I spent an interesting Monday evening at the University of California, San Diego listening to Richard A. Muller, the man who wants President Obama and other world leaders to not only be able to navigate the geopolitical road map, but know at least a little about physics as well.

There is wide consensus, he told an audience at UCSD’s Institute of the Americas, “that a president should know the difference between Shiite and Sunni, but not the difference between uranium and plutonium.”

Muller, the highlight of the first official San Diego event hosted by the high tech news website Xconomy, was giving the crowd of tech, biotech and public relations professionals an abbreviated version of his immensely popular class at University of California, Berkeley, called “Physics for Future Presidents.” He also wrote a book with the same title. The mission of the class is to expose liberal arts and business majors to physics.

If Monday’s talk is any indication, the class — which was named “best class” at Berkeley by The Daily Californian — seems like an engaging semester of science-related myth busting. He spent the majority of the hour debunking widely held beliefs regarding terrorism and global warming. Here are a few:

  • Widely held belief: If a rogue nation can build a nuclear bomb, it would have the power to level entire cities. Truth according to Muller: Not necessarily. For example, the bomb tested by North Korea in 2006 packed less of a punch than the jet fuel explosion that felled the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
  • Widely held belief: The Earth’s temperature has steadily increased over the past decade. Truth according to Muller: The Earth has not warmed over the past 12 years. (Muller made a point to say that he believes that the earth is warming, and human activities are partially to blame. His larger point is that there has been a lot of exaggeration regarding global warming in recent years.)
  • Widely held belief: The rapidly expanding economies — and corresponding energy usage — of China and India mean that we are destined for a hot and less habitable planet regardless of what we do in the West to curb our greenhouse gas emissions. Truth according to Muller: A 2 percent increase in the Earth’s cloud cover would cancel out all carbon dioxide emissions by humans. He added that he is “praying for increased cloud cover,” because he has no faith the modern world’s ability to curb greenhouse emissions.

Perhaps Muller’s most interesting comment came at the end of his talk when he said that he wants Obama to become the “nation’s physics teacher, (because) I don’t think the public trusts scientists anymore.”

I was kind of shocked by that comment. I knew the public had lost its faith in the media — but I didn’t think scientists have lost credibility with a majority of Americans. What do you scientists think about that comment? Give me some feedback by commenting or e-mailing me at david.washburn@voiceofsandiego.org.


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