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Common reading author
Global warming real; electric cars problematic, says speaker
Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011
By Hope Belli Tinney, WSU News
Photos by Shelly Hanks, WSU Photo Services
PULLMAN, Wash. - Skeptics of global warming do have a point, said physicist Richard Muller, author of "Physics for Future Presidents,” Washington State University’s 2011 common reading selection. Actually, they make several good points.
That’s why he created an organization called Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature in 2010 to investigate their arguments and look hard at the existing data.
"I like to pay attention to actual numbers,” he said at one point during his talk Tuesday at the Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum. "They are really important.”
Warming slight, but predictions accurate
After analyzing more than 1.6 billion temperature reports collected over the past 160 years from more than 39,000 unique temperature stations, Muller believes that, despite real problems with some of the data, evidence of global warming is solid.
"Global warming in my evaluation is real and much of it, if not most of it, is caused by humans,” he said.
How much has the earth warmed? Not so much. Between 1956 and the present, he said, the earth has warmed about .5 degrees Celsius.
Teaching as if any student
might be a future president
Instructor Allyson Beall wasn’t worried Tuesday when she turned over her Environmental Science 101 class to Richard Muller, UC Berkeley physicist and author of "Physics for Future Presidents.”
She had allocated the entire 75 minutes for questions and answers, and her students, all participants in the WSU Freshman Focus program, didn’t need coaxing.
The first hand up was a student who wanted to know about neutrinos. If neutrinos can really travel faster than the speed of light, doesn’t that mean Albert Einstein got it wrong?
Well, no, Muller said.
"I don’t think this announced discovery will stand the test of time,” he said, not because it violates the theory of relativity, but because it violates his religious belief that he has free will.
As a thought experiment, he said, imagine that he has a gun that shoots tachyons (particles that travel faster than the speed of light). If he were to use that gun to kill someone, he said, his defense would be that the person was dead before he ever pulled the trigger.
Muller, whose 2010 book was the WSU 2011 common reading selection, said he enjoys talking about science with non-scientists.
"I think the future leaders of the world will come from the liberal arts,” he said. So, when he teaches his science for non-scientists course at UC Berkeley, he said, his working assumption is that "someone in this class will be the future president of the United States.”
During the course of the hour he answered questions about the future of the hydrogen economy (there is none); nuclear power (most fears are irrational); biodiesel (good partial solution); his favorite politician (declined to state); when the next terrorist attack will occur in the United States (it won’t); and problems with natural gas (solvable with government regulation).
"Isn’t natural gas another fuel that can run out?” a student asked. Absolutely, Muller said, but he tends to think about energy solutions for the next 100 to 150 years. By 2100, he said, who knows what technology might be available? The world was a very different place 100 years ago, and it will be a very different place 100 years from now.
Connor Hemming, a freshman from Marysville, Wash., had his hand up often and asked a number of questions about alternative energy and global warming.
"I just find physics interesting,” he said later. Listening to Muller was encouraging, he said, because he talked about the science behind what you see or hear in the media.
Beall said she was pleased by her students’ questions, especially since she hasn’t specifically assigned any of the book in her class. She plans to use the book more in the latter part of the class, she said, but she was confident students would have questions.
"This isn’t a stand and deliver type of class,” she said. Even with 170 students in the class, she makes time for group discussions. They are used to asking questions and defending their points of view, she said.
"It validated for me that they are really saavy,” she said. "I’m optimistic because of those guys.”
That doesn’t sound like much, he said, but it is just about where scientists thought we’d be at this point in time.
"I’m deeply worried,” he said. "The reason I’m worried is that the theory is about right.”
If the trend continues, he said, in the next 50 years or so "it will be the warmest it has ever been in 20 million years.”
"Humans have never lived in such an environment.”
West can’t control global warming
Muller, a past winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and a faculty member at University of California Berkeley, spoke for about an hour and answered questions for another hour.
Muller titled his talk "Energy for Future Presidents” and spent much of the time discussing various forms of energy, from nuclear and natural gas to wind and solar. He also talked about the need for much better energy conservation efforts.
Whatever solutions or partial solutions we come up with, he said, they have to be profitable in the developing world. That’s why electric cars might look appealing, but considering the scope of the problem they are irrelevant because the cost of batteries is prohibitive for anyone but the wealthy.
Even if the United States cuts its emissions to virtually nothing, the pace of global warming will be delayed by just a year or two.
"We in the West no longer control global warming,” he said. "That’s in the hands of the developing world.”
Students surprised by info
Amy Chao, a freshman pre-med and business double major, said she was shocked to hear Muller say global warming was in the hands of the developing world: "Who knew?” she asked.
She and her friend, Chanel Cole, a freshman accounting major, were both surprised to see Muller run down the economics of owning an electric car. After three years, Muller said, the owner has saved $2,000 in gas, but then has to spend $8,000 to replace the battery.
Both Cole and Chao are enrolled in a Freshman Focus course and had been encouraged to attend the lecture. But, they said, they were glad they were there because the information was interesting.
About common reading
Sponsored by WSU’s University College, the Common Reading Program is in its fifth year. Previous selections have included "Stones into Schools” by Greg Mortenson; "The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan; "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," by Mary Roach, and "Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It," by Gina Kolata.
In addition to the keynote address by the author each year, the University College - in collaboration with faculty and staff from all colleges, living groups and WSU Libraries - presents a variety of lectures and special events related to the common reading.
Upcoming events include a star party 8:30-11 p.m. Saturday at the Jewett Observatory and a talk on "Misinformation and Scientific Literature,” by WSU librarians at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4.