Muller: Physics for Future Presidents

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Richard A. Muller, Physics for Future Presidents : The Science Behind the Headlines. New York : W.W.Norton & Company, 2008. 380 pages; illustrated; with notes and index.

I love it when an author tells me so clearly what his book is going to be about, and wastes no time doing it. These are the first paragraphs from the introduction of this book:

Are you intimidated by physics? Are you mystified by global warming, spy satellites, ICBMs, ABM, fission, and fusion? Do you think all nukes, those in bombs and those in power plants, are basically the same? Are you perplexed by claims that we are running out of fossil fuels when there are counterclaims that we are not? Are you confused by the ongoing debate over global warming, when some prestigious scientists say that the debate is over? Are you baffled, bewildered, and befuddled by physics and high technology?

If so, then you are not ready to be a world leader. World leaders must understand these issues. The moment when you are being told that a terrorist left a dirty bomb hidden in midtown Manhattan is not a good time to have to telephone your local science advisor to find out how bad the situation really is. Nor is it a good time simply to assume the worst, to decide that all government resources must now be pulled off other projects to address this new emergency. You have to know enough to act wisely, quickly, proportionately. [p. 13]

There was once, maybe twice when the conceit that he was talking to a future president seemed a bit over done, but that's not much. On the whole Muller stuck to his them of giving just enough physics to enable the reader (his presumed future president) to add some depth to a headline, sound-bite approach to policy and world events, and he did it with admirable precision and appropriate scienticity. I don't remember feeling that at any time Muller over simplified and issue, nor did he overboard on providing too many technical details. The level of treatment was delightfully consistent and just right for the job.

One of the topics he takes on is alternative fuels, a big area where a future president really needs to have some first-hand understanding at the ready. It can be a vast and confusing wasteland of misinformation and special-interest spin, but Muller cuts through it with skill, layout out concisely the issues from a dispassionate scientific perspective.

In this excerpt he makes some points evaluating the over hyped hydrogen as an alternative energy source and hope for the future:

Unlike oil, we can't mine hydrogen gas from the Earth. The hydrogen that is present has all already "burned"—that is, combined with oxygen to make water (H2O), or with carbon to make sugars, starches, and hydrocarbons (including plant matter, wood, oil, and natural gas). To use hydrogen we have to separate the hydrogen from the other atoms. We can remove the hydrogen from water by running electric current through it—a process called electrolysis. But that process takes energy, and when we use the released hydrogen as a fuel, we get back only 30% to 40% of the energy that we put in; the rest is wasted as heat. Beware of inventions that claim to use ordinary water as fuel; these usually obtain the hydrogen by using other energy to separate it from water, by electrolysis or use of another fuel such as a purified metal.

There is one way to get net positive energy from hydrogen: obtain it from natural gas. This is, in fact, the way we get most of our hydrogen today. Natural gas is mostly methane, CH4, with molecules that consist of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms. When methane is reacted with water, out comes hydrogen and carbon monoxide (along with some carbon dioxide). This hydrogen can be used as fuel, but the energy we get is less than we would have obtained directly from the methane. [pp. 70—71]

That's the matter-of-fact tone that Muller uses throughout the book, and it serves him well. This excerpt is from his presidential summary of the chapter on alternative fuels:

Not all energy sources are equally expensive; in fact, you may find the differences more astonishing than any of the astonishing numbers I've shown so far. here is the most important fact: for the same energy, coal in the United States is 20 times cheaper than gasoline. That number is important for future presidents to consider. It implies that some developing nations are likely to rely on coal for their energy needs, rather than oil or natural gas.

Here are some details. The following list compares the cost of energy per kilowatt-hour from various sources. The list does not include the cost of the plant and the power lines that deliver the energy.
  • Coal: 0.4—0.8 cents ($40—80 per ton)
  • Natural gas: 3.4 cents ($10 per million cubic feet)
  • Gasoline: 11 cents ($3.70 per gallon)
  • Car battery: 21 cents ($50 per battery to replace)
  • Computer battery: $4 ($100 per battery to replace)
  • AAA battery: $1,000 ($1.50 per battery)

It is odd that energy cost depends so much on the source. If the marketplace were "efficient," as economists sometimes like to postulate, then all these different fuels would reach a price at which the cost would be the same. This hasn't happened, because the marketplace is not efficient. There are large investments in energy infrastructure, and the mode of delivery of the energy is important. We are willing to spend a lot more for energy from a flashlight battery than from a wall plug because the flashlight is portable and convenient. Locomotives once ran on coal, but gasoline is delivers more energy per pound, and it does so without leaving behind a residue of ash, so we switched from steam to diesel locomotives. Our automobiles were designed during a period of cheap oil, and we became accustomed to using them as if the price of fuel would never go up. Regions of the world with high gas prices (such as the countries of Europe) typically have more public transportation. The United States has suburbs—a luxury that is affordable when gas is cheap. Much of our way of living has been designed around cheap gasoline. The price we are willing to pay for fuel depends not only on the energy that it delivers, but also on its convenience. [pp. 75—76]

As Muller promised in his introduction, this is a book aimed at readers who find themselves intimidated by technical and scientific topics, and I think he has succeeded admirably in his goals of providing just the right amount of scientific background to help people understand the "science behind the headlines" of today's national policy debates so that citizens can participate in the discussion. His writing is digestible and accurate, his goal worthy and so very necessary.

-- Notes by JNS

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