Confessions of a Converted Climate Skeptic and his Data (Guest: Dr. Richard Muller)

Media Thumbnail
  • 0.5
  • 1
  • 1.25
  • 1.5
  • 1.75
  • 2
This is a podcast episode titled, Confessions of a Converted Climate Skeptic and his Data (Guest: Dr. Richard Muller). The summary for this episode is: <p>In the world of science, Physicists have a long and well-deserved reputation for being on the cutting edge of data acquisition, data analytics, and big data in general. Our guest today, Dr. Richard Muller, is a larger-than-life figure in the world of physics and beyond. Dr. Muller is a Professor of Physics Emeritus at Berkeley University, where he has had a long and successful career across particle physics, astrophysics, geophysics, and in the couple of decades - climate science. He has won multiple awards, including the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Prize. We reached out to him because of his unique and fascinating views on using data and data analytics in the climate science discussion.</p>

Ben: Welcome to the Masters of Data Podcast, the podcast where we talk about how data affects our businesses and our lives. And we talk to the people on the front lines of the data revolution. And I'm your host, Ben Newton.
Ben: In the world of science, physicists have a long and well deserved reputation for being on the cutting edge of data acquisition, data analytics, and big data in general. Our guest today, Dr. Richard Muller, is a larger than life figure in the world of physics and beyond. Dr. Muller is a professor of physics emeritus at Berkeley University, where he's had a long and successful across particle physics, astrophysics, geophysics, and then the last couple of decades, climate science.
Ben: He has won multiple awards including the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Award. We reached out to him because of his unique and fascinating views on using data and data analytics in the climate science discussion. So without any further ado, let's get into it.
Ben: Thanks everybody for listening to the Masters of Data Podcast, and I'm excited to be here with Dr. Richard Muller, who's a professor of physics at Berkeley emeritus, thank you so much for coming on the show, I appreciate it.
Richard: Oh, pleasure to be here.
Ben: Richard, just looking back at your background, you've had a fascinating career and one of the things we start with at Masters of Data Podcast is talking about how you got where you were, how did you ... I saw you grew up in the Bronx-
Richard: Yeah.
Ben: And went to Columbia, and then here to Berkeley, like what made you go into physics, how did you get where you were?
Richard: I think I wanted to go into physics ever since before I knew what physics was. I loved science as a kid, just found it fascinating trying to understand the way the world works. And when I finally learned that physics was what it was, I realized that was what I'd always been interested in. So I like to look around me, look at the world, and understand it all. And there's some details I have trouble with of biology and so on, but I recognize they are ... fundamentally I understand it. When strange new things happen, when we learn about black holes, or what's going on inside of the sun, or a mysterious neutrinos, I like to feel comfortable for that, so physics was the way to do that.
Ben: Yeah. When I look back at your background, you started off in particle physics, right?
Richard: Well I got my PhD in particle physics. At that time, that was really one of the most fundamental things that we could do.
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: It combines quantum physics and really small things, it's very, very distant. But I quickly moved out of particle physics into things I could do on a small scale. So I wanted to be able to do experiments myself. My first projects had to do with, actually, cosmology. I felt a background in particle physics prepared me very well for many things.
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: The thing that particle physics does more than anything else is back in, when I was doing this, way back in the 60s and 70s, it used big data. That is where the experts in big data came from, people who were my cohorts in-
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: Particle physics, some of them went into particle physics after they got their PhD. One friend, Larry Gershwin, became the chief analyst for technology in the Soviet Union for the CIA. Now how does particle physics go to that? Well, they're both big data. The particle physics prepared him for looking at reams and reams of data, most of which wasn't very easy, so finding the important things there, making sure you get the right answer because you will be checked. It's the exact, perfect preparation for working in the CIA.
Ben: Wow, I never though about it, you know, that makes sense, because right, in particle physics, I mean, you have hundreds of people working on the same projects together, looking at just massive amounts of data.
Richard: Well the teams were small when I was in the field, so a typical team in the Alvarez group was only 100 people.
Ben: Oh, [crosstalk 00:03:40].
Richard: Working together. Now you have thousands of people working together. But I wanted a project that I could work on by myself, so I began a project to measure the cosmic microwaves from the Big Bang. And that actually worked quite well. My former protégé took the project, the same instrument, put it in space, and found an even more sensitive measurements, which got him the Nobel Price in physics.
Richard: A second project I began was to look at the expansion of the universe to see ... I wanted to measure how much it was slowing down from self gravity.
Ben: Right.
Richard: I led that project for ... actually the first project was the one that got me a faculty position, the success of that, even though it got George the Nobel Prize, I got the faculty position. The second thing was a project to measure the slow down of the universe, I led that project for about eight years. And then my graduate student took it over, and carried on for another five years and discovered the universe wasn't slowing down, it was expanding. Rapidly, it was going faster. And that is now what we call the dark energy, and that got him the Nobel Prize.
Richard: So these big projects were what I really enjoyed doing. And by that time I had moved on to studying climate, and that eventually led me to a study of global warming.
Ben: How'd you make that transition to geophysics and climate science and things like that? What led you that direction?
Richard: It was actually some work of my mentor, Luis Alvarez. I watched as he and his son Walter, who became a good friend, figured out what killed the dinosaurs. And this was a real mystery, and Walter had uncovered some clues-
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: And Luis Alvarez suggested some nuclear methods that could be used. And they finally figured out that an asteroid had killed the dinosaurs.
Richard: Well, that was such a revelation. It really changed the way we think-
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: About life in general.
Ben: Right.
Richard: That I'd always thought life was competition between species, but no, every now and then a big catastrophe comes and you have to be prepared, and the dinosaurs were simply too big. So this fascinated me, and I started thinking about what other catastrophes might have changed the meaning of life? And I immediately thought of the Ice Ages. I started studying the Ice Ages, and how they came about. I did a lot of work on this, I wrote a technical book on the Ice Ages, on how you study this stuff. And I would give many, many talks, and at the end of every one of my talks, there were no questions on anything I'd talked about, everybody wanted to know about global warming. So I had to study global warming.
Ben: Listen to the people.
Richard: So it was from the dinosaurs, to Ice Ages, to global warming, an odd path. I sometimes say, I say the Big Bang, I wrote several papers of what killed the dinosaurs, I sometimes joke that my career has been one catastrophe after another.
Ben: I like that. That's really interesting, and I mean, I know when we had first talked, one of the things that ... where you did, what, about ... would it be about 16, 17 years ago, when you got involved in climate, you kind of talked to me about being a converted climate skeptic.
Richard: Oh, yeah.
Ben: And I know there's a lot of stuff out there about ... when I was going and researching about that, the process you went through and a lot ... you know, it made the headlines, I guess, about how you found some things that caused you to question some of the ... the science and data, right?
Richard: Well, there were legitimate issues about the question of global warming.
Ben: Right.
Richard: That as coming into this field, and doing it mostly so I could ask questions, in my cloak I could answer questions on this stuff, I found there were some serious issues that were not being openly addressed. So for example, there's the data selection bias.
Ben: Right.
Richard: That the three groups that were studying it, one of them was using something like 6% of the data. Another group was using 17% of the data. Nobody was using all the data. Why not? And the reason was the methods that they had devised required them to select data that had a span of 100 years or more.
Richard: Now the trouble with that is thermometers that have been out there for 100 years probably began their lives in a rural area, and wind up in an urban area. And so there's the urban heat island effect that could cause heating, and I could find no clear discussion of this effect. In fact, I don't think it was analyzed by anybody else.
Ben: Now what that means is-
Richard: And it was sufficient to bother me.
Ben: You know, and I saw the heat island thing referenced a couple times and I ... two, you just said it right now and I don't know if I really understood it. So what you're saying is that cities were warmer than a rural area just because of ... you know, the asphalt, or-
Richard: But the problem was these thermometers were not originally in cities.
Ben: Okay.
Richard: And the cities built up around them, and so they would expect there to be a heating, but that heating isn't related to carbon dioxide or global warming, that's just an artifact of the fact that they're not using all the data. So that data selection bias, nobody addressed this except me. Us, our group, and that really bothered me. There were other things too.
Richard: Government groups had adjusted the data because of biases that were in the data, and they may or may not have done this properly, but they didn't keep records. They wouldn't release the data, you couldn't get ahold of the data, because they said we had some agreements with private companies with countries that we could use their data if we didn't release it, and went under Freedom of Information Act, asked my somebody else to show these agreements, they couldn't find them. But they still wouldn't release it, because they said we had these agreements. So there are all sorts of issues there.
Richard: There's the urban heat island effect, which we mentioned. There's the fact that in the United States, three quarters of the stations were in poorly located regions that did not meet the minimum standards specified by the National Institution of Graphic and Atmospheric Administration.
Richard: So there are all these problems-
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: And the other groups were saying, "Trust us, we did a good job." Well, as a scientist I'm not supposed to trust anybody.
Ben: Right, yeah, and I definitely ... and there was another thing too I remember reading about the hockey stick graph, right?
Richard: Oh well, yeah, there's this plot made by Michael Mann that showed that the current temperature was unprecedented over one or two thousand years. And I was going to put that in chapter one of my book. That plot was going to be the first, in my technical book on the Ice Ages, I figured I'd start with that. But before I started with that, I said, "Look, I want my book to last forever, I better do some due diligence on this, I better check it and make sure it's right." So I read the paper. I had a whole bunch of questions that weren't answered. And it looked like they were making assumptions that were unwarranted, and the whole thing, I couldn't trust it. So I threw that out of my book and put in my own plot of that.
Richard: Several years later the National Academy did a detailed review of Mann's hockey stick plot, and found out it had no validity beyond 200 years back. 200 years back had already been established, we know it's been warming for 200 years.
Ben: Right.
Richard: The hockey stick plot that made Michael Mann famous-
Ben: It had to be a longer period of time.
Richard: Was that it went back 1,000 years, but the uncertainties had been grossly underestimated, and we couldn't say anything about going back 1,000 years. So that hockey stick, which got so many people concerned and worried about global warming, just was not scientifically solid. So there were many things like that.
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: If you read An Inconvenient Truth, the movie by Al Gore, I went through it in detail because I'm trying to learn this subject, and every time he said something I would look it up, and I found in 80% of the claims he makes, were either misleading, wrong, or backwards. The movie itself was really nothing more than propaganda. From a person, Al Gore, who's sincerely worried about global warming, and trying to make the best case he can-
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: But not really having a scientific mindset, he didn't know how to evaluate data, so he did what I call cherry picking.
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: Which is to pick everything that looks bad, and then attribute that to global warming, and take the most exaggerated claims of some scientist, scientists who say, "Well, this could happen, Manhattan could flood," so what does he do? He shows a movie of Manhattan flooding, and then implies that this is the scientific conclusion. Well even the IPPC doesn't consider that to be within the realm of possibility. So the movie was ... some would say it was anti science, because he was rejecting scientific conclusions. Even the IPPC, which is not a scientific organization, wouldn't accept many of the things that were in that movie, but hey, got him a Nobel Prize.
Ben: So you're kind of looking at this from a scientific viewpoint.
Richard: That was my goal.
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: Completely objectively.
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: So what we did, we were actually asked, my daughter and I had a consulting company, we were asked to make advice to Bangladesh, and what they should do about global warming. And my daughter said, "But you're not even a believer in global warming," so she suggested we set a scientific team, independent of the government, to reanalyze all of the data. It took us two and a half years to put together a really superb team, some of the best statisticians in the world. David Brillinger from Berkeley, who I think is really the tops in the world, helped us, we had Saul Perlmutter joined the team, he hadn't yet won his Nobel Prize. But he knew how to analyze big data, the whole project of measuring the supernova explosion was really a big data project, and he was one of the world's expert in that, and I knew him to be unbiased, perfect person for the team.
Richard: So we put together this team, and we looked at all of these systematic errors, that's often the hardest part in big data.
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: Is not the statistics, the statistics, you can learn that as an undergraduate. But what do you about the biases in big data? Really tough. My background in particle physics was perfect for that. And after two and a half years, the reaction was oh my gosh, global warming is real? It's caused by humans? We can make that conclusion far stronger than any government position ever made. It dropped out of the data. We were able to handle all the systematics. I reached that conclusion, I wrote an Op/Ed for the New York Times, The Conversion of a Climate Change Skeptic, and global warming was real. Is real.
Ben: Yeah. So I mean basically part of the fascinating part of that is that you ... I was actually looking at some quotes and I think you had a quote that bringing science back to a subject that is become to argumentative, and too contentious.
Richard: Oh yeah, absolutely right. I mean, we had the exaggerators like Al Gore. We had the deniers of people who said this is all a government conspiracy, I think President Trump is on the record in a Tweet as having called it a Chinese conspiracy to undermine the economy of the United States. And this debate was taking place and right in the middle, the good, clean, objective analysis, there was almost nobody there. Even today this is a problem.
Richard: If you read the newspapers, there's a heatwave around the world. I watched this on the News Hour last night, and they're interviewing scientists, and the scientists say, "Yes, this could be due to global warming." Of course, it could also not be due to global warming. They're saying it could, it may, but it's getting reported in the newspapers as expect this to be the new normal. That's absolute nonsense. This is a heatwave we're having, it is not ... Global warming in the last 50 years has only been one degree Celsius. This is not ... this big heatwave is not a result of global warming. And yet, it's being reported that way, even when the scientists say it could be, it gets reported as welcome to the new normal, this is ... they don't quote the scientists exactly. The scientists always have these waffle words, because they try to be objective.
Richard: So again, the argument is being phrased as if this is something, now this is a great tragedy because of global warming. In fact, no, that's not the case. Katrina ... there's still enormous exaggeration, I look at the headlines, I would say 80 to 90% of the headlines on climate are misleading or wrong.
Ben: And well I guess part of it is when you formed then Berkeley Earth, Berkeley Earth Surface-
Richard: Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature, yeah.
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: Some people give it the acronym of B-E-S-T.
Ben: Yeah, BEST. Yeah, right, right, right. Couldn't read my own notes here. When you guys started that, Rich, I mean I guess part of that was to continue to inject some of this scientific rigor into the discussion, right?
Richard: Yeah, we wanted to inject objectivity. That's the thing that had been ignored, even the scientists who'd been objective, when I talked to them privately, said, "Well we exaggerate in public because we need to get the public to come on board. And a one degree temperature rise doesn't scare the public, so we need to exaggerate." Okay, Hurricane Katrina was not due to global warming, but maybe it was. Maybe it contributed, so we say maybe it'll contribute, and that this will get the public on board."
Richard: Whereas in fact, what I think happens is that scientists lose their credibility, they come advocates. The value of science is its objectivity. And when we throw out that objectivity we lose credibility. And I think science has been terribly hurt by the whole global warming business, because so many scientists have engaged in exaggeration.
Ben: That's actually an interesting point, because I think ... I guess that's part where bias definitely creeps into these kind of analysis, right, because you're humans, you want to advocate for something, it's very hard to stand apart from-
Richard: They might not even be biased. There was a paper written on temperature fluctuations that was widely reported as showing that variability of temperatures increasing enormously. I read the paper, and it gave that impression, but the analysis was actually done objectively. I contacted the author and I said, "But your paper doesn't show any increased variability." He said, "Yeah, that's right." I said, "And yet it's being reported that way." He said, "Yeah, I don't full understand it." I said, "Maybe it's because of the way you summarize here." And he said, "Oh yeah, that could be why they've misinterpreted it." This is a case where I believe he knew what he was doing. He wants to get people concerned about-
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: Global warming, so he phrases things in a way that makes it look worse than it is. Then we lose our objectivity, we are no longer trusted, and I think scientists have lost their reputation as being the one part of information whom you can trust.
Ben: No, and I guess it leaves a door open to deniers of different sorts.
Richard: Yeah, yeah. I mean, what happens then is the deniers will argue against them, and the problem is the deniers will be right.
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: And then the people who are exaggerating will argue against the deniers, and they will be right too. And so you have these two sides, both of whom finding mistakes on the other side, valid mistakes, meanwhile the middle ground is yes, global warming is real, yes it is a concern, yes it is caused by humans. And that's the middle ground. But in 1998, 1999 when we had a big peak, there were all sorts of scientists saying, "If we don't what we are doing in the next three years, it will be too late." Now obviously what they're trying to do is inspire people to immediate action. But hey, those three years have passed and we didn't do anything, so why bother, it's too late.
Richard: See, they exaggerated, they scared people, and then when the bad stuff doesn't happen, then the people lose their concern. I see a diminishing interest in global warming in the United States as people have become aware of the fact that polar bears are not dying in the north because of global warming. Disease is not spreading from the tropics because of global warming. The Al Gore movie was wrong on item, after item, after item. And they feel like they've been fooled, so their response is to go back to the other side and say, "Maybe this stuff is all nonsense." This the trouble with exaggeration, and I wrote about that in a column back right after the Al Gore movie came back, I said, "These kinds of exaggerations will lead to a backlash when people become aware of the fact that they are incorrect and misleading."
Ben: Well you know, it reminds me ... I've definitely heard of a couple different places, we humans are also very bad at risk management, at evaluating risk and acting on risk. And so it's like sometimes we need a disaster that's clearly defined to even be able to act.
Richard: And so they make up these disasters, the latest one being this global heatwave. And that's to get us to act, but then next year, when it's cool everywhere, people will say, "Whoa, whoa, what did I do? I thought this was global warming, this is the new normal, why is it cool this year?" There's an irony that almost every time Al Gore was signed up to give a take there would be a cool wave wherever he was. Finally he started saying, "Oh well, cool waves are also a response to global warming because we have more variation." But no, we don't have more variation, so.
Richard: And the other issue with this comes up is in what do we do about it? And the exaggerations there are just as bad. So I look at solutions to global warming being proposed by the people who seriously, honestly believe global warming is real, and that includes me. But none of the solutions that are out there publicly, except the ones I propose, will work even if implemented. And that's an objective look at solutions. As again, it's my daughter who said, "We should look at solutions." So we looked at solutions, and we find that most things being proposed simply will not work. It's an issue of objectivity. People start with a solution they like, they may love solar power, it seems very nice, it gets them back at these gas stations and oil people who are doing all this bad stuff, so let's go solar. So let's figure out a way to make solar be the solution. And then they work on that and they come up with arguments to make it the solution, but they're not objective analysis.
Richard: I mean, right now China is supposed to be a solar powerhouse. If you look at the numbers, you'll fine that less than one tenth of 1% of Chinese energy comes from solar.
Ben: Wow.
Richard: Less than one tenth of 1%.
Ben: I didn't realize it was that small.
Richard: Nobody realizes that small. But if you look up the numbers, if you look at the stuff objectively, and you say, "Well, let's really look and see whether solar is a power," don't just read the pro solar stuff. Look deeply and check the numbers, the numbers are public numbers. Anybody can check that it's less than one tenth of 1% of Chinese energy. So then they change the argument, say, "Oh, but it can grow," well, that's a small thing to grow from.
Ben: So Rich, one part we're talking about here, so you started the BEST Project, the Berkeley Earth Project, back in 2010.
Richard: We prefer the name Berkeley Earth.
Ben: I like the fact that it came out as BEST. But you started out the Berkeley Earth Project in 2010, and you guys have been working on it with your daughter and you said running the CO of the project. What have you guys been doing for the last eight years? So you've kind of progressed past that moment in 2010 where you said, "Yes, there's climate change, it's caused by humans," where have you guys moved since then?
Richard: Moved to solutions. So one of the first things we did was to figure out what we would have to do, and we quickly realized, again, I wrote an Op/Ed on this issue, that if you have restrictions on the US and Europe, make them absolutely severe. Make the restrictions on US, Europe such that our emissions are required to go to zero starting today. Nobody proposes that, but let's-
Ben: No.
Richard: Just look at the consequences. The consequences are that emissions would drop. The US currently produces 14% of world emissions. Europe is somewhat less. So emissions would drop, but not be a whole lot. And then within three years, they would be back where they were because of growth in the developing world.
Ben: Oh, yeah.
Richard: So what we realized was any restrictions in the US and Europe, which are not adopted by the developing world, are worthless. Well they'll give you a three year delay, that's it. You want to have lithium ion automobiles? Why? They're too expensive for China and India. So what good do they do? Well, if Tesla is as successful as it wishes, as it pleases, as it hopes, it will give us a one month delay in global warming. And yet this is what's getting attention in the United States.
Richard: So we need to focus on the developing world, not to impose things on them, because we have no right to do that, we have to help them ... my sound bite is if it isn't profitable, it's not sustainable.
Ben: That's a good point.
Richard: That's in the developing world, because they can not afford to subsidize. So we need, as a temporary measure, but this will really help a lot, we have to help China switch over from coal to natural gas. And the reason is natural gas will have one third to one half the emissions.
Ben: Right.
Richard: So although that's not an absolute solution, it will give us twice as much time to come up with other low energy solutions. A big one is energy conservation, that's the biggest one of all. But we don't have any coherent program for energy conservation. And the third one is nuclear power. And fortunately, China is surging ahead on that. We are setting the worst possible example, we are saying every day, people are saying, "No nuclear power in the United States, it's too dangerous." And yet, it is really clean, and it is not dangerous, these are all misimpressions, and the United States is setting exactly the wrong example. We need to set the example that yes, nuclear power is safe, we can dispose of the waste, there are no serious problems here, we should be developing, and developing world, we can help you with this. But right now the only country in the developing world that's surging ahead is China, they're going to be exporting nuclear power all around the world, which is a good thing for global warming, but I think it's unfortunate that China will be in charge of all this rather than the United States.
Ben: Is there anywhere else in the developed world that is ... because I guess in Europe they've done a ... they did a better job of it, but it seems to be declining there as well.
Richard: What do you mean better?
Ben: Well, I mean in terms of I thought France had more expertise in nuclear, but is that-
Richard: No, no, no, not more expertise, they have 40% as many nuclear reactors as we do, but 80% of the electricity comes from nuclear.
Ben: Okay.
Richard: Okay, but I would say they have more expertise.
Ben: Okay. Do we have an industry to sustain that in the US right now? [crosstalk 00:24:47]
Richard: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, there are oh, something like 50 small companies developing fourth generation nuclear reactors.
Ben: Wow.
Richard: Bill Gates has one of them, and he tried to get a prototype approved to build in the United States. The US government refused to license his prototype.
Ben: Wow.
Richard: And so he is building a prototype in China. To do that he had to give over the rights to China, so they have full rights to do this, and this is just, I think-
Ben: Wow.
Richard: US poor political behavior, because politicians are afraid to address the issue of nuclear power.
Ben: Wow, that's fascinating. And you guys at Berkeley Earth are actually looking at solutions around this that we talked about, so about dealing with nuclear waste, right?
Richard: Yeah. We did come across a solution to the nuclear waste problem. We talked to top level people about how to bring this into the government, and they said the best way to get the government to use your nuclear waste solution is to form a private company and offer to do it for them at low costs. So that's what we've done, we've created a company called Deep Isolation, which has a solution to the nuclear waste problem that addresses every aspect of it, and we hope to get this used not just in the US, but around the world.
Ben: No, and I wish you all the luck in that, because it just seems like you're ... that's the kind of out of the box thinking we really need these days to get passed the climate change problem, right?
Richard: Yeah, the nuclear waste issue, there have been surveys that show that people oppose nuclear power. The main reason they oppose nuclear power is the quote, "unsolved nuclear waste problem", end quote. And when asked if we solve that problem, what would be your feeling about nuclear waste? Suddenly the majority is in favor of nuclear power, if we had a solution to the nuclear waste. The nuclear waste is important, and Nevada doesn't want nuclear waste brought into their state. What we are proposing is you deposit the nuclear waste within your own state, often at the nuclear power plant itself, within the fence. What you do is you bore a hole going down several thousand feet, you go horizontally, we have a technique that has been perfected over the last 20 years by the oil and gas drilling companies, you don't frack, no earthquakes. You just take these canisters that contain the nuclear waste and lay them down there 4,000 feet deep, end to end, and it's the perfect way to do it.
Richard: So we talk to communities about this. We've been out visiting communities and say, "Did you know," well here's a statistic, "One third of all Americans lives within 50 miles of a temporary nuclear waste storage site?"
Ben: Wow.
Richard: One third of all Americans. So we go out to these communities and say, "Do you know there's a nuclear waste storage site 20 miles from where you live?" "Oh, no, what?" Next we say, "So what do you want to do with it, you could just leave it there. You could wait until there's a facility and then drive it across the countryside to get it out of the state." No, they don't want that either. They don't want nuclear waste transported. Then we say, "You could bury it at the site almost a mile deep, and it'll be a permanent disposal, you plug the hole, but it in formations that have not changed in 100 million years." And they say, "Yes, that sounds much more attractive than anything else."
Richard: So we're not going to bring nuclear waste into their site, all of our nuclear waste will be the waste that already is there sitting. Typically two thirds of all nuclear waste is sitting in concrete pools of water, because that initial heat that's cooling, and this is above the ground, in concrete buildings, but they would be happy to have it buried at their own location. They will take care of their own waste, they'd love to have it 4,000 feet deep.
Ben: That makes sense because you and I were talking about some of those big projects that last decades that have been ... you know, shut down.
Richard: The Yucca Mountain thing, the Yucca Mountain Program was supposed to take all spent nuclear fuel by no later than 1998.
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: Okay, it's 20 years behind, it was shut down by President Obama, has not yet been restarted by President Trump, he wants to restart it, but hasn't done that yet. And it's being opposed by the state of Nevada that's allocated 3.5 million dollars per year to oppose the reopening of Yucca Mountain legally. So I don't think anything's going to happen much in Yucca Mountain in the near future.
Richard: But even so, once it does happen, you still have to transport it from Pennsylvania, from Massachusetts, all the way across the country to Yucca Mountain. And that's going to raise a whole bunch of new issues. So we want to dispose of it safely, deeper than Yucca Mountain, in formations that haven't changed in 100 million years, at the location where they are, or near.
Ben: To kind of wrap it up, one question completely different than what we've been talking about. So as a long time educator, you start off by talking about the fact that sometimes people ... a lot of Americans don't necessarily know how to interpret what's coming at them, right? It was actually on the way here, I was listening to an interview the ex CEO of PepsiCo, she was talking about how people should stay in STEM education, and learning more science. And I actually remembered I was looking at one of your books, Physics For Future Presidents, which I love the name of that class, I think that's fantastic. And as I studied physics in undergrad and in grad school for a while and I think it was a fantastic beginning to a way of thinking about the world, and analyzing it.
Ben: So from your perspective, having done this now for decades, and educated young people, how do you see us doing in that department? Are we preparing ... because I've got two little kids, and they ... are we set up to prepare them to be able to interpret these kind of things and kind of think about the world in [crosstalk 00:30:19]
Richard: Well, I don't recommend that everybody go into STEM. I think science, technology, engineering, mathematics, that's not for everybody.
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: But everybody needs to have a fundamental education on STEM materials. So that's why I wrote my two books, Physics For Future Presidents was the first. And then the update was Energy For Future Presidents, concentrating on things like global warming, the catastrophes of the Gulf oil spill, the Fukushima accident, all of these things, what's happening with Shell Gas. All these things, these are things that the liberal arts student should learn, that the English major should learn. And they love it. That's who took my class. This class was voted as the best class on the Berkeley campus.
Ben: Yeah, I saw that, yeah.
Richard: That's my greatest honor ever.
Ben: That's amazing.
Richard: Best class. And it was taken by people who had ... they were afraid of these subjects, because they thought you had to be mathematically sophisticated to use them. And yet they recognized the importance of understanding energy, understanding global warming, understanding the physics of space, understanding the physics of terrorism and counter terrorism, all of these things. And so my course was designed to address those issues.
Richard: I don't think the issue is we don't have enough people going into science and technology, I think the issue is we need to recognize that a liberal arts education needs to understand these things. And it doesn't mean in introduction, I mean, typically the course is Physics For Poets, or Physics For Dummies, are introduced as well, you're not smart enough to really learn this stuff-
Ben: Yeah, true.
Richard: So let me at least make you jealous of me. And that's the attitude of many people who teach these courses. My attitude is you guys are going to run the world, you're going to be the President of the United States, a president of a company, and 10 years, 20 years from now when that happens, I'm going to be kicking myself for not teaching you the things that you need to know to do a good job. So let me try to teach you those things that the future leaders of this country need to know. We're going to skip a lot of that math, we're going to skip a lot of the details, but get right to what is energy? How much energy is in ... well, an example, if you take a lithium ion battery, or you take an equal weight of gasoline, and ask what is the energy difference in the two? Everybody needs to know that the gasoline has 100 times more energy than an equal weight of fully charged lithium ion batteries. 100 times. It makes you understand why electric-
Ben: Why we do it.
Richard: Cars are so expensive.
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: I mean, half the weight of an electric car has to be a battery.
Ben: Right.
Richard: Or it's not going to have much range. And also, it gives you the limitations. If you go to other kinds of batteries, the energy density isn't that good. So these are the fundamental things that the English major, the political science major, the philosophy major should know all of these things so that they can think about the modern world. The modern world has ... almost every issue in the modern world has a high tech component.
Ben: Right.
Richard: Why is that when we wanted real terror in Afghanistan we dropped gasoline bombs instead of high explosive bombs? The reason is simple, gasoline bombs have five times the energy of the high explosive bombs. Five times. Why don't we use gasoline for explosives, because you have to mix it with air. So these are the sorts of fundamental things that if you want to understand the world that's going on around you, you need to know these fundamentals, but these are fundamentals that don't require differential equations.
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: These are fundamentals having to do with numbers, having to do with the way things work. And that's something that I discovered the liberal arts majors love.
Ben: Yeah.
Richard: It was really addressed to them, and they thought it's important, and once they think it's important, they learn it very well.
Ben: You can instill a lifelong appreciation for it.
Richard: I had a student who won the what was then called the Draddy Award for best student athlete, he was on our football team. And I was invited to a dinner with him and the people who gave this award. And they turned to him and said, "So, I understand you took Professor Muller's course." He said, "Yes, sir." They said, "Well, do you remember anything from it?" Put him on the spot. So he looks at the guy and says, "Well yes, the wine you're drinking is radioactive." And the chairman looks at us and says, "Huh? Are you serious?" And he said, 'And not only is it radioactive, but it's required to be radioactive by the US government or it's not allowed for sale." "What? Can you explain this to me?" And he went on and explained it to him.
Richard: Why is it is indeed required to be radioactive? Because it has to be made out of natural organic fruit, grapes, whatever, and those are radioactive because they've been in contact with the atmosphere, which has carbon 14 in it. And if you make it out of fossil fuels, all that is decayed away, so the US government tests to see if a wine was made out of fossil fuels, that's illegal in the United States, by looking for this radioactivity. If it's not radioactive ...
Ben: Wow.
Richard: So he, that was his answer to the question, it's one of the proudest moments in my life.
Ben: Oh that's a fantastic story, I love that. I think this has been a fascinating discussion, Rich, and I really appreciate your time and inviting us here into your office to talk through this and thank you so much.
Richard: Oh, you're very welcome.
Speaker 3: Masters of Data is brought to you by Sumo Logic. Sumo Logic is a cloud native machine data analytics platform, delivering real time continuous intelligence as a service, to build, run, and secure modern applications. Sumo Logic empowers the people who power modern business. For more information, go to For more on Masters of Data, go to and subscribe, and spread the word by rating us on iTunes or your favorite podcast app.
Page of


In the world of science, Physicists have a long and well-deserved reputation for being on the cutting edge of data acquisition, data analytics, and big data in general. Our guest today, Dr. Richard Muller, is a larger-than-life figure in the world of physics and beyond. Dr. Muller is a Professor of Physics Emeritus at Berkeley University, where he has had a long and successful career across particle physics, astrophysics, geophysics, and in the couple of decades - climate science. He has won multiple awards, including the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Prize. We reached out to him because of his unique and fascinating views on using data and data analytics in the climate science discussion.