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Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines
Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines
Richard A. Muller
W. W. Norton & Company, 2012
368 pp., $26.95

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Science in Focus: Colin S. Wallace


Energy for Future Presidents, Part 2

Provocative, informative, yet sometimes misleading.

In The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable Bede described human life with the following allegory:

"The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknownst to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your eldermen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all."

Just as Bede knew nothing of "what is to follow or what went before" this "life of man," those of us who teach college-level science courses for non-science majors often know little of our students' lives before and after they take our classes. During the sixteen weeks or so that our lives intersect with the lives of our students, we do our best to help them develop the reasoning skills and scientific worldviews they need to function effectively in their chosen profession (e.g., education, business, journalism, etc.) and as parents, taxpayers, and voters in our increasingly technological and science-dependent society. Our students then disappear into the "wintry tempest" of our civilization immediately after the final; most we will never hear from again.

And yet, because the United States is a republic, our general education students will exert a substantial influence over our lives and over the future course of the nation, either through their roles as parents, taxpayers, and voters, or by entering politics directly. Some of the most critical issues they will face, either as the decision-makers themselves or as the people who vote the decision-makers into office, are related to energy. Have we provided them with the background they need to understand the complex scientific and economic issues related to energy? In case we haven't, Richard Muller's Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines aims to fill in the gaps. In 305 pages (excluding the notes at the end), Muller reviews the facts and exaggerations surrounding contemporary crises related to energy (Fukushima, the Gulf Oil Spill, and human-caused climate change), the current energy landscape (including petroleum, natural gas, and shale oil) and the strengths and shortcomings of various alternative energy sources (such as synfuel, biofuels, fusion, and solar, wind, and nuclear energy, among others). If there is one word I would use to describe Energy for Future Presidents, it is "provocative."

Sometimes being provocative is a good thing. I suspect Muller relishes being provocative, especially since he admits in the preface that many of his conclusions are "often counterintuitive and unexpected." For example, I suspect that many people would find it counterintuitive to learn that many so-called biofuels and biodegradable materials are actually bad at helping us control greenhouse emissions. Likewise, many readers will be (pleasantly) surprised by Muller's claim that installing insulation in one's attic is equivalent to a tax-free, no-risk investment with 17.8% per year return, and that using compact fluorescent lights instead of incandescent light bulbs is equivalent to a tax-free, no-risk investment with 209% per year return! These figures are part of Muller's larger argument that a significant amount of our energy issues can be addressed by simply being smarter (i.e., less wasteful) with how we use the energy we currently have. Muller also uses his knowledge of physics, plus some common-sense economics, to show that some proposed alternative energy sources, such as wind, nuclear power, and switchgrass and Miscanthus, are worth pursuing, while others, such as corn-based ethanol, geothermal energy sources, and wave and tidal energy, are unlikely to become economically viable and significant contributors to our energy landscape.

Throughout the book, Muller emphasizes that there isn't a single fundamental energy issue facing a future president; instead, there are two such issues—global warming and energy security—and addressing them both will require tradeoffs among scientific, economic, and political interests. For example, Muller notes that since most of the greenhouse gas pollution will come from the developing world, a future president who is interested in curbing climate change might get more bang for his or her buck if, instead of spending a large sum of money on domestic energy projects, he or she sends that money to China to help it sequester its own carbon emissions. He then wryly adds, "I am a physicist, not a politician, but it is my guess that if you propose that approach, you will not help you reelection chances." Muller's ability to integrate political reality and economic considerations into his scientific and technical arguments leads to many of his most informative, interesting, and provocative statements.

Unfortunately, Muller's provocative statements don't always elucidate some important issues for the reader. For example, while he now accepts the reality of climate change and the fact that humans are largely—if not entirely—responsible for it, his chapter on global warming and climate change has some serious flaws and omissions. To take just one example, his discussion of the famous "hockey stick" graph leaves the impression that the data and analyses that produced this graph simply are not reliable. In reality, multiple research groups using different data sets and analysis techniques have reproduced the same basic "hockey stick" graph, and the overall findings of the climate scientists who have produced such graphs were reaffirmed by a 2006 report from the National Research Council.

Another area of the book that could be improved is Muller's treatment of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. While Muller is bullish on the future of shale oil and confident that the environmental impacts of fracking can be mitigated, he unfortunately writes nothing about the potential effects of fracking-induced earthquakes. Muller is also unjustifiably harsh on the potential of electric cars. He claims that the Nissan Leaf's battery will only last about 36,500 miles before it will need to be replaced. Since the replacement cost is close to $16,000, this translates to a cost of 44¢ per mile. My 2007 Honda Accord, which holds about 17 gallons of gas and gets about 25 miles per gallon, only costs me about 14¢ per mile, assuming that gas costs $3.50 per gallon. Needless to say, my Accord seems significantly cheaper than the Leaf, at least if we believe Muller's claim that Leaf owners will need to replace the battery after 36,500 miles. Now consider the fact that Nissan has an 8-year/100,000-mile guarantee on the Leaf's battery. We can reasonably assume that Nissan thinks its batteries will last longer than 36,500 miles if they are willing to make such a guarantee. If the Leaf can get to 100,000 miles before its battery needs to be replaced, then all of a sudden its cost per mile drops to just 16¢, a value which is much more competitive with my traditionally fueled Accord. These kinds of flaws and omissions make me want to re-read the entire book and double-check each of Muller's claims, especially the provocative ones, for myself.

So what should a future president—or even an average citizen—make of Richard Muller's Energy for Future Presidents? There are certainly many parts of the book that are genuinely informative, although I do worry that Muller uses too much jargon for the general reader in certain places. Instructors who read Muller's book will probably learn a lot of material that they can subsequently incorporate into their courses, for science majors and non-science majors alike. Yet there are also places where, perhaps inadvertently, Muller paints an inaccurate picture. Readers who pick up Energy for Future Presidents should be ready to engage with the text at a deep level and double-check Muller's conclusions for themselves, lest they journey ill-informed into the "wintry tempest" of contemporary energy politics. Perhaps that is Muller's unintentional intellectual challenge for his readers—a challenge that many of us hope a future president can meet.

Colin S. Wallace is currently a postdoctoral fellow in space science education at the Center for Astronomy Education (CAE) at the University of Arizona. Before arriving at CAE, he earned his PhD in Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is currently active in a number of astronomy education research projects aimed at raising students' conceptual and reasoning abilities and their understanding of the role science plays in society.

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