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Physics for Future Presidents

Subtitled The Science Behind the Headlines, this book, by Richard A. Muller, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, addresses the problem of how the president of the United States, with a blizzard of issues to deal with daily, can stay informed on scientific and technological developments that have an impact on society, when even scientists can hardly keep up with the influx of new research discoveries. It based on a course Muller's been teaching for years that was voted "best course on campus." Physics News Update 878 [? invalid link as of original post; should be valid shortly] says about the book that it:

... uses no equations or detailed mathematical description. Instead it imparts a commonsense, but accurate, appreciation of certain technological hazards and opportunities.

For example, Muller believes the president should know about radiation levels (it's the accumulative dose that is medically important), about the difference between nuclear fission and fusion explosions (the latter are much more powerful), about the relative energy content of various substances (gasoline, and even cookies, have more energy per weight than TNT), and about the relative cost of electricity obtained from batteries used in cell phones, computers, and automobiles. The president must be able to intelligently absorb information about the impact of human technology on climate, and to know that no single unexpectedly hot or cold day denotes a significant indicator of things to come.

The president can't afford to learn about such things as the danger from radiation at the last minute, argues Muller, because in certain circumstances, every second counts. Consider, for example, the detonation of a dirty bomb, in which an ordinary (non-nuclear) explosion spreads radioactive materials. Fatalities, property damage, and even residual radiation, would likely be very small. "The biggest danger from a radiological weapon is the misplaced panic and overreaction that it would cause. A dirty bomb is not really a weapon of mass destruction, but it is potentially a weapon of mass disruption," Muller says. Allocating resources during a crisis�military, medical, emergency, and engineering�requires quick and shrewd thinking.

Muller views physics as the "liberal arts of high technology," insofar as physicists are trained to solve problems in a broad category of topics, many of them relating to the very topics�such as energy and nuclear issues�that form the backdrop to numerous national-security concerns. This is probably why so many presidential science advisors have been physicists.

The Physics News item contains a link to an article from Nature, but may all you really want to do is take the presidential test (I'm embarrassed to say I only got 5 of 17 answers correct).

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