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I was pleased to read that APS is finally going to make its journals available electronically in a searchable form (APS News, February 1995). However, there was one quite disturbing omission in the article: nothing at all was said about who would have access to the database. That must have left many readers wondering whether they were going to be left out. Ideally, it would be free to all Internet users, but since indexing costs money, and APS can probably not afford to lose all the subscription revenue, that seems unlikely.
Recent precedent in the searchable database business is that the price per use is very high at small institutions and very ow at large institutions, because it is one on a site license rather than a pay-as-you-go basis. The smallest institutions re priced out of the service entirely. That may be acceptable for services that are optional luxuries, but timely access to APS journals is a necessity for a physicist; I certainly hope APS intends to charge by the minute rather than adopt a site-license policy.
Pieter B. Visscher
University of Alabama
Editor's Note: Most APS electronic information is available for free on the APS World Wide Web Homepage (../../) Since journals have large editorial and production expenses, users will be charged. For example, PRL-o, the online version of Physical Review Letters that debuts July 1, 1995, will be available to member subscribers for $75/year with no hourly charges. Libraries will subscribe to PRL-o on a site license basis for N-simultaneous users; the larger the library usage, the larger is N, and, therefore, the higher the subscription price for larger libraries.
It is not my purpose here to defend particle physicists against such charges, even though what came across as arrogance could, in many cases, be ascribed either to inexperience at lobbying, or else to desperation as they watched the death throes of a project in which they passionately believed.
Be that as it may, it was Moore's final thought on these matters that I found particularly distressing. He said that among members of Congress "... a lot of offices now are just completely turned off to physicists. To them there was no difference between particle physics and any other kind of physics." He seems to be advancing the view that there are bad guys (particle physicists) and good guys (everybody else) and the APS should approach Congress on behalf of the latter by making sure they don't get confused with the former.
Whatever the sins of the particle physicists, they did not try to gain funding for themselves by bad-mouthing other fields of physics. I'm sure the APS as an organization would never sanction any policy that tried to drive a wedge between different branches of physics, but it remains a source of concern that apparently some who represent the APS in high places either have not learned that lesson or have chosen to ignore it.
The editorial on "improbable research" by Marc Abrahams (APS News, March 1995) which purports to classify aberrant physics research under that rubric, should be eligible for an APS anti-science journalism prize for "Improbable Editorials".
The "Rewarming of Hypothermic Animals with Microwaves" that Marc Abrahams sneers at is a proven technique with lambs, which are vulnerable to late spring snow storms in northern climates. Also, the U.S. Navy uses microwave heating to warm humans in some circumstances and microwave incubators have been successful in increasing the survival rates of piglets and chicks. However, the persistent electrophobia that seems to infect Abrahams has precluded the use of microwave incubators on human babies at the probable cost of the lives of a few premature infants who did not survive the less benign incubator procedures now in place.
Robert K. Adair
I was given a copy of the March APS News and read with interest "The Back Page" with its topic "Whither Improbable Research" by undoubtedly an icon in the field of journalism, Marc Abrahams. It was with warmth and humor that I found my name quoted as the author of "Rewarming Hypothermic Animals with Microwaves" that was published in a veterinary medical version of APS News (Veterinary Forum, March 1994, pages 24 and 28). The entire article was published in a periodical with a news magazine format and in no way resembles a scientific journal. Mr. Abrahams undoubtedly needs to make another journey to the MIT library, as he suggests, and reread the article in question. If he does, he may become enlightened and discover that I was NOT the author of the article in question.
The report about my project was entitled "Laser Surgery." It commented on the fact that the most efficient and effective way to accomplish objective biomedical research was to establish collaborative programs with physicists, engineers, and medical professionals (physicians, dentists, veterinarians, etc.). More than likely, this type of collaboration would not be welcome at Mr. Abrahams' institution, since few could measure up to his standards. Obviously, there are many funded research projects that require lots of interpretation to find anything positive about them, especially in the eyes of such astute judges as Mr. Abrahams and his colleagues. However, before they make comments, perhaps they should determine that their facts are accurate. It's fine to be "cute" and act like an intelligent literary source from the eastern scientific establishment, but his comments were in error and warrant an apology.
A young researcher at the Atlantic Veterinary College, Dr. Luis A. Bate wrote the report and should be commended for his work rather than ridiculed. If Mr. Abrahams or his colleagues spent a little time investigating what Dr. Bate's research actually accomplished, they may find out that the final result could potentially benefit the hypothermic human animal as well as the hypothermic piglet.
I also believe that APS News should be a little more careful on what they publish on "The Back Page." Even with your disclaimer on the bottom, the topics and inaccuracies in the article by Mr. Abrahams would be more appropriately discussed over a pitcher of beer in a local pub rather than published in a national newsletter.
Kenneth E. Bartels
Oklahoma State University
Although humorous, there is a poignant irony associated with the recent tabletop fusion cartoon and accompanying back page editorial that appeared in the March issue of APS News. These farcical caricatures of cold fusion are actually quite timely. They appear three months after the U.S. Patent Office has granted its first patent (#5,372,688, filed July 20, 1993) for a working cold fusion device, and one month prior to the fifth International Conference of Cold Fusion. The irony is poignant not only because most APS members are completely unaware of either the conference or the patent, but because whether by accident or intent the APS "seems" to have played an important role in inhibiting the dissemination of information about cold fusion.
To set the record straight: (1) Published information in peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings exist that not only illustrate the reality of anomalously large heating effects in heavily deuterated (D) palladium deuteride (PdD), but provides documentation concerning the conditions that are required to obtain this heating effect. (2) The amounts of heat observed cannot be explained by ordinary chemistry. (3) The conditions, which involve achieving extremely high-loadings of D into PdD clearly were not obtained in a large proportion of the early experiments, and for this reason, a large majority of early "attempts" to identify the effect were unsuccessful.
A fundamental goal of the APS is "the advancement and diffusion of the knowledge of physics." In the case of cold fusion, in my opinion, the Society has not achieved the fulfillment of this goal. It could go a long way towards remedying this situation by presenting a more balanced treatment of the facts, in both its informational publications and peer-reviewed journals.
Scott R. Chubb
The Back Page featuring an article by Marc Abrahams was just called to my attention. Who is Marc Abrahams? What places him in a position to deride the work he cites in the section on Improbable Research? As a fellow and former member of the APS, I find this attitude deplorable. I think a comparison of Abrahams' citation index with those of articles he lists might be an interesting exercise.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
I was quite surprised to find one of my papers, "The Dielectric Properties of Meat" singled out as an example of "Improbable Research" by Marc Abrahams. In his column, he specifically links several physics articles with the infamous Ig Nobel prizes.
First, let me be clear that I have absolutely no apologies for this line of research. Impedance spectroscopy is a standard technique in materials science for monitoring structural change. Abrahams does not comment on the technical merits of the article, but instead quotes two sentences from the abstract which he apparently finds humorous. He does not cite the sentences which indicate that the results could be used for the assessment of the freshness of commercially sold meats. I take pride in performing research which could help to monitor the quality of our food supply.
I do not believe that the authors of the acoustics and hypothermia papers would feel apologetic about their work either. For example, the paper by Zhu and Steinberg involves the design of high-resolution, ultrasonic scanners for female breasts. Unlike Abrahams, women would not find research which could be used in the early diagnosis of breast cancer to be a laughing matter.
Second, Abrahams' remarks raise an important issue which merits further discussion. In a tight job market, the physics community tells students not to be overly concerned about the shortage of openings in traditional physics positions. The students are told that the skills and techniques which they have mastered in physics can be applied and will be appreciated in a wide variety of areas outside pure physics. In fact, the same issue of APS News includes CAREER CORNER, "a regular feature describing nontraditional job opportunities and career choices for physicists." While APS News seemingly encourages young physicists to look beyond pure physics for their professional growth, Abrahams' column clearly shows that some physicists will be laughing at them behind their backs.
Francis X. Hart
The Back Page of the March 1995 APS News was devoted to the Ig Nobel prizes, which are great fun. However, Daryl Gates and Edward Teller are issues of political opinion, about which views differ, and it is plain dishonest to lump them with scientific frauds. Do we really not know the difference? It is, in fact, fraudulent to try to discredit their political views by lumping them with flakes. There is no connection, and politics by name-calling is unworthy of APS.
University of California, Santa Barbara
Marc Abrahams replies:
Rather than reply individually to each of my new admirers, I would like to hazard two observations.
First, it is not disparaging to say of a particular piece of research that it is improbable. Many perhaps most of the great discoveries in science were made by individuals who were "wasting their time" on things that most people felt were trivial, illusory and/or maybe even (hello, Galileo) dangerous. A discovery wouldn't feel startlingly great if it hadn't previously seemed improbable i.e., "funny" in both senses of the word.
Some research is important AND amusing. On the other hand, some research is simply (and robustly) funny.
Second, I am often asked if it's true that scientists have no sense of humor. My answer is that it's not true. Most scientists have a very good sense of humor, and they are enormously amused at the few who don't.
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