E = MC2 may be the best-known principle of physics, but close behind is the rule that physicists must, like Albert Einstein, have a mustache — and Richard A. Muller is no exception.

Richard A. Muller.

Facial hair earns no mention in his new book, Physics for Future Presidents, but it’s an illuminating read nonetheless. In it, Muller argues persuasively that science, and physics in particular, must return to the White House. The UC-Berkeley professor, whose physics class for non-majors was recently voted the best course at the university, says many challenges facing the country — like how to confront global warming and improve energy efficiency — are, at heart, scientific issues. The problem, he says, is that objective, nonpartisan science hasn’t had a place in the Oval Office for some time.

“It was different under Kennedy,” Muller says. “Glenn Seaborg, the great scientist from Berkeley, and John Kennedy were on a first-name basis. … The president really knew what was going on, what was possible in science and engineering. We have to bring that back.”

In the current race for president, scientific issues have not been front and center, but John McCain and Barack Obama have both answered a set of questions about how they would address a number of science-related issues.

Grist caught up with Muller by phone to discuss the presidential race and his new book.


What should a President McCain or Obama know about global warming?

Physics for Future Presidents, by Richard A. Muller.

The bottom line is that there is a consensus — the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] — and the president needs to know what the IPCC says. Second, they say that most of the warming of the last 50 years is probably due to humans. You need to know that this is from carbon dioxide, and you need to understand which technologies can reduce this and which can’t. Roughly 1 degree Fahrenheit of global warming has taken place; we’re responsible for one quarter of it. If we cut back so we don’t cause any more, global warming will be delayed by three years and keep on going up. And now the developing world is producing most of the carbon dioxide.

[Y]ou need to know how much power you can get in a solar cell, how much power you can get from wind. There are technologies called clean coal, which both candidates have favored. You have to recognize that oil is now considered dangerous and therefore we need to reevaluate some of the technologies that we once dismissed because they were [also seen as] dangerous, like nuclear. We should reevaluate [nuclear energy] and see if it is more or less dangerous than coal. Things like solar and wind may get a lot cheaper, but they aren’t cheap enough yet for countries like China, so they are not an immediate solution.

Is it more important to have global warming solutions that are affordable for China and India than to have the United States take the lead on global warming?

Yes, absolutely. We can be idealistic, but as soon as the price of oil goes up, suddenly everybody wants to drill offshore and send pipelines up to [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge]. The same thing is true in China. [If w]e say, “You should cut back for the good of the world,” they’ll be thinking, “You want me to cut back on a degree or two of global warming when my economy is exploding like yours did 100 years ago?” I’m no expert on economic policy, but I think we have to pay for [China's] clean coal. I can’t imagine that they will slow down their economy by putting in the expensive clean-coal plants when they can build two [non-clean] plants instead.

Some say clean coal will be neither clean nor affordable. Can you explain your support for it?

The affordable [factor]‘s a big issue. The issue is, is clean coal more affordable than solar? Solar is pretty expensive too, and it’s not clean either. You’ve got to build the cells — that uses carbon dioxide. I think we need everything. We need a rainbow of different technologies: conservation, solar, wind, better transmission, clean coal, nuclear, better automobiles.

Your book says that batteries for electric cars are expensive and don’t hold as much energy as gasoline does, and you aren’t a fan of corn-based ethanol. What about other alternative fuels?

There’s a future for car batteries, but that depends on the development of battery technology that is not in the marketplace yet. Biofuels in general are a very good idea. The idea of taking something like miscanthus or switchgrass and turning that into a carbon-neutral fuel that can be used in automobiles is a very important development.

The introduction to your book offers a quote that’s often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain: “The trouble with most folks isn’t their ignorance; it’s knowin’ so many things that ain’t so.” What’s one commonly held notion about energy that people need to unlearn?

One of them is that solar power is so spread out that it can never compete with fossil fuels. The fact is, there’s a gigawatt of solar power in a square kilometer. Solar really does have a future.

Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?

Oh yes. [Laughs.] In fact, back in the early ’80s, I resigned from the Sierra Club over the issue of global warming. At that time, they were opposing nuclear power. What I wrote them in my letter of resignation was that, if you oppose nuclear power, the U.S. will become much more heavily dependent on fossil fuels, and that this is a pollutant to the atmosphere that is very likely to lead to global warming.

In an interview on NPR, you talked about ANWR’s natural gas, the oil off of California’s coast, and the Canada oil sands. How does the recent chant of “drill, baby, drill” resonate with you?

The whole idea of “drill, baby, drill” is not that you would actually get huge amounts of fossil fuel that way, but that you get enough so that we’re no longer at capacity — some excess capacity and the oil prices will drop. And I think that’s probably true.

When we’re talking about offshore oil, we’re really talking about energy independence and not the global warming issue. We need, in our own minds, to always be clear about this. You will find politicians, especially the Republicans, who are deeply concerned about energy independence; they say we’re financing the terrorists [with our oil dollars]. And you’ll find people, Democrats, who are really more concerned about global warming.

Is it possible for science to remain separate from politics?

It absolutely has to be. Yes. And when it isn’t, then science loses the credibility, and that means the politicians lose science. I try to be nonpartisan. I tend to become a little bit of an advocate on nuclear, just because I have a long history of that — but on everything else, I try to tell the physics.

[The American people] need to know that offshore drilling addresses oil independence but not global warming. These are the physics issues. And the policy [issues] — is it more important for us to educate the children of the United States with this money? is it more important for us to send this money to China to make their coal clean? — I try to stay away from that.

What’s your take on NASA climate scientist James Hansen?

Hansen I’ve known for many years. He’s a very good climate scientist, but he’s decided to do the politics. I feel that he’s doing some cherry-picking of his own [when it comes to the science]. At that point, he’s not really being a scientist. At that point, you’re being a lawyer. He’s being an effective advocate for his side, but in the process of doing that he’s no longer a neutral party and he’s no longer giving both sides of the issues.

Do McCain and Obama have a strong grasp of physics?

You really cannot tell. Part of the reason is that they are hesitant to speak publicly on these issues because the public understanding is so poor on these subjects that if they say anything, people will think they’re wrong. I suspect both Obama and McCain are in favor of nuclear reactors. I think they both understand that these things are environmentally preferable to coal. They all agree on renewables and energy independence, but when you get them down to particulars they will talk around the issues. As a result, I can’t tell how deep their knowledge really is. My guess is it’s not terribly deep.

You once unfavorably compared George Bush’s push for hydrogen-powered cars to JFK’s more realistic goal of putting a man on the moon. How can the next president ensure he doesn’t set impractical scientific goals?

Part of it is to learn some of the science themselves. Another thing is to recognize that there is such a thing as nonpartisan science. I’d like to see the president every month introduce a fireside chat in which nonpartisan science is produced. We need to have more science close to the White House. You can’t just have a president who, when he has a science question, calls up a science adviser. You have to have a science adviser who can somehow reach the president. And that’s what we haven’t had under Democrats or Republicans for a long time.

I know you drive a Prius. What else are you doing to reduce your carbon emissions?

My house is lit by compact fluorescent light bulbs. Let me just tell you, though: Suppose I drove an SUV and lit my house with the worst kind of light — I could still be an environmentalist. Al Gore flies around in a jet plane — absolutely fine with me. The important thing is not getting Al Gore out of his jet plane; the important thing is solving the world’s problem. What we really need are policies around the world that address the problem, not feel-good measures. If [Al Gore] reaches more people and convinces the world that global warming is real, even if he does it through exaggeration and distortion — which he does, but he’s very effective at it — then let him fly any plane he wants.