Physics for Future Presidents by Richard Muller

Every time I mention the idea of teaching physics to a wider audience than just physics majors, somebody brings up Richard Muller's course, "Physics for Future Presidents," at Berkeley. So, I was pleased to find out that he has turned the course into a book, also titled Physics for Future Presidents, with the subtitle "The Science Behind the Headlines." I was going to try to cadge a free copy from his publisher, but our default local Borders is closing, and they were offering deep discounts on all their stock, so I just bought a copy.

The book is framed as a sort of memo to somebody who will eventually become President, and walks through the science involved in a bunch of high-profile subjects that the President will potentially need to make decisions about-- terrorism, energy, nukes, space, and global warming. The main text is almost completely math-free (he does do some calculations in footnotes), but it lays out the basic physics involved in the various scenarios in a very clear and compelling way.

By way of example, here's his discussion of the threat of a terrorist "dirty bomb" similar to what Jose Padilla wanted to build:

I'll assume the same amount of radioactive material as in the Goiania incident: 1400 curies of cesium-137. Radiation damage is measured in a unit called the rem, and if you stand 1 yard from such a cesium source, you'll absorb 450 rem in less than an hour. This dose of radiation is 50% higher than the LD50 (which stands for lethal dose 50%) for cesium-137, meaning that, untreated, you'll have greater than a 50% chance of dying in the next few months from that exposure.

To try to enhance the damage, let's use explosives to spread our 1400 curies over a larger area-- say, a neighborhood 1 mile square. The result will be a radioactivity of 0.5 millicurie per square yard, and a careful calculation shows that if you are in this area, then after an hour of exposure your exposure will be 0.005 rem, 5 millirem. That's a tiny amount, far below the threshold for radiation illness (100 rem), so you won't get sick at all. If you stay in the area, even after a month your dose will be only 4 rem, still way below the threshold for radiation sickness. There will be no dead bodies whatsoever, unless someone is killed by the explosion itself. I suspect this is why al-Qaeda instructed Jose Padilla to abandon the dirty-bomb concept and try to plan a natural-gas explosion instead. True, low levels of radioactivity can induce cancer, but that takes years. I suspect that al-Qaeda doesn't just want to brag about the number of premature cancers that will be induced by their attack. They need their followers to see photos of bodies.

Muller then goes on to calculate the increased cancer risk, and shows that it is insignificant. For this reason, he advises the hypothetical future President that dirty bombs are not worth worrying about as a terrorist threat.

He does similar analyses for most of the issues he discusses-- working through order-of-magnitude numbers to show that many threats are oversold, and many strongly hyped technologies can't live up to their more extravagant publicity. The arguments he presents are clear, simple, and compelling, though I can't help wondering if they would play as well for people who are not mathematically inclined. His calculations regarding cancer risks due to various nuclear scenarios are certainly convincing to me, but these are emotionally charged subjects, and I'm not sure a few back-of-the-envelope calculations will carry as much weight with the innumerate.

He makes some attempt to maintain a neutral tone in most of the issues, but he slips occasionally. At one point, he offers a weak apology for lapsing into outright advocacy for nuclear fission as a (partial) solution for energy problems, and he gets a little testy when talking about excessively dramatic claims made regarding the IPCC's findings on climate (he was apparently a reviewer for the IPCC report, and doesn't think too highly of Al Gore's exaggerations of some of the findings for An Inconvenient Truth). He's also a little more enthusiastic about "clean coal" technology than the online consensus-- it'd be interesting to hear what some of ScienceBlogs's more environmentally inclined bloggers think of Muller's analysis.

Overall, his conclusions are surprisingly upbeat-- terrorism is less of a threat than you might think, we can find solutions to our energy needs, and global warming (or at least CO2 emissions) can be addressed relatively easily. I can't claim any great expertise in any of these fields, but I find his back-of-the-envelope estimates fairly convincing. Of course, making any of this work politically is another issue entirely...

This was an excellent book, all in all. There are a few places where it reads a little like a textbook (several of the sections end with what are obviously discussion questions), and a couple of typos here and there. My biggest complaint is that there's no mention in the introduction about the footnotes-- these are sprinkled through the text, and initially looked like they were just citations of sources. In fact, the footnotes often contain calculational details, along with some wonderfully witty asides. They deserve to be advertised in the introductory material.

Of course, I'm not exactly in the target demographic for this book. It looks great to me, but I'd be interested to hear what people with no science background think of it.

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For this reason, he advises the hypothetical future President that dirty bombs are not worth worrying about as a terrorist threat.

That, unfortunately, is not "physics for presidents," it's "physics (and biology) for the general public."

Don't get me wrong. I've read dissections of the end results of dirty bombs for years now, and I have yet to read one that looked reputable, that didn't say basically what that one said.

The problem is, it doesn't matter what a sitting President believes, or even what members of Congress believe. What matters is what the general voting public believes, and the general voting public believes that nuclear is scary, thus neatly explaining the general freak-out over nuclear power as well as the general freak-out over radiological bombs. And as long as that's the case, publicly elected officials are going to react accordingly.

In the best of cases, the Something Must Be Done mentality will end up in a lot of wasted time and money. In the worst of cases, it'll get used to push some other highly dubious agenda that turns out to be almost completely unrelated.

By John Novak (not verified) on 22 Aug 2008 #permalink

Overall, his conclusions are surprisingly upbeat-- terrorism is less of a threat than you might think,

Than WHO might think? We kill 17 times the number of people that died on 9/11 with cars every year. What America needs is mandatory course on risk analysis for everyone, with refresher courses every few years. Like vaccinations, only without the whining about autism.

"Global warming... can be addressed relatively easily"? Really? I guess I'll have to pick up a copy of the book and see what it says, but that sounds suspicious, and would make me worry about the validity of the rest of the book. (I'm no expert on global warming, but I do a lot of reading and I've attended a lot of talks on the subject, and the scope of the effort needed to deal with the problem is huge according to every expert assessment I've ever encountered.)

I haven't read the book, and I'm also not the target audience (though I haven't ruled out running for President at some point...). I just wanted to give a big shout-out to Rich Muller -- I knew him at Berkeley and he's a true independent thinker and one heck of a nice guy.

I have no germane comment but cannot resist commenting that Rich Muller was Jordin's thesis adviser. I never got to meet him because although he was planning on coming to the wedding, we got married on the day of the Great Oakland Fire, and Rich lives in those hills. Everything was ok, but he had more important things to do that afternoon....


The only thing missing from that snippet was a mention of the things you might do that could increase your radiation exposure by 5 mrem. Flying around the country every day (like when campaigning for President) is, IIRC, way over that. Denver has higher background radiation (higher elevation and more granite) than other places.

But this is rational thinking. We had to take the N out of NMR to get people to use it because our government had gone out of its way to make nuclear scary. It had to, to increase the effect of our deterrent. Something does not have to be a real weapon to be effective. A "dirty bomb" is the perfect example of a terror weapon because its primary effect is terror, not injury.

A similar issue applies to comment #2. Many studies have shown that people assign greater fear to risks that are out of their perceived control. THEY are in control of the car, so that makes it safe. A PILOT is flying the plane, and they are along for the ride. That's where backseat driving comes from; trying to get back in control.

Come to think of it, who was the most science-literate president? Carter had a B.Sc. from the Naval Academy; did any of the others do better?

I love people that say, this isn't physics for Presidents but physics for the general public. Like our President's are somehow vastly brilliant people who can devour quantum mechanics like it was a grade school course. Ahem, have you been listening to the last several Presidents? This book brings out the worst in "activists" because it doesn't subscribe to their "sky is falling" hyperbole. And woe be to those who do not embrace Al Gore as our savior for they shall suffer under the hordes of depressed erudites.