Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


PHYSICS FOR FUTURE PRESIDENTSPhysics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines

By Richard A. Muller 

Narrated by Peter Larkin


“Physics for Future Presidents” suggests that 21st century Presidents must understand some physics to be effective leaders. Richard Muller’s premise for understanding physics gives license to the author to explore everything from manned space flight, to satellite surveillance, to terrorist use of nuclear bombs.

Muller begins his book with the modern world’s effort to understand and contain terrorism.  Muller explores the possibility of a terrorist organization building a nuclear bomb and detonating it in the middle of an American City.  He looks at the possibility from three perspectives.  One, difficulty in acquiring fissionable material; two, difficulty of building a nuclear device and three, difficulty in delivering a weapon of mass destruction to a desired location. Miller suggests a greater danger is terrorist attack by private planes, loaded with highly flammable fuel, e.g. 9/11.  Or, for a terrorist organization to use chemical and biological agents that directly or indirectly infect population centers.

Muller, at times, seems to stand at the side of fictional character Dr. Strangelove in describing historical information about radiation poisoning from nuclear bombs and accidents.  Statistical deaths from the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombing, Three Mile Island’s shutdown, and Chernobyl’s meltdown suggest that direct attribution of death to nuclear radiation is small in comparison to other causes of death.

What Miller is driving at is that physics will determine what form a large terrorist attack will take.  Easiest-with-the-greatest-psychological-impact is the physics and political reality of terrorist attacks–Muller reasons that the more likely consequential (1000s killed) terrorist attack would be similar to 9/11/01; i.e. with a private plane (rather than public airline) filled with fuel that is flown into a major sports event.

There are a number of counter-intuitive insights in “Physics for Future Presidents”.  Muller believes manned space flight is a waste of money.  He argues that most of the greatest innovations in science have come from unmanned space flight.  Weather satellites, spy satellites, entertainment satellites, global positioning satellites, drones, exploration of planets and the solar system have all come from unmanned space flight.  Muller believes there is a time for manned space flight–but not now.  It is too dangerous and produces little new-science.

Muller argues that nuclear power can be used as a fail-safe source of energy by using the latest technology for nuclear power plants.  The latest technology (actually first used in the 1960s by Germany) is a pebble bed reactor (PBR).  It is considered safe because it does not rely on water cooling of the nuclear core in the event of an accident.


Muller argues that revisions of nuclear construction standards in the United States would make construction of pebble bed reactors less expensive than conventional American nuclear facilities.  The added benefit is a safer energy source that reduces the need for carbon based energy supplies that increase global warming.  A large part of Muller’s argument for the use of more nuclear power is based on the generally accepted scientific belief that global warming exists and is most likely caused by human activity.

“Physics for Future Presidents” is unlikely to be a popular book in Las Vegas, Nevada. Among other controversial subjects, Richard Muller believes Yucca Mountain is an adequately safe repository for nuclear waste and should be reopened.  His argument rests largely on the science of probability.  Muller infers that natural radiation in Colorado is as toxic and potentially lethal as the probability of radiation leaks at Yucca Mountain.


Muller spends a great deal of time explaining that global warming is not a 100% certainty but, in probability terms, is highly likely and significantly related to carbon-based energy use by human beings.  He notes that use of carbon-based energy is likely to increase with China and India’s continued economic growth.


Muller creates a sense of urgency in creating other sources of energy to offset global warming.  He strongly urges increasing motor vehicle mileage standards but questions the long-term viability of battery operated vehicles.  Muller believes the costs of battery replacement will drive consumers back to carbon-based energy models.

Muller sees potential in solar and wind energy production but believes conservation will do more short-term good than any new source of energy.  He clearly sees that the cost of energy is the primary driver of technological innovation.  As long as oil and coal are less expensive than other sources of energy, they will remain the primary source of power.  With that realization, Muller insists on technological innovation in conservation because it motivates the consumer to become a part of the solution in the energy crisis.  Consumer’ participation in reducing energy consumption is guaranteed because of pocket-book’ savings from use of more energy-efficient devices.


The key to the world’s future is energy.  Muller believes the short-term solution to decreasing global warming is energy conservation.  He believes long-term solution revolves around nuclear fission and fusion.  Fusion is a longer term prospect but offers an infinite source of energy.  Fission is shown to work now, with probabilities of failure that can be significantly reduced.


This circles back to the critical importance of storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain and other specially designed nuclear waste sites.  Muller notes that the fragmented system of nuclear storage in the United States is a bigger risk to the environment than locating nuclear waste in a limited number of storage locations.  Yucca Mountain fits Muller’s criteria for safe storage of nuclear waste.  He acknowledges that nuclear accidents may occur but the probability of an accident at Yucca Mountain is less than the probability of accident at other relatively unsecure and fragmented sites in equally or more populated areas.

The physics that Muller insists Presidents must understand is that scientific proof is a matter of probability; not absolute certainty.  Muller warns Presidents to not be misled by cherry-picking fact finders that have political objectives that are not grounded by the truth of science.   One may conclude from Muller’s book that even if there is no certainty in science, knowing probabilities offer a basis for informed decision.  [contact-form-7 id=”4561″ title=”Comments?”]

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