Saturday, October 05, 2013

Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines by Richard Muller

Wow, September was a great month for reading. I love this book! Muller looks beyond the politics to explain the science involved in terrorism, energy, nukes (weapons and power), space, and global warming in this brilliant volume.

There are so many good parts, but I'll say a bit about nukes. Nuclear power is such an emotional issue for many, and they ignore the science. For example, after the Three Mile Island accident, some residents set up Geiger counters and found radiation levels 30% higher than the national average. But it turns out the radiation comes from uranium in the local soil. Incidentally, this poses a much greater threat than the tiny amount of radiation leakage from the nuclear reactor.* Incredibly, at least one person (quoted in a PBS documentary) thinks radiation from the ground is okay because it is "natural", as if that makes any difference.

Muller suggests building pebble bed reactors, which are much safer than current US reactors, but regulations must be updated to make that possible. He also addresses nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, completely changing my perspective. In brief, just because the radiation will last for thousands of years doesn't mean the containment has to be 100% perfect for that long. I didn't oppose Yucca Mountain, but I accepted some of the arguments from environmentalists (perhaps just NIMBYs). Now I'm upset that the Obama Administration defunded it.

My only complaint about this book is the title. Most people aren't even going to consider running for president (I wouldn't, and I don't even have a job!). Maybe it wouldn't grab as much attention, but Muller should have called it Physics for Voters because anyone who votes should read this book.**

* This anecdote also appears in Armageddon Science.

** "Physics for Future Presidents" is a course Muller teaches at UC-Berkeley, so that's why he used that title for this book.

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