Sunday, 18 October 2009

“Physics for Future Presidents”, by Richard A. Muller (W.W. Norton)


The physics behind the news, minus the politics

Richard Muller has done an excellent job of providing a science-for-laymen volume to explain the issues that are currently on the front page and at the forefront of our leaders’ minds. The author quotes Josh Billings to start things off and give some of the reasoning behind the need for a book like his:

“The trouble with most folks isn’t their ignorance. It’s knowin’ so many things that ain’t so.”

Separated into well-thought-out sections, Muller methodically goes through some of the key issues facing leaders today: terrorism, energy, nuclear weapons, space, and global warming. Each section has a chapter dealing with each of the main problems that make up the overall issue, in easily digestible chunks and (most importantly) in language that all non-scientists can understand and utilise (up to a point, obviously). Muller doesn’t go into the politics itself behind the issues, instead wishing to provide just the facts minus the opinions and biases of politicians and pundits. His aim was to cover “only the most essential facts and ideas, the key concepts that will help a president make better decisions”. This Muller has more or less done.

I have only a passing aptitude in physics and science (having long-ago succumbed to the pull of the arts and social ‘sciences’), but I found this book engaging and accessible – and, therefore, invaluable. As someone interested in, and writing on, US foreign policy, to know the science behind terrorist attacks, 9/11, nuclear weapons, space programs, and global warming (“a subject in which misinformation is as prevalent as truth”) – from the pen of an actual scientist, rather than a science journalist or politician – is invaluable.

Muller should be praised by all with an interest in the world today, and Physics for Future Presidents should not only be essential reading for future presidents, but all democratically-elected leaders and representatives. He bursts a few cherished ideas and biases, hoping that anyone wanting to be president (or reading the book) will be able to let go of them, accepting that reality is somewhat (if not completely) different from what they have come to accept as truth.

Unlike all of my physics teachers at school, Muller also asks that readers at least try to enjoy the subject matter – because too many people feel physics is stuffy, exclusive knowledge for brainiacs. Fine, some of the finer, more detailed theories will likely (and do) fly way over many people’s heads, but Muller’s book will help shed more light on topics that are relevant to us all, in a manner and style that is inviting and accessible to anyone who might actually pick up the book.

Highly recommended, this is an engaging, interesting and above all illuminating book on the science behind the headlines.

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