[EAS] W(h)ither Science Advice to the President

Peter J. Kindlmann pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Tue Dec 2 16:38:25 EST 2008

The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Research News
Number 878   December 2, 2008      www.aip.org/pnu

biological terrorism, energy, and climate are among the top topics.

Even scientists can hardly keep up with the influx of new  research 
discoveries. So how can the president of the United States, with a 
blizzard of issues to deal with daily, expect to stay informed on 
scientific and technological developments that have an impact on 
society?  Richard A. Muller, a professor at the University of 
California at Berkeley, addresses this problem in his new book, 
"Physics for Future Presidents."  The book is divided into five large 
topic areas which essentially define the hottest issues of today: 
terrorism, energy, nukes, space, and global warming.   Muller 
believes that anyone who strives to be a world leader needs to 
possess a core of knowledge in these areas.

Muller's book is based on a course he's been teaching at Berkeley for 
years, so he's had plenty of time to think about what the world 
leader needs to know---at least that part of knowledge pertaining to 
the material world.  Voted the best course on campus, Muller's class, 
"Physics for Future Presidents" uses no equations or detailed 
mathematical description.  Instead it imparts a commonsense, but 
accurate, appreciation of certain technological hazards and 

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.

Science advisors  have been losing the clout they once had, Muller 
believes, because they---and scientists in general---are perceived as 
a special-interest group, with their goal being greater federal 
support for science.  A good presidential science advisor, Muller 
argues ironically, should not do all that much advising.  Instead she 
or he should act as an early alert system informing or educating (but 
not lobbying) the president on science and technology issues and 
their possible impact.

Muller has extensive experience on rendering government-requested 
science advice.  For many years he was a member of the "Jasons," an 
organization of leading scientists who meet for a month or more each 
summer to study specific subjects---most of them relating to national 
security---of interest to the Pentagon or other federal agencies. 
This work, Muller says, taught him the value of asking lots of dumb 
questions and of not necessarily trusting all the things he was told 
by experts.

Test your own presidential science knowledge.  Nature magazine 
featured a set of questions from Muller's class on its website:

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