Thursday, August 14, 2008

"Physics For Future Presidents" - The Book

I mentioned about a college course at Berkeley a while back titled "Physics for Future Presidents" ran by Richard Muller. He has now produced a book of the same title, and it is about time too, considering the report I posted yesterday regarding the lack of science-savvy of the US public in its decision-making.

The book provides the scientific literacy would-be leaders need to challenge ill-informed, partisan advice on science-based issues such as terrorist threats, global warming, the value of manned exploration of space and the dangers of nuclear weapons. With book in hand, candidates and presidents will be able to publicly explain and defend their decisions rather than defer to their science advisors.

He gave one very clear example where basic scientific literacy (we're not talking about having expert-level knowledge here, folks) would have help the current administration.

The need for such advice was demonstrated in 2003, said Muller, when President George W. Bush touted a future hydrogen economy in his State of the Union address, despite the fact that there are many problems with the use of hydrogen as a transportation fuel.

"There was nobody there to stop him and say, "No, this isn't going to work,'" Muller said. "I doubt that he knew, for example, that hydrogen is currently made from fossil fuels in a process that emits greenhouse gases, or that liquid hydrogen contains only a quarter the energy of gasoline per gallon, severely limiting an auto's range."

A year later in Bush's State of the Union message, there was no mention of the hydrogen economy, said Muller, who suspects that the president learned some physics in the interim.

One wonders how many other issues that were decided with similar lack-of-knowledge. I haven't read the book yet and will probably try to borrow one. But if you have read it, I'd love to hear a review based on your background.



Anonymous said...

I would rather not agree that reading a “Popular Science“ book could help to make decisions. Even if the president is a Master of Physics this doesn't guarantee that he would make “right” decisions.

There are different opinions on different matters between scientists. For example, I do not agree that hydrogen fuel cells have no future.

The presidents should not have any education in Physics, but rather to hear from what we call “scientific community”. Even though the community is not always right, there are no better way of doing things that to listen to it.

PS sorry for my awful English

Uoila said...

I've been a huge fan of the Physics for Future Presidents podcast that UC Berkley makes freely available. In fact, I think they are some of the most interesting videos i have ever watched. Each one is full of useful information that you can actually use. I was blown away when I first found these videos and I still find myself watching them over and over again.

Naturally, I couldn't wait for the book. I signed up for the release notification and immediately went to my local Barnes & Noble to pick it up when it came out to avoid shipping delay. I was actually pretty excited about it. I don't like to read novels or nonfiction, I have never really been into "leisure reading" but i found myself literally not being able to put this one down. Every page was just as interesting as the webcasts. The only downside is that there is of course a lot of overlap between the book and the podcasts. So much so that the same examples and situations are often used.

The positives by far outweigh those negatives and I thing that everybody (i mean everybody) should read this book and own it if possible!

My advice: Buy the book (~$30) and watch the videos (FREE!). Fascinating is the only word that comes close to describing the joy I had watching and reading both. Muller is a world class scholar and an incredible teacher. Don't miss this one!

John Burgeson said...

I'm just a little bit skeptical about some parts of this book. As an (ex) physicist myself, I keep asking "what are the hidden assumptions?"

54 years ago I was a grad student in physics, studying to one day join the space program. A certain well known physicist came to lecture one day and "proved" to us all that, based on known chemical reactions, a space rocket to the moon was simply not possible. It was not long aftter this "news" that I decided to go into some other career.

The "hidden assumption" in the lecture was that a space rocket must necessarily be single stage. Of course, not many years later multi-stage rockets attained the moon.

Muller's book assumes current knowledge, amd no breakthroughs -- indeed, he does not appear to even discuss such possibilities. That is why I am skeptical.

John Burgeson