Physics for Future Presidents: The Science behind the Headlines

November 27, 2008

If you were trying to give a crash course on physics for world leaders, what would you include? Global warming, nuclear power and even space are all subjects that Richard Muller and I agree are matters of concern for a country's leader. However, Muller's self-professed approach differs from the one that I would have chosen. He tells the reader: "All of this is physics by total immersion. Don't pause too long if you find something confusing." I personally would prefer my country's leader to understand more thoroughly, but maybe I am being unrealistic.

My initial reaction to Muller's book was that it lacked insight into how physics and science really work - the importance of observation and experimentation that provide evidence from which we are able to draw a series of conclusions. This view is, however, in contrast to that of the author's, which is that "what a future president needs to be able to do ... is not pontifications on the scientific method". But world leaders will inevitably need to seek advice from experts and I believe that the need to balance and criticise evidence is a key skill that unifies politicians and physicists. An understanding of scientific methodology can lead each to pose the appropriate and searching questions required to solve national and inter-national problems.

However, as I read beyond the emotional subject of terrorism in Muller's first section, I became much more engaged with his writing. The later parts of his book, covering issues of energy, nuclear power and global warming, were informative, easy to follow and, in my opinion, contained a lot more physics. Indeed, beginning the book with part two would have changed my first impressions significantly. Here, readers are led through the analysis of significant scientific data and are introduced to some of the crucial arguments that concern each of the topics in question.

The key point of this book is very much hidden in the word "presidents", rather than world leaders, as it is clearly targeting a US audience. Usually this would not be restrictive, but here I felt that the focus and terminology were a little too specific - many of the subjects covered are of global concern but the discussion was naturally heavily weighted to an American perspective. In some cases the terminology actually led to my confusion: in particular the author's discussion of mass, weight and gravity was unnecessarily complicated by our different systems of units.

In summary, Muller targets a difficult audience: those who may not be naturally attracted to physics but who commendably feel it is essential that they understand more to make informed judgments. His motives are well grounded and despite the slightly sensationalist headings of "Terrorism" and "Nukes", he makes sensible suggestions with regard to appropriate actions given a range of possible scenarios.

My main criticism of the book lies in the first part on terrorism, where I felt that despite the author's pledge - "I try hard to stay away from issues in politics, business, and diplomacy" - these topics feature more strongly than physics, including discussion of "the personalities of the successful suicide bombers".

The strength of this book is that Muller reinforces the point that there are no immediate solutions to our 21st-century problems and that ultimately one must make a judgment call. If his goal for this book is to give future presidents enough information and confidence to be able to challenge exaggerated and unjustified claims, then I consider it a success. I would also hope that as the "laws of countries can be changed, but the laws of physics are pretty much set", as Muller observes, it will stimulate a thirst for further knowledge.

Physics for Future Presidents: The Science behind the Headlines

By Richard A. Muller. Norton, 354pp, £15.99. ISBN 97803930662. Published 29 August 2008

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