WHAT PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT PHYSICS. Nuclear and biological terrorism, energy, and climate are among the top topics.
Even scientists can hardly keep up with the influx of new research discoveries. So how can the president of the United States, with a blizzard of issues to deal with daily, expect to stay informed on scientific and technological developments that have an impact on society? Richard A. Muller, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, addresses this problem in his new book, "Physics for Future Presidents." The book is divided into five large topic areas which essentially define the hottest issues of today: terrorism, energy, nukes, space, and global warming. Muller believes that anyone who strives to be a world leader needs to possess a core of knowledge in these areas.
Muller's book is based on a course he's been teaching at Berkeley for years, so he's had plenty of time to think about what the world leader needs to know---at least that part of knowledge pertaining to the material world. Voted the best course on campus, Muller's class, "Physics for Future Presidents" uses no equations or detailed mathematical description. Instead it imparts a commonsense, but accurate, appreciation of certain technological hazards and opportunities.
For example, Muller believes the president should know about radiation levels (it's the accumulative dose that is medically important), about the difference between nuclear fission and fusion explosions (the latter are much more powerful), about the relative energy content of various substances (gasoline, and even cookies, have more energy per weight than TNT), and about the relative cost of electricity obtained from batteries used in cell phones, computers, and automobiles. The president must be able to intelligently absorb information about the impact of human technology on climate, and to know that no single unexpectedly hot or cold day denotes a significant indicator of things to come.
The president can't afford to learn about such things as the danger from radiation at the last minute, argues Muller, because in certain circumstances, every second counts. Consider, for example, the detonation of a dirty bomb, in which an ordinary (non-nuclear) explosion spreads radioactive materials. Fatalities, property damage, and even residual radiation, would likely be very small. "The biggest danger from a radiological weapon is the misplaced panic and overreaction that it would cause. A dirty bomb is not really a weapon of mass destruction, but it is potentially a weapon of mass disruption," Muller says. Allocating resources during a crisis---military, medical, emergency, and engineering---requires quick and shrewd thinking.
Muller views physics as the "liberal arts of high technology," insofar as physicists are trained to solve problems in a broad category of topics, many of them relating to the very topics---such as energy and nuclear issues---that form the backdrop to numerous national-security concerns. This is probably why so many presidential science advisors have been physicists.
Science advisors have been losing the clout they once had, Muller believes, because they---and scientists in general---are perceived as a special-interest group, with their goal being greater federal support for science. A good presidential science advisor, Muller argues ironically, should not do all that much advising. Instead she or he should act as an early alert system informing or educating (but not lobbying) the president on science and technology issues and their possible impact.
Muller has extensive experience on rendering government-requested science advice. For many years he was a member of the "Jasons," an organization of leading scientists who meet for a month or more each summer to study specific subjects---most of them relating to national security---of interest to the Pentagon or other federal agencies. This work, Muller says, taught him the value of asking lots of dumb questions and of not necessarily trusting all the things he was told by experts.
Test your own presidential science knowledge. Nature magazine featured a set of questions from Muller's class on its website: www.nature.com/news/specials/climatepolitics/index.html