Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Physics for Future Presidents

This is a review (five stars) that I posted on of Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines by Richard Muller. Dr. Muller is a professor at UC Berkeley who teaches a very popular course based on a textbook version of this book. You can find his lectures on video and audio through iTunes U and probably also on YouTube...

Although there are a few graphs and diagrams and a lot of numbers and units, I think this book is accessible to any reader with a citizen's interest in energy, terrorism, nuclear weapons and nuclear power (not the same!), and climate change. You don't have to consider yourself a future president to want and really need to understand this stuff - all elected officials and voters should have this level of familiarity with the science (and often engineering) behind these important issues. And it's really not that hard to follow - it's very readable.

There are no equations here (OK, a few in the notes if you're interested), and the "physics" comes mainly in the approach, breaking problems down into essentials to which basic concepts like energy conservation and efficiency can be applied. A lot can be accomplished simply by converting energy and other quantities in different situations into common units and comparing them (Muller uses mainly common US units rather than metric units that physicists use in their real work).

It is true that Muller does not completely remove his own opinions in favor of "pure science" on some topics - but this is a book for general readers, not a text book (he also has a text book version for his course at UC Berkeley). And the issues are real-world issues, not abstract physics problems. But for the most part he is combining basic science with logic and common sense, and if you learn to do this yourself, and remember some of the conversions and rules of thumb he discusses, you will be better able judge for yourself whether some claim about energy or terrorism really makes sense, and have a better calibration of risks and opportunities in this complex world.

I was a physics major and have a masters in optics, but I also do educational outreach programs, so I'm really viewing this book more from the perspective of an educator and citizen than as a science-educated person. And I personally learned a lot.

Blog P.S. There is also a section on space which is pretty good, though I wouldn't buy this book for its space related content. I didn't mention the space section in the Amazon review because I felt that the energy, nukes, terrorism, and climate change sections would be of more interest to the general reader.

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