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A Plea for Humility Among Physicists

I have read several letters in APS NEWS decrying Dana Rohrabacher's Back Page essay (July 1995), the most recent from Douglas Verrett (October 1995). They purport to be "appalled by what passes for discourse and debate these days." Well, I too am appalled by the level of discourse and debate. I am further appalled by the pretense of many physicists to knowledge they do not have.

It is not that I expect better homework. It is that I expect an acknowledgment that our views are less than comprehensive and our suggestions less than sacrosanct. Indeed, given the complexity of the real-world situation (say, in regards to funding of science) and the complexity of each of our world-views formed over decades of individual puzzling over individual, corporate and government behavior, we cannot expect to agree on these issues. I plead for humility.

As an illustration of an alternate view that is easily held - one that I hold myself - I proffer a rejoinder to Verrett's view that "the fact [is] that the market does what is good for the market in the short term and not necessarily what is good for the country in the long term." The market is the ready source of 30-year mortgages! Rather, it is the two-year election cycle that enforces short-term thinking. In spite of having to discount the likelihood of changing tax rates and structures, regulatory burdens, a civil lawsuit climate gone haywire, and a government that at any moment can inflate the currency to worthlessness, the market continues to function and grow. Indeed, the few percent per year growth in GDP is one of the most remarkable enablers of any function beyond base subsistence in our society.

Yet, we, and especially physicists who are largely ignorant of how it eventuates, take it for granted, and spend most of our time squabbling over dividing the spoils. The very "capital" of the capitalist system are goods, the consumption of which is indefinitely postponed. Capital is the seed corn purposefully not consumed, but invested, perhaps not to bear profit to the investor for decades, indeed perhaps to never pay off.

Buy stocks; it is an instructive experience. There is a panoply of choice: stocks good for dividends, high-risk stocks, low-risk stocks, growth stocks, and many other categories, as well as many other instruments for investment. Growth stocks comprise an interesting genre. These stocks are in companies that are not expected to make large short-term profits. Rather, they are presumed to have good long-term potential. I own some, in hopes that my children can grow and prosper as young adults in a community of thinkers and seekers of knowledge. It is as yet an open question whether such a community will be found in our country's universities.

The above view is not monolithic and is not incontrovertible, but it is as plausible as Verrett's. However, his seems to have passed into the status of an unquestioned assumption for many physicists. John Boyd, the father of the F-15 fighter aircraft, is wont to say "I can't get the universe into my brain." It's his quaint way of saying that he cannot possess comprehensive knowledge, but is forced to work within an intellectual framework formed by cooperative effort of many different individuals with different expertise.

It is an interesting and open problem as to how to productively combine knowledge bases extensive enough that one individual does not have the capacity to fathom them. I suggest that this problem is the more constructive focus of our efforts, as opposed to responding to Mr. Rohrabacher on issues of which we are no better informed than he.

I offer one last cautionary note. In Washington, DC, where I work every day, physicists are getting a very bad reputation as know-it-alls. We do have special expertise, and when it comes to setting limits on the top quark mass we should lay claim to the task. When it comes to endeavors for which we have limited experience and knowledge, the only honest thing to do is to approach the debate cognizant of our limited vista and the powerful self-rationalization mechanisms operating in the human brain. In the end, this more humble approach is the only one capable of raising the level of the debate.

Samuel L. Park
Institute for Defense Analyses
Alexandria, Virginia


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin

The End of Generalists in APS?

Discussion of the demise of the General Meetings of the Society in APS News, October, 1995, APS/AAPT Joint Spring Meeting to Rotate Sites, is long overdue. For early recognition of the facts and a plausible analysis of the cause we should thank a former executive officer of AAPT, Jack M. Wilson. His editorial in the Announcer, 19 (1). 20 (1989), The Balkanization of Physics, described with telling accuracy the transformation of APS from a Society united by a devotion to physics to a federation of specialists. Today our disunity is plaintively recognized by sessions on the Unity of Physics.

The change began with the constitutional changes of 1966 which gave specialists the upper hand in the Council of the Society.

The question of the day is whether those effects of constitutional change can be undone by merely rotating the sites of our General Meetings. It is a remedy which has been tried and has failed before. To this observer it is like applying a band-aid to a cancer lesion. It seems reasonable first to diagnose a malady before prescribing a cure, and if my diagnosis is correct, what is called for is major constitutional changes back to where we were 30 years ago, when the General Meetings of the Society were thronged with enthusiastic physicists. Perhaps that is a forlorn hope, but at least is has a sound historical justification, and how we react will tell us much about our courage or lack of it in facing past mistakes.

Restoring the influence of generalists in physics will do much more than merely enhance the interest of our General Meetings. It will boost pride in membership in APS and in physics as a career, and should enlarge much-needed opportunities for employment. The alternative is the continued decline of the tradition of generalism in physics in America.

Lawrence Cranberg