Saturday, 4 September 2010

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

This is, in a way, the supercharged version of one of my favourite popular science books, Physics for Future Presidents. That book is superb. It’s pitched at just the right level and explains all the physics-based science any administrator could need, in language that is approachable and enjoyable. It’s a delight.
This is a more heavyweight take on the subject. Quite literally – it weighs getting on for two kilos, and I felt I’d been doing weight training when I finished reading it. Once again, Richard A. Muller gives us an approach that is supposed to give potential presidential candidates and other administrators the details they need to get a good grasp of the physical sciences and technology, but somehow, for me it just didn’t work as well this time.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s lots of good stuff in it. Muller really gives a complete introductory physics course here, going into a lot more depth about the fundamental science rather than just the applications, which he concentrates on in the earlier book. It has most of the content of the other title (some omissions – I was sad that pebble bed reactors only get a passing reference now), but much, much more theory. That isn’t as frightening as it sounds – it’s theory presented in a very accessible and friendly fashion.
So why don’t I like it as much? In the first place, there’s just too much in it. It really is more like the book of a course than a popular science book, down to each chapter ending in discussion topics, research topics, essay questions, multiple choice questions… far too much of a textbook. Strangely, I also disliked it when the author got a bit too personal, bringing in more about himself. This usually works well in popular science, but seemed out of place in something so like an academic course.
There was also one point of the physics that worried me. To keep things simple, I guess, Muller makes a big thing of light being a wave, and despite covering quantum theory does this as much as possible from a wave viewpoint. Photons have to get a mention but are brushed aside with great frequency and he plays them down as wave packets rather than particles. I can only quote Richard Feynman: ‘I want to emphasize that light comes in this form – particles. It is very important to know that light behaves like particles, especially for those of you who have gone to school, where you were probably told something about light behaving like waves. I’m telling you the way it does behave – like particles.’ Much though I like Richard Muller’s writing, I can hardly disagree with Feynman.
All in all then, it’s a great textbook for a physics course for non-scientists, and there’s plenty of stuff in there to interest scientists as well. But for an enjoyable popular science read, please turn to Physics for Future Presidents.
Review by Brian Clegg

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