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Richard Muller professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley

Richard Muller professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley

Richard A. Muller a professor of physics here at Berkeley gave a lecture, this afternoon, on his just published book, Physics for Future Presidents. It was a good college level audience of about 200 people. The lecture was on the general subject of what should be known by every adult American about the physical forces at play in the modern world. The audience filled nearly every chair, and five minutes into the lecture he invited those of us standing around the wall to sit in the front row, and so I got to sit in the reserved section beside some famous people.

He attempted to allay our fears about a terrorist dirty bomb by explaining how even a worst case scenario of one being exploded in the center of New York or San Francisco would have remarkably small destructive effects. He said, most people could just walk away from the danger zone. He didn’t mention the 30,000 or so sophisticated nuclear weapons possessed by the various self interested nations of the world. His apparent assumption being that these weapons would never be used because they were not held by terrorists, but by these reasonable people. He spoke of the Calutron-created weapon, named for UC Berkeley (Cal football team) killing the people of Hiroshima, and the Berkeley boys also creating the more powerful bomb that killed the people of Nagasaki.

He didn’t mention the H-bomb which is a thousand times bigger than either of those two bombs, also designed by a Berkeley boy, Edward Teller. He spoke disparagingly of politicians as not understanding physics very well, I guess that’s why he chose the book’s title, but he offered no praise to the politicians for not using any of these weapons, created by his colleagues, since Truman. It is weird that even this respected scientist seems to be unable to wrap his mind around the fact that these weapons are a thousand more powerful than any terrorist weapons. He doesn’t acknowledge the known fact that these weapons are now in the hands of public officials, some of whom came into office with a personal history of being genuine terrorists. He didn’t seem to admit that these same people are the very ones who are most likely to be using them in the very near future. That these weapons are controlled by people with very questionable motivations, and that these things can explode at any instant and change everything didn’t seem to enter his calculations. They were outside of his field of expertise. He mentioned that he was on a counter terrorist panel called the JASON Defense Advisory Group so obviously he has been exposed to these ideas. But they didn’t seem to sink in. He has been in the atomic community of scientists involved with many very famous people in creating many wonderful things, but his soft pedaling the nuclear threats to the modern world left me, an ex-B-47 pilot, bewildered.

Dr. Muller spoke at length about the Global Warming issue, and the various physical and political inputs into that problem. Much of his data was derived from the IPCC – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which is as authoritative a source as can be found. On those points one may be better served by going to their web site, and reading the original document rather than his derivative book. One point he made was that global warming causes the Antarctic ice sheet to thicken. This happens because as the oceans warm they evaporate more water, and that causes more precipitation over that continent which is very cold, and therefore the precipitation is frozen, and stays there until it flows off in the form of glaciers. As the meter thick northern ice cap melts with the warmth the several kilometer thick southern one thickens even more. The real unknown in all of the global warming controversy is the water in the atmosphere so these deposits on Antarctica may prove very important. Apparently no one has a good handle on how to plug atmospheric or Antarctic water into their calculations.

This lecture was only an hour long, and was intended as an overview of his book, and the much longer classroom lecture series much of which can be viewed on YouTube – Playlist: Physics 10 – Physics for Future Presidents

The after lecture questions were on topic, and he answered them with consistent clarity. The question I thought about posing, but hesitated and someone else asked it, was on the fact that population was still exploding, and that it would wipe away the gains in environmental improvements he and others were supporting. He said that we must implement all of the energy, and environment saving strategies not just some of them. The population aspect of the question he off loaded by saying that the experts in that field predict that the population would stabilize at 9 to 10 Billion. He said that as if it were settled science when in fact their is no science about that kind of speculation; it is merely projections based on past growth, which is virtually meaningless. Check out Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan for a much better analysis of that issue.

During the book signing I asked him about the biggest source of power on Earth, the trade winds across the Pacific. He said he liked the big windmills in Europe, and said they were not all that expensive. The Germans have built a really big one, and it is working. I mentioned that some ships were being towed by big kites but he said he wasn’t aware of that.

Having encountered quite a few of the major players in this global warming-population-famine-major atomic war conundrum it seems to me that they are all out of touch with reality. That further encourages me to think, that if these authorities on these subjects don’t comprehend the problem that the only way out for humanity to survive in the long run, say 100 years, is to create an Earth Ark out of New Zealand. Without a Lifehaven, and an Earth Ark in place a high tech human civilization, as we currently know it, will succeed in destroying itself and lose the possibility of reconstituting itself.