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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.

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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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