Let's Get Physical

Monday, October 6, 2008; 12:20 PM

E = MC2may be the best-known principle of physics, but close behind is the rule that physicists must, like Albert Einstein, have a mustache -- and Richard A. Muller is no exception.

Richard A. Muller.

Facial hair earns no mention in his new book, Physics for Future Presidents, but it's an illuminating read nonetheless. In it, Muller argues persuasively that science, and physics in particular, must return to the White House. The UC-Berkeley professor, whose physics class for non-majors was recently voted the best course at the university, says many challenges facing the country -- like how to confront global warming and improve energy efficiency-- are, at heart, scientific issues. The problem, he says, is that objective, nonpartisan science hasn't had a place in the Oval Office for some time. "It was different under Kennedy," Muller says. "Glenn Seaborg, the great scientist from Berkeley, and John Kennedy were on a first-name basis. ... The president really knew what was going on, what was possible in science and engineering. We have to bring that back." In the current race for president, scientific issues have not been front and center, but John McCain and Barack Obama have both answered a set of questions about how they would address a number of science-related issues. Grist caught up with Muller by phone to discuss the presidential race and his new book.

What should a President McCain or Obama know about global warming?

Physics for Future Presidents, by Richard A. Muller.

The bottom line is that there is a consensus -- the [ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] -- and the president needs to know what the IPCC says. Second, they say that most of the warming of the last 50 years is probably due to humans. You need to know that this is from carbon dioxide, and you need to understand which technologies can reduce this and which can't. Roughly 1 degree Fahrenheit of global warming has taken place; we're responsible for one quarter of it. If we cut back so we don't cause any more, global warming will be delayed by three years and keep on going up. And now the developing world is producing most of the carbon dioxide.

[Y]ou need to know how much power you can get in a solar cell, how much power you can get from wind. There are technologies called clean coal, which both candidates have favored. You have to recognize that oil is now considered dangerous and therefore we need to reevaluate some of the technologies that we once dismissed because they were [also seen as] dangerous, like nuclear. We should reevaluate [nuclear energy] and see if it is more or less dangerous than coal. Things like solar and wind may get a lot cheaper, but they aren't cheap enough yet for countries like China, so they are not an immediate solution.

Is it more important to have global warming solutions that are affordable for China and India than to have the United States take the lead on global warming?

Yes, absolutely. We can be idealistic, but as soon as the price of oil goes up, suddenly everybody wants to drill offshore and send pipelines up to [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge]. The same thing is true in China. [If w]e say, "You should cut back for the good of the world," they'll be thinking, "You want me to cut back on a degree or two of global warming when my economy is exploding like yours did 100 years ago?" I'm no expert on economic policy, but I think we have to pay for [China's] clean coal. I can't imagine that they will slow down their economy by putting in the expensive clean-coal plants when they can build two [non-clean] plants instead.

Some say clean coal will be neither clean nor affordable. Can you explain your support for it?

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