Advice on Physics for Future Presidents From the Debunker in Chief

2/11/09Follow @bvbigelow

The President of the United States is supposed to know the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims. But somehow, as Richard Muller points out, nobody expects America’s commander in chief to know the differences between uranium and plutonium, or between gasoline and hydrogen.

That’s why he teaches “Physics for Future Presidents” at UC Berkeley, a course for non-science majors that Muller relishes as his opportunity to inform the business majors and liberal arts students who represent our future leaders. The longtime Cal physics professor turned his idea for the class into a textbook, and more recently into a popular book with the same title.

Now he’s on a roll. Muller was the featured speaker at Xconomy’s premiere event in San Diego Monday night, just a week or so after meeting with global leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (He even got to fly home aboard the Google jet).

With “Physics for New Presidents” as his theme, Muller assumes a role that could be described as an equal opportunity “Debunker in Chief.” In rapid succession, he separates some core, inescapable scientific truths from the myths surrounding them. He started by dispelling fears sown by Dick Cheney about terrorists planting nuclear bombs on U.S. soil and ended by puncturing Al Gore’s inflated interpretations of the scientific evidence for global warming. Among the chestnuts he shucked:

—Nuclear bombs are extremely difficult to make, even for industrialized countries. Muller says he’s far more worried about another “low tech” terrorist act involving 60 tons of gasoline and a crowded football stadium on a Sunday afternoon.

—U.S. reserves of coal and oil shale far exceed the amount of crude oil remaining in Saudi Arabia and most other countries combined. “This is great news for energy independence and bad for global warming,” Muller says. Nevertheless, he says the United States should develop all of its energy resources, using “clean coal” technologies and other innovations to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

—The scientific consensus, presented by an authoritative study on global warming by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, concluded that the warming trend from 1850 to 1957 cannot be attributed to human activities. From 1957 to 2007, the study found a 90 percent likelihood that human activities caused a global average temperature increase of only about 1 degree Fahrenheit.

—Weather data do not show an increase in the number of hurricanes over the past century, nor do the data show an increase in the number of major category hurricanes. Today, hurricanes are detected by weather satellites and sensors in mid-ocean. Such observations were impossible before the first weather satellite was launched 49 years ago.

—Carbon dioxide emissions in developing countries, especially China and India, represent the biggest source of the predicted increase in greenhouse gases. It is a far more intractable problem in terms of curbing emissions, because coal is a cheap and bountiful energy source and clean energy technologies are too costly in comparison. “The only solution that I can think of is that we have to pay developing countries to use clean energy,” Muller says. Otherwise, they won’t use it.

As for energy development in the United States, Muller says his counsel is, “Don’t be greener than thou. Don’t bicker that ‘My technology is greener than yours. ‘ We need all of them. We need clean coal. We need nuclear. We need solar and wind. We need them all.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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