Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Everything You Know About Planet Earth is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

This is the latest of a series of 'Everything You Know About... is Wrong' books from Matt Brown. Although I always feel slightly hard done by as a result of the assertion in the title, as there are certainly things here I know that aren't wrong (I mean, come on, the first corrected piece of 'knowledge' is that 'The Earth is only 6,000 years old' and I can't imagine many readers will 'know' that), it's a handy format to provide what are often surprisingly little snippets of information that are very handy for 'did you know' conversations down the pub (or showing up your parents if you're a younger reader).

Some of the incorrect statements that head each article are well-covered, if often still believed (for example, people thought that world was flat before Columbus), some are a little tricksy in the wording (such as seas have to wash up against land) and some are just pleasantly surprising (countering the idea that gold is a rar…