Saturday, April 17, 2010

Book review: "Physics for future presidents"

"Physics for Future Presidents: the science behind the headlines," Muller.

The conceit is a little irritating, particularly because he only mentions it every 40 pages or so: You, the reader, will be president of the United States. This is what you need to know to understand the problems America faces, and how to explain them.

In reality, this book is "How to be an informed, non-wanker, contributor to modern society." His sections are (1) Terrorism (2) Energy (3) Nukes (4) Space (5) Global Warming. Why can't we require everyone to take -- and pass! -- this class before they can register to vote? Muller, a Berkley physics professor, is clearly a brilliant teacher. Let's start with a few quotes:

P.117, By the most pessimistic but credible estimates (i.e., not from Greenpeace), there may be 4,000 excess cancer deaths from Chernobyl. He then compares this to living in Denver, Colorado:
“A reasonable estimate is that the average yearly excess [radiation exposure] in Denver (compared to the US average)is about 0.1 rem per person per year. For 2.4 million people living in Denver for 50 years, this excess amounts t0 0.1 × 2,400,000 × 50 = 12 million rem, enough to cause 4800 excess cancers [using the unproven linear hypothesis]. That’s more death than is expected from the Chernobyl nuclear accident!”

P. 214, on the GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) satellite, which measures the mass of the part of the Earth it is traveling directly over:
“These satellites recently found that the ice volume in Antarctica is decreasing by 36 cubic miles per year! That amazing result is important in the discussion of global warming, a topic we’ll return to….”

Then, on P. 282:
“… the melting-Antarctica results didn’t verify the global-warming predictions but actually contradicted them…. [the IPCC] had predicted that global warming would increase the Antarctic ice mass. It is easy to see why this paradoxical prediction makes sense: Global warming causes increased evaporation of the ocean waters. When this extra water vapor reaches Antarctica, it falls as snow – because even with the present 1°F of global warming, most of Antarctica remains well below freezing.”

P. 222, On the detonation of the Space Shuttle Columbia:
“…at 5 miles a second, every ounce of the shuttle, including its human cargo, carries over 10 times the energy of an equal weight of TNT.”

P. 267, on the problem with computer models of climate change:
“Amazingly, out poor understanding of cloud formation is responsible for the largest uncertainty in climate calculations.”

P. 299: Muller, who is not global warming skeptic, lays out the fallacies, cherry-picking, and outright errors in Al Gore’s movie, then:
“A colleague of mine told me that in a poll asking the public to name a living scientist, the person whose name appeared most often was Al Gore. I don’t know if this is true or apocryphal… When it is discovered [by the public] that Gore has exaggerated his case, the public may reject the truly scientific case for fossil fuel-induced global warming. To use an old cliché, I fear that the public will throw out the baby with the dirty bathwater.” [This was written and published well before climate-gate.]

P. 308, on fusion for power plants:
“Fusion will likely be the energy source of the twenty-second century.”
Fusion burns prodigious quantities of tritium, which has to be made in a reactor (fission or fusion). However, even with clever engineering, the most you could hope for, in the case of 100% efficiency, is to produce two tritiums in the fusion reactor blanket per tritium burned. I don’t believe the engineering is ever likely to hit that level, so I think controlled fusion power is doomed. (Googling "tritium trick" mostly gives hits about an unrelated materials science experimental method.)

Muller says a few things I don't like. For starters, he says a fast-breeder could blow up in a high-yield explosion. I can't prove he's wrong, but I'm going to do some more research on that topic in hopes he is -- I love the fast reactor as a concept. In his chapter on solutions to global warming, he entitles a sub-section "Safe Nukes." Okay, I call bullshit on that: the nukes we have now are safe.

But anyway, quibbles notwithstanding, I totally endorse this book to anyone who is (1) interested in the science behind the headlines and (2) doesn't mind a non-mathematical approach.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the interesting review - I have seen this book and wondered about it, maybe I will actually buy a copy.


It's been pointed out to me that using a cartoon character's screen name while disabling anonymous comments would be a pot//kettle//black situation. So let's try the "anonymous allowed, all moderated" paradigm. Please be aware that moderation will occur at most once per day, every other day might be more likely. Please be patient. (I also notice some FireFox related comment-leaving problems; perhaps Google is getting angry at Mozilla users?)