APS News

Science Policy, Black Holes and BEC Featured at Plenary Session

patelAPS Past President C. Kumar N. Patel of the University of California, Los Angeles, delivered the annual retiring presidential address at a special general plenary session at the Joint APS/AAPT Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana. Patel focused on the need to reinvent the relationship between physics and society, based on the significant changes that have occurred in the last five years.

The most crucial issue facing physics today is the changing expectations of society, which is asking questions about the cost-effectiveness of basic research in light of the continued worldwide economic downturn and worsening social problems, such as education, jobs, housing and physical safety of citizens living in inner urban areas. Specifically, international economic competition has now replaced the national defense security as a primary reason for supporting physics research, and there is an increased emphasis on conversion of basic research into new markets. "There is a perception that the U.S. is continuing to lose its competitive edge in high technology products worldwide, even when physics and physical science research is well supported," said Patel.

At the same time, universities are expected to interact more extensively with industry, which impacts the education and training of new physics Ph.Ds. "The efforts necessary to pursue careers in physics are seen as being out of line with the financial rewards of such careers," said Patel, citing visible unemployment of physicists as an example. "No discipline can expect to remain vibrant and capable of making advances if the smartest among the young people lose faith in its value."

Patel offered several suggestions to help physics and physicists prosper in the 21st century, including the continued expansion of understanding physical phenomena and the world; participation in setting priorities within physics and among related disciplines; learning to relate today's industrial and health science successes to the long-term investment of resources in physics funding; and improving technology transfer with improved partnerships between academia and industry. Physics research in the 21st century should also emphasize team efforts, cost effectiveness, productivity improvement, accountability, customer focus, multidisciplinary topics, training of physicists to be problem solvers, and integration into the social fabric.

"Physics will have to make its case based on its importance to understanding nature and natural phenomena and its utility to long- as well as short-term needs of the society," said Patel, adding that while the latter does not imply that basic research should be disregarded, "Physicists must be mindful of what constitutes value to society. If we forget the value aspect, then physics may well be funded at the same level as arts and humanities, which would not be acceptable to anyone."

The plenary session also featured a lecture by the 1996 APS Lilienfeld Prize recipient, Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology, who summarized the theoretical exploration of nonlinear phenomena in general relativity from 1960 to 1999, including work on black holes, singularities and gravitational wave detectors. For instance, the Interferometric Network presently under construction can perform observational studies of nonlinear space-time warpage and black holes, which have yet to be directly observed. After 2000, he believes detailed observational studies using gravitational wave detectors, as well as the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) under development by the European Space Agency and scheduled for completion in 2014, will dominate this area.

Finally, Carl Wieman of JILA/University of Colorado gave a general lecture on last year's achievement of Bose-Einstein condensation (BEC), a new state of matter predicted over 70 years ago by Albert Einstein and the Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose. In this state of matter, gas atoms are cooled to near-absolute-zero temperatures and are crowded together to the point that the atoms overlap with each other and collapse into a single quantum state, where they behave essentially as a single "super-particle." Wieman's team combined two key technologies to make their Bose-Einstein condensates: laser trapping and cooling, and magnetic trapping and evaporative cooling.

Further studies of BECs promise important insights into the strange world of quantum mechanics, including nondestructible probes, phase transition dynamics, Josephson tunneling, and the shape and correlation of wave function, among other phenomena. They will also illuminate the future possibility of technologically useful inventions such as the hypothesized "atom laser," a potentially powerful nanotechnological tool in which the BEC atoms, all in the same energy state, would be deposited on surfaces with exquisite precision.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin