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addabook - Physics for Future Presidents
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Physics for Future Presidents
The Science Behind the Headlines
Richard A. Muller
read on October 28, 2017

This book awkwardly fumbled between giving broad educational advice to a broad audience under the guise of it being meant for a president, and actually giving advice to a president. The two are very different. Despite being a bit odd to read, I was generally okay with it for most of the reading. The final chapters on climate change were unbearable though. Muller bends over backwards to explain how we're not 100% sure that climate change is caused by humans, and that there's a chance that it might not be. I honestly couldn't actually tell if he was for or against environmentalism (which is awful - he's a very strong advocate for addressing climate change, but none of that comes across in this book). He writes as though the president of the US is literally reading this book. If that were the case, yeah, I get it, you'd want the president to understand that, and to understand the nuance behind how all these measurements are taken, etc. But if you're writing a book meant for popular consumption, you don't emphasize the doubts. Muller needs to understand that he isn't actually briefing the president, and that any doubt he introduces is just going to stoke resentment and dampen any willingness or enthusiasm for readers to actually change their habits, or to demand better policy of their government.

Overall, the book was actually quite disappointing. I've seen other books by Muller that seem highly reviewed on Amazon, but I don't think I'll be giving him another shot. Muller might have good intentions here, but the advice he gives is horrible. Two giant gaps for me were:

Our love affair with fossil fuels ultimately derives from the fact that they are so cheap

This is false. Muller repeats this so many times in the book, and makes similar counter-claims about how cost-ineffective lean energy like solar is. And he boils it all down to the inane sentence above, which is so terribly myopic. If anything, we love fossil fuels because they deliver high energy density in an easily transportable package - THAT you can argue. But the only reason they're cheap is because 1) we've subsidized the shit out of the entire industry for the last 60 years - from low corporate taxes, to taxpayer funded infrastructure (highways, etc), and 2) we don't price in the very high externalities. Worst yet though - Muller pretends throughout this whole book that the intended audience is the future POTUS - but misses an opportunitiy here to scream at the POTUS that this is exactly the kind of thing the government needs to subsidize in order for it to become competitive and lead to greater social good. How he doesn't see and do this is mind-boggling.

Later, Muller argues that although WE KNOW AS FACT THAT 1) human activity is increasing atmospheric CO2 levels, AND ALSO 2) that increased atmospheric CO2 levels will, in part, contribute to increased global temperature due to greenhouse effects, AND ALSO 3) that Earth's temperature is rising proportionately with the rise in atmospheric CO2 levels, WE CANNOT THEREFORE conclude that 1) is directly causing 3), because we don't know for sure that the man-made increase in temperature isn't being offset by changes in cloud behavior. That is to say, Muller is arguing that it is possible (~10% chance) that atmospheric carbon increases makes the atmosphere hotter, which changes cloud density, which cools the atmosphere, and that therefore man-made CO2 increases aren't actually raising global temps, and that the increase in global temperature may be coincidental and completely unrelated. He doesn't actually believe this garbage - but he spends dozens of pages making the point, such that the book literally reads like a climate denial handbook. I literally finished the book thinking he was a climate skeptic, and only later learned that this was not the case. He's just a terrible writer.

A few other little notes below, which were interesting.

  • Intro is primarily about terrorism and has aged poorly. Focus is on dirty bombs/nukes, not on simple things like cars/guns. Also, dismissive on DPRK’s attempts at building a nuke, saying that those attempts have fizzled, whereas today they are announcing imminent testing of a hydrogen bomb.
  • Energy section is a useful cliffs notes:
    • Kilowatts are rate/flow of pwer consumption (i.e., miles per hour). Kilowatt-hours are the stock of energy used.
    • 1 kwh is approx. equal to 1 hoursepower, approx. equal to 1 sq meter of sunlight.
    • Average US household energy consumption rate at any given time is 1 kw. So, amount consumed per day is 24kwhs.
    • Average cost per kwh is about $0.10 in the US.
    • A medium sized power plant generates 100 megawatts = 100,000 kws = 100,000 households of energy.

Author Bio:

Richard A. Muller (born January 6, 1944) is an American physicist and professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also a faculty senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Most recently, in early 2010, Muller and his daughter Elizabeth founded the group Berkeley Earth, an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit aimed at addressing some of the major concerns of the climate change skeptics, in particular the global surface temperature record.