Monday, November 03, 2008

Q&A With Richard Muller

Physicist Richard Muller wrote the now-famous book "Physics For Future Presidents" that I've mentioned on here at least a couple of times. Wired has a short Q&A with him. It is very enlightening, especially when he was asked on the 3 issues that he would like to make the next president to understand (global warming, terrorism, and space exploration).

Q: If you could sit the candidates down and make them understand the physics of three issues, what would they be?

A: Let’s begin with terrorism. In terrorism, the fact is that gasoline has enormous energy. It has 15x the energy of TNT. What that means to me is that a likely terrorist attack is going to be like the World Trade Center where the damage was done by the fuel not the planes. Beware of the low tech!

In space, the glory of the last 40 years for NASA has been in robotics. Most scientists dread the thought that they have to have their instruments on a manned flight. For the extra cost of putting them on a manned flight, they could build 2 robots, the instrument itself and a backup.

Let’s do as much robotics as possible before sending humans.

Q: Is it just the cost of manned operations that is the problem?

A: No, most instruments work better when there are not humans walking around and shaking them. But it’s also the cost that it has to be so utterly safe for humans.

Q: And the third physics issue for presidents?

A: Global warming. There is a consensus that global warming is real. There has not been much so far, but it’s going to get much, much worse. The thing I would tell the president is that the global warming, according to the global consensus — that’s the IPCC scientists, who won the Nobel Prize — the global warming of the future is going to come from the developing world. It’s the exploding economies of China and India and Asia that are going to be responsible for the CO2.

This causes a political problem because they are poor and have a low standard of living and shouldn’t have to pay for emissions cuts.

So, the only way this is going to work is that we pay the expense of them cutting back. If all we do is set an example, the example we’ll have set is that once you’re a wealthy nation, you can cut back on CO2. If that’s the example, they will wait until they are wealthy and then they’ll cut back and it’ll be too late.

Of course, if either one of the candidates said, we have to send $100 billion to China, they’d lose. But after the election maybe they can talk about that.

Doing feel good things in the U.S. is fine. Going to biofuels is good for energy independence. Going to solar and nuclear is also good for energy independence and also good for global warming. But the U.S. is going to contribute less than 1 degree of warming to future warming. The future is primarily going to come from China. Their economy is growing at 10 percent a year. And their carbon footprint is growing even faster, 10 or 12 percent per year. The developing world is taking off.

The OECD countries [a group of wealthier nations] are now contributing much less than one-half of the carbon dioxide. The non-OECD countries are growing and growing in their energy use. And we have to be happy about that. It’s a good thing because it means their standard of living is getting better. It’s even a good thing for population control to have people who are happy and healthy.

Don't miss reading the whole article.


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