By Chet Yarbrough
Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines
By Richard A. Muller
Narrated by Peter Larkin
“Physics for Future Presidents” suggests understanding of practical physics is critical for future Presidents. Richard Muller’s argument is that Presidents need to know some physics to comprehend the utility of everything from energy, to manned space flight, to satellite surveillance, to terrorist use of nuclear bombs. Muller is not arguing that future Presidents need to understand the science of physics but the practical limitations of manned space flight, carbon-based energy, satellite intelligence, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Muller begins his book with the modern world’s effort to understand and contain terrorism. Muller’s book seems apropos based on President Trump’s effort to limit science research, discount CIA and FBI intelligence, and denuclearize North Korea.
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.
Surprisingly, Miller suggests a greater danger is terrorist attack by private planes, loaded with highly flammable fuel. Or, for a terrorist organization to use chemical and biological agents that directly or indirectly infect population centers.
Miller believes practical physics will determine the next world terrorist attack. Miller argues that the simplest plan will have the greatest impact. (Of course, there is also the implied psychology of terrorism.) Muller reasons a future terrorist attack (with 1000s killed) will be like 9/11, but with a private plane filled with fuel (not a nuclear bomb) flown into a major entertainment 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. He implies America should primarily invest in unmanned space flight.
Richard Muller, at times, seems to stand at the side of fictional character Dr. Strangelove. He describes historical information about radiation poisoning from nuclear bombs and accidents. Muller notes that statistical deaths from war (the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombing), Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl show that deaths from nuclear radiation is small in comparison to terrorist events initiated by simple, practical, and conventional physics.
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.
This 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 that should be reopened. His argument largely rests on the science of probability. Muller infers that natural radiation in Colorado is as toxic as the probability of radiation leaks from stored nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.
Muller argues that revision 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.
Muller spends a great deal of time explaining that global warming is not a 100% certainty but, in probability terms, is highly likely and largely related to carbon-based energy use. 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. He strongly urges increasing motor vehicle mileage requirements but questions the 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 energy-crises’. Consumer’ participation is guaranteed by savings received from use of more energy-efficient devices.
The key to the world’s future is energy. Muller believes the short-term solution is 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 improved upon.
This circles back to the critical importance of storing nuclear waste. Muller notes that the fragmented system of nuclear storage in the United States is a bigger risk to the environment than having it located in a limited number of specifically designed 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 unsecured and fragmented sites.
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 objectives that are not related to practical physics. Even if there is no certainty in science, knowing probabilities offer a basis for informed decision.