APS News


Rohrabacher's Comments on Fusion Research Are "Misinformed"

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher's recent commentary on federal science policy includes remarks on fusion research that are badly misinformed.

Congressman Rohrabacher states that "none of the research has achieved 'break-even,' the point at which the fusion reaction generates the same amount of energy as is put in...and no scientist has been able to tell me that we will reach that goal in less than 40 years." This is a fantastically incorrect statement. In fact, break-even conditions have already been achieved in the JET tokamak operating with deuterium plasmas. In 1996, when tritium will be introduced into JET, it is expected to generate more fusion power than is put into the plasma. Indeed, the fusion power generated in experiments (as well as the ratio of the fusion power output to the power input) has grown by a factor of 10 million during the past 20 years a rate of progress that reflects extraordinary scientific and technological effort. The fact is that the fusion community no longer considers break-even an important scientific challenge: several years ago it began looking beyond break-even at fusion self-sustainment (ignition) and issues that affect fusion power plant size, cost and complexity.

The cost/benefit ratio of fusion is also faulted by Congressman Rohrabacher. Yet the annual cost to U.S. taxpayers for fusion research in 1995 was less than 0.1 percent (that is, less than one-thousandth) of the nation's annual fuel bill. For this 0.1 percent cost we buy the science needed to conceive and build a source of virtually unlimited energy, whose intrinsic advantages regarding environmental quality, global warming, safety and nuclear proliferation are unmatched among long-term energy options.

Nor do we have to wait for a reactor in order to benefit from our investment in fusion research, which yields present benefits in several areas of science and technology. In particular, it provides the backbone of support for a rich and growing scientific discipline, plasma physics. Understanding the extremely diverse nature of the plasma state is a major challenge to fundamental physics and one whose growth bears on many fields of research, including astrophysics, nonlinear dynamics, turbulence and space physics. Congressman Rohrabacher's statement that the House Science Committee will "fight for fundamental science research as a priority" is hard to understand in view of the devastation his cuts would inflict on fundamental plasma physics. Plasma science also has numerous and rapidly growing practical applications, in such areas as microchip manufacture, tool hardening and national defense After considering the progress in fusion energy as well as the immediate fundamental knowledge gained from plasma physics, the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology recently characterized fusion research as a "bargain for society as a whole."

Of course it is painful to see a high quality research program lose federal support, but the pain is magnified when no coherent science or energy policy lies behind the cuts. The finite supply of available energy, the environmental costs associated with short-term sources, and the rapid growth in energy demand from developing societies, are undisputed facts, to be ignored at huge national and global hazard. Fusion is one way to address them. Like most of the challenges society now faces (including cancer, nuclear disarmament and environmental pollution), addressing long-term energy demands will require decades of determined effort.

The energy security of the world is a paramount problem. The most disturbing aspect of Congressman Rohrabacher's message is the doubt it casts on this country's ability to tackle such difficult but critical challenges.

Stewart Prager, Chair
Richard Hazeltine, Vice-Chair
APS Division of Plasma Physics

More on Rohrabacher

Thank you for publishing the opinion piece by Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Chairman of the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Energy and Environment. Some will complain that the political tone was inappropriate, but it is important for physicists to understand how many in Congress are thinking about science and technology issues. I will resist the temptation to respond in kind to Rohrabacher's political diatribe and address some of his assumptions.

Environmental Research. Republicans in Congress are of two minds about environmental research. On the one hand, they argue that environmental policy and regulation should be based on sound science. On the other hand, they denounce scientific results whose policy implications they find unpalatable. Rohrabacher himself has dismissed global warming as "unproven, at best, and liberal claptrap, at worst," while pushing for drastic cuts in funding for research on global environmental change. Most scientists even those skeptical about climate change recognize that this research is critical to sound policy making.

Civilian Technology. Rohrabacher also dismisses the whole gamut of civilian technology programs as corporate subsidies. But while free-market ideology rejects all subsidies, mainstream economic theory recognizes a legitimate role for government sponsorship of technology development, namely when the benefits to society as a whole of research and development investments are likely to be large but a private company cannot translate those benefits into its own profits. The last decade has seen significant progress toward partnerships in which the federal government and private companies share the costs and risks of specific projects. This requires some caution, not the wholesale rejection that Rohrabacher proposes.

Energy Technology. Investments in energy technology represent a confluence of these two interests. They would benefit both the national economy and the environment. Yet Republican legislative proposals single out energy research and development for some of the most severe cuts, focusing those cuts on the most promising areas of renewable energy and energy efficiency. This comes just as the a Department of Energy task force concluded that the federal government already underinvests in energy research and development.

Fundamental Research. I take little comfort in Rohrabacher's dutiful recitation of arguments for federal support of fundamental research, which he uses mostly to attack against civilian technology programs. I worry that someone who shows so little understanding of science and technology would turn around and ask why the federal government should support research with no obvious utility.

These issues of science and technology policy deserve thoughtful consideration, not the knee-jerk reaction Rohrabacher has presented. Scientists should keep a careful eye on the new Republican leadership in Congress, to encourage more thoughtful consideration of these issues.

Mark Goodman
Bethesda, Maryland

Does "Political Propaganda" Belong in APS NEWS?

Although the article by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (APS NEWS, July 1995) didn't mention his political affiliation, it was obvious from his derogatory remarks on the Clinton/Gore administration.

My first thought was that APS NEWS, even the "Back Page", is no place for political propaganda. But on second thought, maybe it's better to know what kind of people we're dealing with: these politicians who now seem to hold the fate of physics, and in fact, of the nation in their hands.

Robert H. Mellen
Old Lyme, Connecticut

Simpson Trial Exposes Intersection of Science and Society

An article in the July 1995 issue of  APS NEWS laments the infrequent coverage of science in the popular press, and gives useful tips for physicists to deal with the press. As evidence of poor press coverage, it points to the top quark, which lost valuable air time to the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

I couldn't disagree more. While Simpson may have edged out high energy physics, what little attention I have paid to the trial has been quite educational, scientifically and otherwise. For instance, I now know 100 percent more about DNA "fingerprinting" and polymerase chain reactions than I did one year ago. I also have learned more about the complicated issues surrounding scientific evidence and the important distinction between what it means to have "proven" something in the lab versus having done so in a courtroom. Furthermore, both the top quark's existence and Simpson's guilt depend to a large degree on statistical arguments. The statistical arguments and counter arguments made in the trial are much more accessible to the general public than those made in the top's discovery.

We in the physics community should be concerned about the public image of science, but we should also be careful not to be bound by our disciplinary chains. The Simpson trial has exposed the intersection of science and society in ways that the top could not, and in such circumstances, disciplinary distinctions usually blur to meaninglessness. DNA fingerprinting is an excellent example of how genetics, chemistry, physics, molecular biology, population biology and statistics are integrated in a real-life application with serious consequences.

People have probably learned more about science while enraptured by the Simpson trial than they would have from a good long story on the top quark. As scientists and teachers, we need to work harder to show people that science is everywhere, including Judge Ito's courtroom.

P.W. Bo Hammer
American Institute of Physics

ELF Question Deserves Serious Scientific Inquiry

The physics community seems to be taking an increasing interest in bioeffects resulting from weak ELF magnetic fields. The APS has issued an official statement discounting the likelihood of power-line cancer risk; Robert Park, especially, has found great delight in public statements aimed at ridiculing such studies. His latest research was apparently discussed at the March Meeting, as covered on page 4 of the June issue of APS NEWS. This time he saw fit to place the ELF efforts in the Uri Geller and perpetual motion category.

One can take issue with experimental claims as presented by people such as myself and argue about the strength of the evidence. But I thought the forum for such discussion was at meetings when papers are presented, or in peer-reviewed articles in journals. Although Park did debate these issues at one meeting a few years ago, I cannot recall his rising to his feet to question anyone's results during the formal presentations, nor am I familiar with anything that has appeared in the literature dealing with either his own work or criticisms of others. The same is true for Bennett at Yale, who, despite discussing the ELF question in an Oak Ridge review, in a book, in Physics Today, and most recently on public television, has not contributed anything in the usual way science is done. One might conclude from their lack of professional involvement that Park and Bennett consider serious work in this area as beneath their dignity. Their gadfly approach must be contrasted with that of Robert Adair, who has made a number of valuable contributed criticisms, albeit sharply skeptical, concerning the ELF question.

The more serious side to all of this has to do with the nature of scientific inquiry. Park prefers to deal with the ELF question as an example of pathological science, recruiting Randi and other fun people along the way. I do not quite see it in these terms. To me, science, especially physics, is more interesting when it probes what we do not know rather than when it reinforces what we have already learned. The big difference in physics between discoverers and builders is that the former are required to present a lot more in the way of evidence in order to achieve credibility. Also, the first group makes more mistakes while the second always feels more comfortable with itself.

I do not rely upon Randi to tell fact from fancy. Following in the best traditions of scientific inquiry, I prefer to devise experiments to test claims that seem outrageous. In this way, I convinced myself that dowsing and chi energies (if there are such things) have nothing to do with magnetic fields. I once responded to a claim that the alpha rhythm in humans is a function of geomagnetic orientation by directly demonstrating that it is not. Many years ago, I closely examined the effects of air negative ions on learning in college students, and again found no relation.

In the late 1960s, when I saw (first-hand, at NYU) the remarkable effects of sub-microampere currents on bone healing, I came to the conclusion that this was a fascinating problem. This was later reinforced while on research leave at the Naval Medical Research Institute, where I found that cell cultures responded to weak ELF magnetic fields. Just as Park and Bennett later discovered (in the 1990s), we found (in the 1980s) that it was easy to show that the intensity and frequency of the applied magnetic fields seemed not sufficiently large to be detected by the cell when estimates were made of the thermal noise field.

Despite results that were not in agreement with my preconceived notions, it never occurred to me to call on Randi. Instead, it seemed reasonable to continue pursuing a very interesting unresolved puzzle. Now, having spent a long time looking at this question, I am more confident than ever that these effects are quite real.

I feel sorry for those physicists among us who never learned, or perhaps have simply forgotten, that science is an exploratory pastime. Saddest of all, some of these individuals do not understand that they can have more fun working at this pastime rather than talking to magicians.

A.R. Liboff
Oakland University

"Alternative Science" Should Not Be Discounted

The persons quoted in the article on alternative science, among them James Randi, attack homeopathic medicine, among other more appealing targets. I don't read that they have MD's to begin with. Alternative medicine is fast becoming more than respectable; California insurance companies reimburse for such remedies, for instance. There is a large portion of our brains devoted to the subconscious. Many believe these "alternative" healing methods are aimed at gaining help from that part of our being. I think the speakers are aware of Freud's and Jung's efforts.

Let's be a little more cautious. This kind of sophomoric parading should be reserved for high school (or prep school, as the case may be).

And on that subject there is a demented kind of elitism evident in the quoted remarks: "grade school education" (not meant as a compliment) and "backwoods mechanic with grease under his fingernails", which speaks for itself. You can be grateful that the publication is not read by the general public, or even by congressmen.

William C. Meecham
University of California, Los Angeles

Robert Park Responds....

Liboff's and Meecham's letters raise objections to the session at the March Meeting, "Alternative Science: Foolish, Fraudulent and Phobic," (APS News, June 1995). A.R. Liboff felt the inclusion of EMF bioeffects was unfair, while William Meecham was upset by criticism of "alternative medicine." Their letters have two things in common: both argue that the only people who should be allowed to pass judgement on research in a particular field are other researchers in the same field, and both were offended by the presence of a stage magician (James "the Amazing" Randi) on the panel.

Randi, of course, scarcely needs defending to physicists. He is the recipient of a MacArthur award for his debunking of frauds like Uri Geller, whose parlor tricks confounded many physicists. Liboff prides himself on having devised experiments that demonstrated that dowsing has nothing to do with magnetic fields. He could have saved himself the trouble. With a series of skillfully designed double-blind tests, Randi demonstrated that dowsing has nothing to do with anything, except perhaps self-deception. It simply doesn't work, so there's not much point in investigating mechanisms.

The contention that only those active in a particular activity are qualified to judge the quality of work in that field, is more interesting. Astrologers, psychics and the American Medical Association make the same claim. But, of course, so do physicists. Parapsychologists have argued for years that their research proposals should be sent to other parapsychologists for review. They complain bitterly that NSF sends parapsychology proposals to physicists; after all, NSF does not send nuclear physics proposals to cell biologists for review. Certainly it is important to seek the most expert advice in reviews. The problem is that sterile fields, such as parapsychology or cold fusion, retain a dedicated core of adherents long after reasonable scientists have become convinced there is nothing there.

William Meecham comments that "Alternative medicine is fast becoming more than respectable." He refers in particular to mental healing. I am not sure about "respectable," but aided by the silence of the scientific community, it is certainly becoming more widespread. We should take that as a warning.

Robert L. Park
University of Maryland, College Park

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin