discusses issues that are constantly present in my mind, augments my thoughts with facts and eliminates my own internal inconsistencies, and its contents have found their way into many of my daily conversations. You won't regret reading this book.
You will, however, regret reading the digital version of this book. The words are so intently interesting that I was able to look past the multitude of "IMAGES IN THIS EBOOK ARE NOT DISPLAYED DUE TO PERMISSIONS ISSUES." The author starts describing something intensely interesting, and then offers a graph or chart or even a picture of what he's describing, and guess what, I can't see it. Totally reprehensible. I doubt this is the author's fault, probably the publisher's fault or Amazon's. Regardless, this awful fact was part of my purchase, and it severely diminishes the value of this book.
Otherwise, great read!