Internationally recognized physicist and writer Richard A. Muller explored the science of global warming and nuclear terrorism during his Thursday [Nov. 14] visit to Mississippi State.
Muller wrote "Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines," this year's selection for the university's Maroon Edition common reading book for freshmen. During two campus programs, he covered various concepts included in the book.
Jerry Gilbert, MSU provost and executive vice president, welcomed the University of California, Berkeley professor and praised the book.
"This is the fifth Maroon Edition book we have read," Gilbert said. "It really demystifies some of the complex physics that you hear about in the news; it really makes it understandable, and it makes science fun.
"That's what I like about it."
In both Muller's presentations, "Global Warming: Is It Real? What Causes It? What, If Anything, Can We Do?" and "Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines," he emphasized his opinion about controversial climate-change theories.
"The skeptics are right on most things, but global warming is real and is caused by humans," Muller repeated several times.
He said that, because climates are so variable, identifying localized global warming is almost impossible, as demonstrated by Starkville's below-average temperatures on the day of his presentation. He also explored scientists' exaggerations and inaccuracies, and explained how their faulty work inspired him to study the subject himself.
One of Muller's visual displays, available at http://berkeleyearth.org, presented earth-land temperature data that began in 1750 and illustrates how the average temperature of earth's land has risen by two-and-a-half degrees Fahrenheit over 250 years, with a one-and-a-half degree increase during the last 50 years.
"We didn't need complex computer models (to chart the curve)," Muller said. "Simply, the curve of global warming happens to follow the curve of carbon dioxide. That was astonishing."
Muller, also a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, concluded that the increase in carbon emissions is correlated to the overall increase of earth's land temperature. Waste from burned coal is the biggest contributor to increased carbon dioxide levels, not gasoline or diesel fuel, he said.
Air pollution from coal emissions is killing 1.2 million people in China each year, he said.
He said the U.S. should set the example in replacing its energy dependency on coal with natural gas, which emits between two to three times less carbon dioxide and significantly reduces emissions.
Muller, who holds a doctorate from UC Berkeley, said fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas from shale, is the best way to harvest the abundant supplies of natural gas in underground rock. While he acknowledged that fracking must be accomplished in an environmentally responsible way, he emphasized that clean fracking is much simpler than cleanly burning coal.
"Fracking is something that needs to be embraced by environmentalists," he said.
On the subject of nuclear weapons, Muller said future leaders must know the three fundamental types: uranium, plutonium and hydrogen. Because hydrogen bombs are very difficult to develop, he discussed the other two in detail.
Centrifuges are required to divide and isolate the uranium-235 isotope necessary to create a uranium bomb. While the process is neither simple nor cheap, such a bomb is easy to detonate once enough U-235 is collected.
He said isolating enough plutonium required to develop a bomb is simple, since the chemical element is a natural bi-product of nuclear energy plants. However, making such a bomb explode is a very complex, difficult process.
Muller stressed how critical it will be for future national leaders to gain a deep understanding of all nuclear weapons and their capabilities in order to make the best political and social decisions.
"When a problem gets really tough, that's when we should focus in on science because science is the best way we have to evaluate and solve a problem," Muller told the Foster Ballroom crowd. "If you say, 'When a problem gets really tough, we should abandon science and just use our feelings,' then you're throwing away the best tool we have.
"Now's the time we need to hunker down and use science as the medium to understand what's happening."
Information about other Maroon Edition events is available at http://maroonedition.msstate.edu/.