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Beyond Smoke and Mirrors

Unlike angst-ridden theoreticians, most experimental physicists are jovial, practical, straightforward people. They have to be, in order to do jobs which involve working with others on huge collaborative teams and overcoming problems with delicate, complex equipment. Burton Richter is an experimenter. He got his Nobel Prize many years ago, he's 79, and he can say whatever he wants to. In Beyond Smoke and Mirrors he explores the tangled issues surrounding global warming and potential responses to it. The critical thinking and rigorous in-depth analysis that be brings to the subject are presented in remarkably fast-reading, chatty, yet thoughtful prose.

As Richter summarizes the situation in the Introduction, "... unfortunately, there are more senseless arguments than sensible ones, and still more that are self-serving." He dismisses both the deniers and the exaggerators of global climate change, and comes down squarely in between on the side of reason. Part I of the book "explains what we know, what we don't know, and how urgent is the need for action." Part II discusses energy, technology, and economics; Part III focuses on politics. Richter provides excellent historical context, going back to an 1896 climate model of the Swedish chemist Arrhenius which predicted about the same amount of warming from CO2 that the current sophisticated models give.

To jump ahead to the "answers" that Burt Richter identifies: the big winners are efficiency, coal with carbon capture/storage, hydroelectricity, geothermal systems, nuclear power, natural gas, and several less immediate areas for investment. The losers (bad strategies) are coal without carbon capture/storage, petroleum or hydrogen used to power transportation, and corn ethanol. Politics intervenes in many of these and promotes irrational, inefficient behavior. As the author notes at the end of Chapter 17, "Since I have become involved in energy and proliferation issues I have learned one new thing: politics—particularly international politics—is much harder than physics."

Chapter 18 nicely summarizes the take-away messages:

^z - 2010-09-09