10/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Physics for Future Presidents: What the Leader of the Free World Needs to Know

Given the sheer inanity of this presidential campaign (at least parts the McCain camp and much of the media are responsible for), it's distressingly easy to forget that the job of President of the United States is actually quite important. Presidents have to make big decisions, some of them urgent. And increasingly those decisions have a high-tech component. Whether the subject is terrorism, energy, nukes and global warming, it would be nice to think the leader of the free world had at least a nodding acquaintance with the basic science behind key issues that demand intelligent, and sometimes rapid, decision-making. (e.g. how dangerous is a "dirty bomb" and what's the right response if one is detonated in an American city? How worried should we be about "suitcase nukes" and shoe bombs? Which non-fossil fuel technologies show the most promise and which are a waste of money? etc. etc.)

How can our presidential candidates come by this knowledge so they'll be ready on Day One? They can read Physics for Future Presidents by Richard Muller, a physics professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Based on Muller's award-winning physics class for non-scientists, the book lays out in blessedly math-free detail the minimum a president needs to know to make informed -- and possibly life-or-death--decisions, and what a citizen needs to know to evaluate our current presidential candidates (one of whom, as I recall, is incapable of...emailing).

Here's a Q&A I did with Muller the other week by email.

Q. Why do future presidents need a good working knowledge of physics?

A. We live in a high tech world, and most major issues have a high tech component. Physics is the foundation of much high tech. The President can go to his science advisor for details, but should already understand the fundamentals. Perhaps even more important is that the President must be a leader, sufficiently confident with science to be able to show the public in a non-partisan way that his policies are correct.

In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush announced his enthusiasm for a "hydrogen economy." In 2004, his State of the Union Address didn't mention it. In the intervening year, he probably had learned the relevant physics: hydrogen has 4x less energy per gallon than gasoline; most of our hydrogen comes from fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases; hydrogen requires expensive fuel cells, so would not be of use in the developing world. Had he known these physics points in 2003, he might have suggested something more realistic, such as improved fuel economy standards.

Q. What does a future president need to know?

A. In my book I cover five broad topics: terrorism, energy, nukes, space, and global warming. There was a lot more I could have covered, but I wanted each page to discuss topics that are obviously key for the president to understand. I challenge the reader to find a page that is unimportant. (There are some -- but they are not easy to find.)

Q. Can you give a couple of examples showing how understanding basic physics can shape a president's decision-making?

A. Which is the greater terrorist threat, a nuke or another airplane attack? The president should know that the airplanes hitting the Twin Towers released more energy (about 1.8 ktons TNT equivalent) than did the North Korean nuclear test (less than 1 kton TNT).
When the President recognizes that low tech attacks can be both easier and more destructive than high tech ones, it can shift his priorities in homeland security.

The president needs to grasp the physics reasons why we are so addicted to gasoline: its huge energy content (100x greater than rechargeable batteries) and its easy storage. It isn't a love affair we have with gasoline; it is an unhappy marriage. But the President also needs to know that most of the energy we use in gasoline is wasted. Energy efficiency is the quick and cheap way to save energy. Yes, we could have autos that get 100 mpg. Many simple conservation measures are easier and quicker than creating new supplies.

Q. What is the single most important issue with a physics component that a president must address?

A. Global warming is the toughest. The subject is difficult to understand primarily because proponents on both sides spin and exaggerate. Physics is non-partisan, and it provides a core for the understanding of this issue. Yes, global warming is real, and should not be ignored, but many of the proposals on both sides sound attractive (to their proponents) but won't work.

Closely related to global warming is energy independence. Sometimes the same technical approach can address both issues. Energy efficiency and conservation are helpful for both. But if we improve energy independence by exploiting our coal and oil shale reserves, then we could exacerbate global warming.

Q. How much technical detail is enough?

A. The president doesn't need to learn the math, but does need to know the physics. Which effects are most important, and which are negligible? Exactly why did the World Trade Center collapse? Why did the North Korean nuclear explosion fizzle? What is the scientific value of putting humans in space? What are the main culprits in global warming? How severe is the warming so far, and what is expected? Which solutions will really address the physics, and which are only "feel good" or "set an example" measures? What is the future of solar, wind, batteries, and nukes? These are all things the president, or any concerned citizen, can master.

Q. In the book you note that even well-informed people are frequently clueless about basic physical processes. Can you give a few examples?

A. Many people don't appreciate the fact that gasoline has 100x the energy storage of batteries -- and that limits the transition to electric cars. Or they don't realize that our bodies are radioactive from totally natural causes, so reducing exposure to zero from human-caused radioactivity gives little value added. People don't realize that spy satellites must fly low to be able to distinguish things on the ground, but that flying low gives them only a minute of observation; we can't observe everything all the time. There is a conflict between energy independence and global warming: oil can be manufactured from coal at a cost of only $60 per barrel; the US has lots of coal, and opposition to building such factories has come primarily from the fear of global warming. Clean coal is conceivable -- pump the carbon dioxide underground -- but it is too expensive for China and other developing nations to afford, and they are expected to be the primary drivers of global warming.

Q. What about cases where the politics of a decision clash with what science would recommend?

A. Science is non-partisan. All political parties should be able to agree that what I say in my book is correct. I'm looking forward to a President who will educate the public on the physics, and move them in the right direction. Of course, in some issues other considerations -- economic or diplomat -- will be important too. That's why the President needs to know a lot more than physics. But physics should be part of the consideration.

Q. How would you rate the current presidential candidates' grasp of physics?

A. It has not been easy to judge. Both candidates seem to shy away from discussions of science and technology, perhaps because public misunderstanding could cause a misinterpreted sound bite to hurt their campaigns. Eventually, when elected, the President will have more time to explain the issues. The President must be the country's physics teacher. I'm hoping that either candidate, when president, will be able to explain to the public the technical aspects of terrorism, energy, nukes, space, and climate change.

Q. Will people without presidential aspirations get anything out of the book?

A. The book is also meant for people who will vote for the next president. A little bit of physics can truly empower a citizen. Nothing helps more than discovering that popularly held beliefs aren't necessarily so, and that there are solutions to problems that aren't obvious to the uniformed. Master some physics, and you'll win more arguments with your friends. And you'll also be in a good position to judge whether your president is right on key technical issues.

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