The cover of my copy of Richard Muller’s Physics for Future Presidents is crowned with a quote from Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg in his review written for The Boston Globe. The quote says simply, “A triumph.”
I’m not sure what to make of that. The review itself as far as I can tell is inaccessible to all but subscribers to the Boston Globe. A triumph of what? A triumph over what? I would love to see the point being made. Muller is a professor of physics at UC, Berkeley and has taken this book, subtitled “The Science behind the Headlines” from a popular course taught there for non-science students.
The idea for the course/book is in fact brilliant, perhaps even a triumph. (I should like to write a book, or see someone write, “Theology for Future Presidents”. It wouldn’t necessarily be a triumph of any sort, but it could be helpful to inject some careful thought about theological and religious issues into current political debate.) Muller’s intention is to bring a sense of objective scientific understanding to the issues of the day, specifically terrorism, energy, nuclear war/power, space exploration, and climate change.
His intention is fulfilled. That he intended to accomplish this without bias (“Just the facts, ma’am”) is cute, but always impossible. I do feel that I know more now about the science behind many of the current debates. But I know enough as well to realize that no objective treatment of such hot issues is ever possible. I resist the scientists’ claim to absolute objectivity. As much as any of us may want to follow the facts where they lead, we must be aware, with much humility, that our interpretation and application of the facts will be always tainted with our own subjective predisposition.
It is good that he attacks his goal with non-technical language. But is there a reason the book reads as if it were intended for a sixth grader? Simple sentences predominate. Perhaps he feels that this style better communicates. Perhaps this is his assessment of the intellectual capacity of those who might aspire to the land’s highest office. The book’s triumph is certainly not literary.
Don’t let my quibbles mislead, however. Good information is here. I won’t remember the statistics that suggest that the danger from nuclear power plants is minimal, but I will have a resource to which I can turn if I need to defend that case. I have been made to think and to reflect upon the value of manned space exploration and the legitimacy of the science behind global warming. I’m grateful that he removes from the table the fears which lead to panic regarding the possibilities of a mass terrorist attack. There is good stuff here. A helpful resource, for sure. An accomplishment if not a triumph.
Muller, some of you may know, was a staunch critic of the science of climate change until a Koch brothers’ funded research project led him to refine his position, to the consternation of his benefactors. (This led to his being crowned a ‘brave thinker‘ by the Atlantic.) Curiously, critics of the book in on-line reviews slam it for its harsh treatment of Al Gore and those standing with him. And yet, the edition which I have read begins the section on global warming with a sentence which reads, “…as our most recent Nobel Peace Prize laureate, form Vice President Al Gore, says in his powerful Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006)….” If he is a Gore critic, I’d be interested in seeing what Gore’s fans might say. He critiques the extreme presentation of the evidence of global warming, even that which is found in Gore’s film, as unhelpful. I find his critique of sloppy reasoning to be the most beneficial aspect of the book, for sloppy reasoning is found everywhere in political debate.
Is the book a triumph? No. Helpful? For sure.