APS News

Schrieffer Focuses on Improving Communication Science Education

schriefferThe impact of electronic publishing on APS journals, science education reform, and improving communication between the physics community and the general public are issues of particular concern for the APS in the eyes of J. Robert Schrieffer, who begins his tenure as APS president this month. A professor of physics at the University of Florida, Schrieffer succeeds C. Kumar N. Patel of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Schrieffer's interest in science developed early, with childhood interests in chemistry sets and ham radios. However, he didn't attend the standard physics class at his small high school in Illinois. The physics teacher there had minimal background in the subject, and, armed with a textbook used in MIT's introductory physics courses, he and Schrieffer pursued an independent course of study together. Ironically, Schrieffer initially intended to study electrical engineering in college, but switched his major to physics two years later.

He received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois in 1957, specializing in the theory of superconductivity. After holding faculty appointments at the University of Illinois, University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania, he became Chancellor's Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he also served as director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics. In 1992 he was appointed University Professor at Florida State University, where he is also chief scientist of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.

A past recipient of the APS Oliver Buckley Prize, Schrieffer shared the 1972 Nobel Prize in Physics with John Bardeen and Leon Cooper for the microscopic theory of superconductivity. His current research centers on strongly correlated fermion systems and magnetic effects in solids. He has served on numerous committees of federal agencies, and was recently appointed chairman of the Scientific Council of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, a facility which fosters research in developing countries.

Q: One of your concerns is the need to improve communication between subfields of physics to unify the community, particularly in its approach to funding agencies. What are some ways the APS might help to accomplish this?

A: One way is by organizing cross-disciplinary symposia at APS meetings to give more visibility to people who work in one field, but who have expanded their interests into other fields and thus could address the exciting big questions that lie ahead. It's something that we really haven't moved very far on, but I think it's important.

The APS Executive Board and Council typically struggles with many issues on a very short time scale, and I've found that it's intellectually very frustrating to get an in-depth discussion going. I hope to devote some time to this kind of interaction between subfields during the annual Executive Board retreat in June. Perhaps we can come up with some more specific things that would be of help in this area.

Q: What can individual physicists do in the meantime?

A: It is very important to ensure that the physicists who are the best communicators become more active in spreading the word through general lectures. There were some outstanding candidates for the Lilienfeld Prize this year, for example, each of whom were wonderful communicators about their own research. It would be nice if we could expand this beyond one individual per year and have a group of APS-sponsored lecturers to give colloquia.

Q: A number of scientists have expressed concern about simplifying research to the point where most of the essence is lost, in their opinion. Many distrust the media's focus on flashier aspects and think less attention is paid to actual physics. So there's an inherent chasm between the two in terms of communication. How can we bridge that gap?

A: You have to get people who are not only very talented at this, but also enjoy doing it. Fortunately the field does have a number of people who have these talents. Historically, there have been a lot of scientists who've been wonderful communicators in physics and we should use these people more and help them realize that they have a very special talent. Unfortunately, many such communicators are viewed as less than outstanding scientists because they're simplifying things, and also injecting their own personality into it. So being standout communicators in some sense degrades their scientific image.

Q: You're also concerned with improving pre-college education. Most agree that it is vital to incite students' curiosity so that they seek out more information on their own. Can this be done in a traditional school structure, or are some drastic changes needed in our educational process?

A: We must at least have the intention of making big changes in order to achieve small actual changes. A very large force is necessary to move something of enormous inertia, and our present educational system has great inertia. Somehow the enthusiasm and excitement of new discoveries in physics never reach the high school classroom. This is partly because individual states include only basic facts in their physics requirements, such as the formula for water. Not a single concept, axiom, experimental technique, or even a sense of the intellectual structure of the field is included. Students are never taught how to reason or conceptualize anything.

We must bring education into the 21st century, perhaps by using canned videotaped lectures by outstanding communicators which are still flexible enough for teachers to insert them into standard curricula. It comes down to a knowledge-based versus a wisdom-based approach to education. Physics is probably one of the worst in this regard. We teach students all the techniques and expect them to acquire the complementary wisdom by osmosis.

Q: There is still a serious funding crisis for physics research, and an ongoing budget battle in Congress. How might physics have to change in order to survive in this changing economic climate? Will it have to adapt?

A: When physics enjoyed only a small fraction of its present funding level, outstanding research was done. The field has advanced some distance since then, but still the major breakthroughs are made by relatively few individuals. In all fairness, one can absorb any amount of funds. It all depends on how one distributes scarce resources. One can overfeed a field. The peer review system is very good for maintaining quality, but it also tends to focus resources on areas that have already been fertilized. I think the physics community needs to vigorously look for new areas of opportunity where investment could pay off. We could then get some of the more senior people to sanction these exciting new areas to attract not only funding, but scientists interested in doing research at the vanguard.

Q: International cooperation, particularly on large mega-science projects. There's still some debate as to whether the U.S. will participate in projects like the Large Hadron Collider, whether the U.S. is willing to become a cooperator as opposed to a leader and a star. How can the APS help in this debate?

A: Personally, I believe that science must be internationalized, not only on large-scale projects, but on small-scale research as well. However, it is difficult for the APS to address this issue, because it relates to the future of a specific field, and most fields identify first with their own house, and then with the APS. It's a shame when a particular subfield of physics feels much more tightly bound to itself than to the body politic of physics as a whole.

Science, at least historically, has not been like the professions. We've traditionally been interested in the good of the field rather than the practitioners of the field, although we try to take care of our own generally, because doing so benefits physics. John Bardeen was able to move between applied physics and fundamental physics with ease, and without any judgment as to which was the best. In fact, I think he felt the best physics was that which transcends these compartmentalizations.

Q: The APS recently formed the Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics to give its members employed outside of academia an official voice in the Society. Should more be done to foster better ties with industry?

A: There has been this feeling for a long time among physicists in corporate environments that the APS is dominated by basic academic scientists who look down their noses at applied and industrial research. I don't think this is true, but the APS hasn't pushed hard enough to serve them, and I think this is an important area. I feel very positively about our efforts to date in this area, but the Society has a long way to go, so that not only do our industrial members feel welcome, but also that they benefit from their involvement in the APS.

Q: The emergence of electronic publishing is raising serious questions about the future of APS journals. What should the Society be doing to address this issue?

A: Most of the Society's income derives from its publications. While the APS is developing electronic versions of its journals, the prevailing concern is how to maintain subscriptions and avoid having someone post Physical Review Letters on the World Wide Web, for example, providing universal access free of charge. It's a very real concern.

I think that if we're going to have a viable Society in the future, we must find areas to serve the members which are over and above publications and meetings. We must think creatively about what businesses the APS will be involved with 8 to 10 years from now, and how it will serve its members. If we don't address this issue, time will overtake us. Still, in general I feel very good about the future.


©1995 - 2016, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
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