Monday, December 8, 2008

Physics for Future Presidents

Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines by Richard A. Muller is a pretty good book that tells some of the basic things on physics a president (really everyone) should know. It is not very technical and doesn’t go into immense detail (and simplifies/rounds) but does what it is supposed to do, namely give the reader some basic physics knowledge; explaining why things are or aren’t done in various ways. I was familiar with this book’s author prior to reading the book, since I watch a lot of documentaries and his name has come up in several of them.

The book covers five topics; terrorism, energy, nukes, space, and global warming. Personally I found the chapter on space to be the most interesting but I doubt most people would. While the book is on physics it touches a few other subjects as well like economics (bases energy choices partial on price - things like coal being the cheapest) and politics (things like propaganda and policy). I agree with the author of the book on many things, but not everything (I'm not a scientist and it is mostly the non-science parts I don't agree with). The author claims to be giving a purely scientific view point, but doesn't use neutral terms often making it very clear what his view point is (in other words he doesn't just give the facts).

The chapter on terrorism, I pretty much agree with everything. Worry about terrorist's making or acquiring nuclear weapons is overrated. The fear of suitcase nukes also overrated since conventional bombs, though larger, could cause equivalent or even greater damage. The Davey Crockett (portable nuclear weapon) if blown up in central park would not result in much damage beyond central park. That dirty bombs, conventional bombs with radioactive material added, are not as dangerous as they are often portrayed to be since the radioactive material is most dangerous to the person who makes the bomb. Once it blows up it would spread out the radioactive material making it less dangerous, possibly even less dangerous than the area's natural radioactivity. I definitely agree with him that what is most dangerous for terrorists to use would be biological attacks.

The chapter on nukes was interesting. The author’s preferred method of next generation nuclear energy production is PBR (pebble bed reactor). I don’t really have a problem with nuclear power; it is safer, healthier, and cheaper than several of the alternatives (like coal). PBR might be safer but what it is fueled by is likely to go up in price so a breeder reactor (a type of reactor that produces more fissile material than it consumes) might be more practical in the long run. The author feels that the nuclear waste problem isn't really a problem, many people probably don't agree. Personally I'm starting to wonder if someone will find (or make) something that eats the toxic waste. I know this is unlikely since it is highly radioactive (everything is a little bit radioactive), but animals have been found that eat strange things, like worms that eat heavy metal toxic waste.

The book advocates 'clean coal' because of its sequestering of carbon dioxide. As I have mentioned before, I do not like the term clean coal, but I agree that sequestering the carbon dioxide is a good idea. If you are using the coal it is better to sequester the carbon dioxide than to release it into the atmosphere. Though using alternatives is still better and there are other problems with coal besides it releasing carbon dioxide that I dislike.

Geothermal not considered a good alternative for energy, but only mentions it as a power source. It is good in some locations for power generating but it is even better when used as a heating/cooling system (Geothermal heat pump), which would reduce energy used for heating/cooling.

Mentions replacing lights with fluorescent lights to conserve power, does not mention that many of them contain mercury and makes only passing mention to LED's. There are other alternatives like OLED (organic light emitting devices) which use even less power than LEDs.

Mentions that corn is one of the worst bio-fuels, which is something I have stated before. The book advocates the use of faster growing grasses that grow more efficiently if bio-fuels are used, which is a good idea, capitalize on land usage and power supply. There are many problems with using farmland to grow fuel for cars since it does do things like raise the price of crops, increase the cutting of trees, leads to more hungry people, etc.

The book does not see electric cars as being a viable alternative since he thinks it will end up costing more since battery life is insufficient. I don't agree with this. While it is true that batteries do not have as much energy storage as gasoline, battery technology is improving at a faster rate than internal combustion engines. Found this part to be misleading since it mentions that gasoline has 100x greater energy content than rechargeable batteries but doesn't mention that gasoline engines are not very efficient using only around 20% of energy potential (they could be made much more efficiently, this is obvious if you look up a particular car model from 1993 and then 2005 and find that the newer one gets less miles per gallon, has less towing power, and the same horse power). He calculates price by having to replace batteries, which prices are going down and are improving, but does not factor other advantages to electric cars - servicing costs being less (things like less movable parts which means the parts will last longer/less wear and tear, that cars will not need oil changes), that electric motors are cheaper and easier to make than conventional engines, that they are environmentally more friendly than existing cars, that it is easier to reduce emissions at the power generating plant than it is to do so for every car, etc.

The best policy for energy according to the book is conservation, which is something I agree with.