APS News

Changing Role of Science in Society Featured at Unity Session

The sixth annual APS/AAPT Spring Meeting Unity Session was held Wednesday afternoon. It featured lectures by the 1995 Lilienfeld Prize winner on the intellectual content of experimental physics, and another on neutron interferometry, as well as the traditional address of the retiring president, given this year by APS Past President Burton Richter, director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

Retiring President's Address. Richter focused his remarks on the re-examination of the role of science in American society that is taking place in the wake of the radical political and economical changes of the last few years. "[Scientists] are in effect being asked to rejustify our existence in terms of the relevance of our work to the problems that society perceives to be most immediate," he said. Chief among the most pressing concerns is economic security, usually discussed in terms of reducing the deficit, setting technology policy, improving competitiveness, and supporting high-tech industry.

Transforming the results of basic research into marketable technologies is considered a crucial element of economic security, but Richter does not see this as a linear process. "The road from science to technology is not the broad, straight highway that many would like to believe," he said. "Today's technology is based on yesterday's science; today's science is based on today's technologies. Basic discoveries are at the heart of the development of new technologies, but there are many twists and turns in the road before industrial applications are realized, as well as large investments of both intellectual and financial resources."

For example, fiber optics, which is currently revolutionizing communications, draws on quantum mechanics, the development of the laser, and a vast amount of research on the interaction of light with materials. Similarly, the transistor arose from fundamental condensed matter research in the 1920s and 1930s, and magnetic resonance imaging was developed from I.I. Rabi's work on nuclear magnetic moments.

Richter prefers to view the process as a double helix, similar to that of DNA, in which the two strands of science and technology are inextricably linked so that neither can advance in the long run without advances in the other. "Policy makers in government who think that focusing on short-term applied work can increase economic competitiveness ignore at their peril the implications of this double helix for long-term development," he said. "Both fundamental and strategic research are vital to progress and an appropriate balance must be struck."

Because of economic pressures, industrial contributions to long-term research and development are decreasing, and Richter believes the government should step in to fill that gap, resisting the urge to cut back on long-term research to achieve short-term savings. Equally important to the development of new generations of technologies is the maintenance of a close coupling of industry to the science community. "The pace of advance towards new technologies speeds up greatly when the technical and industrial communities both recognize that something new can be produced from scientific advance," he said.

Finally, Richter warned against devaluing the more altruistic side of physics research: the joy of discovery, and of acquiring new knowledge to understand the universe and our place in it. "Our lives are enriched by the understanding that this exploration brings," he concluded. "Of course, we hope for practical benefits and that hope has been amply fulfilled. We should not, however, try to focus too narrowly on the practical, for that is to deny the needs of the spirit."

1995 Lilienfeld Prize Lecture. Valentine A. Telegdi (California Institute of Technology), the 1995 Lilienfeld Prize winner, issued a plea to teach physics in such a way as to attract the best students to the experimental side of the field. "It has been my experience, in over 40 years of teaching on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, that the intellectually most gifted physics students tend to destine themselves to a career in theoretical physics, rather than wanting to become experimentalists," he said. "This fact leads to a deplorable loss to our field, which is, after all, primarily an experimental one."

According to Telegdi, the causes of this tendency can be traced to the way in which physics is taught. "Experiments are rarely discussed and analyzed in terms of their intellectual contents," he said, and presented a series of great experiments in modern physics to illustrate the depth of intellectual accomplishment each achieved. These included a seminal 1912 experiment in optical interference by Hungarian physicist Selenyi, Michaelson's optical demonstration of the so-called "Sagnac effect" at the University of Chicago, and the first direct observation of parity violation.

Neutron Interferometry. Samuel Werner of the University of Missouri, Columbia, described a series of experiments involving quantum interference of neutron de Broglie waves, using a perfect-silicon-crystal interferometer. "The instrument has provided us with a very sophisticated device to investigate fundamental quantum mechanical phenomena involving spin, gravity, rotation, and topology," he said in his overview of the development of the field.

To date, the neutron interferometer has been used to observe the change of sign of a fermion wave function; gravitationally-induced quantum interference; the phase shift of a neutron due to the rotation of the Earth (known as the Sagnac Effect); the longitudinal coherence length of a neutron beam; the spectral modulation of neutron wave packets; the scalar Aharonov-Bohm effect; the topological phase shift resulting from the spin-orbit coupling of the neutron to the electric field of a line charge; and, most recently, the geometric Berry phase due to spin precession about non-collinear magnetic fields in the two legs of the interferometer.

The complete text of Burton Richter's retiring presidential address may be obtained by writing to the APS, ATTN: Amy Halsted, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3844; phone: (301) 209-3266; FAX: (301) 209-0865. It is also available electronically by sending a request to letters@aps.org.


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin