Thursday, 18 September 2008

Physics for Future Presidents – Richard A. Muller *****

Sometimes I see a book title that is so brilliant that I can’t help feel (as a writer) ‘I wish I’d thought of that.’ This is just such a title. It’s a brilliant concept – the physics any decent US president really ought to know to be able to make the decisions that face him or her.
What’s more, the contents live up to the title. Physics professor Richard A. Muller delivers some real surprises, separating what many of us think we know from reality. In five sections, handling terrorism, energy, ‘nukes’, space and global warming he delivers some devastating truths, putting across information that it’s hard to believe any president has really grasped – yet it’s so important that they do.
I don’t want to go into too much detail – read the book – but, for example, in the terrorism section he points out that petrol (and aviation fuel) has more energy per tonne than TNT. This was why the Twin Towers came down on 9/11 – not because of the impact of the planes, but the energy released by the burning fuel. Each section uses the main theme as a starting point, but then pulls in other ideas. So, for example, while the space theme has plenty about the fact that manned spaceflight is not undertaken for scientific reasons (he argues strongly against it, encouraging much more unmanned space work), he also covers the use of gravity for remote detection, and the use of non-visible light (infra-red, radar etc.) in intelligence gathering.
One small gripe and one big one. The small gripe is that it’s a shame there isn’t a European edition of the book. Muller has used US units throughout, rather than scientific units (Fahrenheit temperatures instead of Celsius, for instance), which is ideal for the target audience of would-be US presidents, but less helpful over here. The big one is I think there is one big section missing – pure physics. It doesn’t really come through that there’s any need to do physics without an immediate application. In the past this has meant passing the crown for nuclear physics from the US, with the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider, to Europe with the Large Hadron Collider (due to go live days after this review was written) – future presidents should understand the implications of not putting money into such valuable research.
All in all, without doubt, both the best concept I’ve seen in ages and an excellent fulfilment of the promise of the title.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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