Skip to main content

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.

Hardback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under