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Title: Physics For The Rest Of Us: A Berkeley Professor Dares To Debunk The Popular Wisdom About The Future Of Energy
Date: 03/30/2009
Publication: Forbes
Extended Text:

Physics for the Rest of Us
Kerry A. Dolan 03.30.09, 12:00 AM ET

A Berkeley professor dares to debunk the popular wisdom about the future of energy.

In his driveway in the heart of ultraliberal Berkeley, Calif. Professor Richard A. Muller has an unsurprising possession: a hybrid-electric Toyota Prius. What\'s surprising is his motivation for owning it. "It doesn\'t save me money," he explains. "It doesn\'t help slow global warming. I just love the technology."

It\'s a measure of how popular this physicist\'s lectures are that he can get away with such unpopular views. Surrounded by tree-hugging academics at UC, Berkeley, he dares to argue that coal and nuclear fission are good sources of energy. Hydrogen- and electric-powered cars won\'t do much to save either our atmosphere or our balance of trade, he says; solar panels on residential rooftops make no economic sense; those environmental preachers Al Gore and Thomas Friedman are exaggerating the effects of global warming.

Muller, 65, named a MacArthur "genius" in 1982, teaches a course called "Physics for Future Presidents," voted best class at Berkeley in 2008. Since 2000 it has grown from 54 students to 500, with a 100-person waiting list. Last year he put out a book with the same title (for a general audience). Over the past eight years he\'s attracted attention in public policy circles with his efforts to inject scientific understanding into the debates about terrorism, nuclear power, energy and global warming.

Muller concedes that the Earth is getting warmer and that this is worrisome. He agrees with studies that show global temperatures have increased roughly two degrees Fahrenheit over the last century and that carbon dioxide levels have risen 36% over the same period. But he says a vast amount of misinformation has been spread by scientifically uninformed folk: "deniers" on the one hand and "exaggerators" like Gore and Friedman on the other. "No one actually pays attention to the IPCC," he sighs, referring to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists, diplomats and politicians who have come to a consensus on the science.

The misinformation spread by the exaggerators, says Muller, includes the panic Al Gore creates in his documentary film An Inconvenient Truth. Gore shows the U.S. being flooded as the oceans rise. The more likely scenario, says Muller, is a 12-inch rise in sea levels over the next 100 years (his source: the IPCC). Another fallacy in Gore\'s film has to do with the bears. "Those polar bears that can\'t find the ice? There\'s no record of that," sniffs Muller.

Muller\'s gripe about Tom Friedman is his claim that global warming has caused an increase in hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. That\'s because we\'re looking harder for such storms and finding more, says Muller. "There is compelling evidence that the rate of such storms has been slowly going down," he says.

Muller\'s chief concern is the U.S.\' lack of understanding about the science behind important policy issues. This conviction stems partly from the 34 years he spent as an adviser to the U.S. government on national security issues. "I was painfully aware that scientific issues were not understood by top officials," he says. "So many important issues have a high-tech angle to them."

The U.S. hasn\'t fired up a new nuclear power plant since 1996, and Muller lays the blame in part on irrational worries about radiation. "We need to educate the public. Nuclear is not as dangerous as they think it is," he says. For starters, the public doesn\'t understand that a certain amount of radioactivity is normal. Denver has 50% more radioactivity than the average U.S. city because of the granite in the rocks there, he says. Yet the cancer rate in Denver is lower than in the rest of the country.

"We assuage public fears by passing ridiculously low limits on radioactivity," he says, but adds that low levels of radioactivity do concern him. Radioactivity levels are likely to be lower at Yucca Mountain, the proposed nuclear waste storage site in Nevada, than in Denver, but Muller says that hasn\'t calmed the public\'s fears about storing waste at Yucca.

Clean coal is yet another promising source of energy, says Muller. In this process, now under development, the carbon dioxide created by coal combustion is captured and pumped deep into the ground. In early 2008 the U.S. government canceled plans to build a 275-megawatt clean-coal plant because of cost overruns, but Muller says it can be built. The developing world will continue to use coal because it\'s cheap; Muller says clean coal will be necessary to control the carbon emissions.

Muller\'s bad news on photovoltaics: "The only way to break even on solar rooftop panels is through the subsidies." He is more optimistic about the future of concentrated solar power, in which a lens focuses the sun on a solar cell; the cost of that can be brought down to $1 per peak watt, he says. He concedes that a new genre of solar cells using ultrathin layers of copper, indium, gallium and selenide might change the picture for residential solar.

Muller is skeptical about battery-powered cars. "Electric vehicles are good for wealthy people," he says. People who think they are saving money by converting to electric or plug-in hybrid cars are not taking into account the cost of replacing batteries, he says.

Over the next several decades the biggest contributors to global warming will be China, India and Russia, as their economies grow and industrial production increases. If we really want to slow down global warming, we have to invest in, or invent, technology that\'s cheap enough to be deployed in China. "Anything that does not address China and India is a feel-good solution," he says.

Muller grew up in New York City\'s South Bronx. He studied physics at Columbia University and got his Ph.D. under the tutelage of Luis Alvarez, a UC, Berkeley professor and Nobel laureate in physics whose investigations included X-raying the pyramids and deciphering what killed the dinosaurs.

As physicists go, Muller is quite the Renaissance man. He began working in particle physics and spent time investigating ice ages. He has a controversial theory about a star he calls Nemesis that he says is orbiting the sun at a distance of a few light years. On the walls of his book-filled home hang photographs he has taken of wildlife during his world travels, including a gorilla in Rwanda and a lion cub in Kenya. He whips out his iPhone to show a visitor a video of how he came within a few feet of gorillas. The animals appear to ignore the tourists.

Muller\'s peers are happy to take him on in the great policy debates. John Harte, a physicist who teaches in UC, Berkeley\'s Energy & Resources Group, declares that the economics of both clean coal and nuclear power are doubtful enough to make solar, wind and geothermal generation well worth pursuing instead. Franklin Orr, director of Stanford University\'s Precourt Institute for Energy, agrees with Muller that there is room for nuclear and possibly clean coal (if nuclear waste storage and carbon capture can be solved) but doesn\'t agree with him that Al Gore and Tom Friedman are overstating the risks of global warming. Orr notes that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is dissolving in the ocean, changing the acidity and affecting the coral reefs.

Felix Kramer, founder of California Cars Initiative, a nonprofit that promotes plug-in hybrids, says Muller\'s math is faulty when it comes to the lifetime of electric batteries. He says the batteries in the Tesla, an all-electric sports car, should last about as long as the car--between 100,000 and 200,000 miles.

Muller says, "If Obama got strongly behind nuclear, then it could move much faster." He doesn\'t believe we need to choose between nuclear and solar: "This is an example of the \'green bickering\' that I deplore: \'I am cleaner than thou.\' We need all [those sources of energy]." He agrees with Orr that the CO2 dissolving in the oceans is a problem, and he addresses it in his book. "I consider this to be potentially a bigger problem than global warming," Muller says. But he is surprised that Orr doesn\'t see Gore and Friedman\'s exaggerations. "Certainly he would agree that Gore and Friedman are making claims that are way beyond those in the consensus of the IPCC. Maybe he is not part of the consensus."

Answering Kramer, Muller cites recent research by Consumer Reports showing that converting to plug-in hybrids costs $10,000, but the batteries have to be replaced at the end of three years.

Muller insists that he doesn\'t aim to tell anyone--future President or not--what to do about energy policy, or anything else. In all his years advising government, he says, "the most valuable thing I taught them was how to understand the issues so they could see the conclusion themselves, and then convince other people."