Here really bright people get noticed. Especially those that demonstrate they have some sense, you know like common sense. Dr. James Sweeney at Stanford comes to mind. Now we’ll add Professor Richard A. Muller at UC Berkeley. I haven’t met him as I have Sweeney, but Kerry Dolan wrote about Professor Muller in Forbes Magazine dated March 30, 2009 but is available online now. With a bit of plagiarizing lets get to some of the high points that Dolan has written about Muller and his views.

Professor Richard A. Muller. Click image for more.

Professor Richard A. Muller. Click image for more.

Muller reportedly 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, solar panels on residential rooftops make no economic sense; those environmental preachers Al Gore and Thomas Friedman are exaggerating the effects of global warming. My, that’s asking for it. This guy works as UC Berkeley after all.

Yet in such a place Muller 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. At UC Berkeley. I’m gaining faith in America’s youth by the paragraph. In 2008 he authored a book with the same title for we regular folks. That might be worth the money.

What makes him stand out is that 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 is 65 and was named a MacArther genius back in 1982. A native of New York City’s South Bronx he studied physics at Columbia and earned a Ph.D. guided by Luis Alvarez the UC Berkeley professor and Nobel winner who figured out what ended the dinosaur era.

Muller’s main interest is the U.S. leaders 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.”

Muller, like a lot of us, agrees the planet is warming – Muller being worried and some of us just interested. What he talks about is that misinformation has been spread by scientifically uninformed folk: “deniers” on the one hand and “exaggerators” like Gore and Friedman on the other. Muller likes to rely on the IPCC as the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change is known. To which I watch, curiously bewildered at the reliance on computer modeling and historical and contemporaneous data of dubious value.

Muller comes right out at the exaggerated information spread by the notorious Al Gore and widely circulated columnist Tom Friedman with a couple sharp knife counter points.

More of interest to us is Muller reminds that The U.S. hasn’t started a new nuclear power plant operation since 1996. The blame, he asserts is in part irrational concerns about radiation. Muller says, “We need to educate the public. Nuclear is not as dangerous as they think it is. 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. Yet the cancer rate in Denver is lower than in the rest of the country.”

On the Federal nuclear fuel repository at Yucca Mountain Muller notes that radioactivity levels are likely to be lower than in Denver, but that hasn’t calmed the public’s fears about storing waste at Yucca. As reported Muller completely overlooks the fact that all that “spent” fuel stored around the country has an enormous quantity of energy that can be used in other reactor designs.

Muller also has a clear head on clean coal. Maybe too clear, as he realizes that no matter what the developed world chooses about coal the developing world is simply going to use it. Muller concedes that clean coal will be necessary to control carbon emissions, while here the matter is all the other junk in coal effluents that is much more alarming.

Muller continues by crashing notions on photovoltaics by saying, “The only way to break even on solar rooftop panels is through the subsidies.” To which I’ll add that Obama and the Democrats are so busy spending the taxes on the future’s paychecks and profits that incentives, let alone capital investment will be very hard to find. Getting below a dollar a watt invested on a photovoltaic set seems extraordinarily high now.

On batteries Muller is “skeptical” thinking the life span for the investment isn’t going to work when considering the replacement costs. He might be correct today, but tomorrow will be a different picture. The concern from a planning view is not just the storage in a vehicle, but also the storage at charging locations in homes and commercial charging locations. A fast charge of a vehicle in minutes, or even a notebook computer in seconds is way, way past the installed wiring capacity. Fast charge is going to require more storage than almost everyone has calculated. A notebook at only 43.2Wh using 10.8 volts charging from 110 volts would need over 20 amps for a 1-minute charge, well past the 15 amp standard circuit in homes. Figuring a vehicle’s capacity would exceed the power of an electric range or electric dryer or even a welder. Storage will need to be something near equal the vehicle’s on board storage so doubling the total investment.

Perhaps Dolan’s best work is reporting Muller’s view that the biggest contributors to global warming or pollution will be China, India, Russia and others as their economies grow and industrial production increases. The relevant observation, hard fact if you like, is 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,” Muller says.

Kerry Dolan has written a great story for Forbes and I hope I’ve distilled it to a quicker read. There is more story at the Forbes site where it runs about three times longer with more personal details and point counterpoint exploration. That point counter point might be useful in talking with others making the story a worthwhile read.

The world is a better place for people like Muller having their say. As you’ve noted I’m not exactly in step, as I have a more future orientation, because what is passed cannot be undone, but what’s coming is in our power to control.


5 Comments so far

  1. A Very Bright Guy With Some Sense | New bEnergy/b and Fuel : Science and Technology News on March 19, 2009 3:51 AM

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  3. jpstraley on March 20, 2009 8:30 AM

    Thorium-fueled fission for electric power. Modular, factory-produced units. Possible better alternative than clean coal.


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