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APS Views

By Amy Halsted

When I started working for the APS nine years ago, I had no idea of the opportunities that I would encounter. At the time I needed a job, and the position at APS met my criteria. I came to the interview with some trepidation, and was quizzed by four physicists simultaneously. After surviving that trial, my writing was tested. They gave me material describing the research of an APS prizewinner, from which I drafted a brief speech that the President might deliver when he presented the prize. The prizewinner's work involved something called "ballooning formalism." I wondered what I was getting into. Fortunately I possessed the right combination of skills and experiences, and the APS hired me.

Not long after, I found myself sitting in committee meetings, trying to take minutes while 10 or so of you discussed unfamiliar people, facilities, situations, and fields of endeavor. The acronyms nearly drove me mad: ICTP, CSWP, PRD, ORNL, BAPS, DCMP, CIFS, NIST, POPA, RMP, DAMOP, OSTP, IAEA, APL, LANL, NSF, but soon I was the one spelling them out to others. It took longer to discern the difference between APS and AIP, but finally I began to grasp that as well.

At one early meeting, my attention strayed and I looked down the table at one of the members. His concentration had also lapsed, and I watched him holding a clear plastic cup half-full of water, tipping and rotating it slowly before his eyes and watching the surface remain level as the water assumed the changing shape of its container. At that moment I began to understand the nature of physicists. I got accustomed to people cracking physics jokes that I didn't always get. I wasn't surprised anymore to see a committee member absently covering a page with odd looking figures and calculations. I learned that physicists weren't like most people I knew. And I learned more than that. I quickly realized that I was receiving an education on the job. My work with the Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists introduced me to the compelling, frustrating, confusing, and occasionally thrilling field of human rights. I attended a reception for Andrei Sakharov when he came to New York, and I was fortunate enough to work with both Yuri Orlov and Fang Lizhi. Staffing the Committee on Membership (then the Committee on Opportunities) taught me about the physics community, and how statistics are gathered and interpreted. That committee met once at Fermilab, and we were given an unforgettable VIP tour. Working with the Committee on Applications in Physics increased my understanding of the concerns and culture of American industry. The Committee on International Scientific Affairs introduced me to global issues. Its deliberations were among the hardest for me to follow, and also among the most rewarding as I slowly acquired a rudimentary knowledge of international interactions in physics.

The off-line time with committee members was equally enlightening. I got bolder about asking for explanations of confusing issues that had been discussed during the meetings, and always found the members willing to clarify. I heard rich anecdotes about famous and revered scientists, and sometimes those august individuals were there at the dinner table, charming or bedeviling their colleagues and me.

Around this time, I began to develop my own theories about physicists and what makes them the way they are. I thought about why so many outspoken dissidents in other countries are physicists and how dearly some of them have paid for speaking out. It seemed to me that physics is about a love of truth, rigorously proven and scrupulously reported, no matter what the consequences. I also observed an unusual happiness and contentment in the physics community, and found that most physicists are pretty good company. I concluded that there is no reason on earth to become a physicist except for the love of physics, and people who love what they are doing tend to be happy. Count me in that group.

Taking advantage of the tuition reimbursement that APS offers, I started work on a masters in public administration in 1991. Many of the assignments required me to study my employer, and my appreciation of APS grew again. In particular, I started to understand the complexity and enormity of the work of the Treasurer's department, and what Harry Lustig has accomplished for the APS.

Prior to my employment at APS, I had suffered the vagaries of several small businesses in New York. Relieved by the apparent stability of the APS, I remember telling my father confidently, "The APS isn't going to go anywhere!" Six years later the Society was moving to Maryland. In spring of 1993 I wrote my M.A. thesis about the relocation and how the decision was reached. During that period I was also obliged to make my own choice about whether or not to relocate. I was less critical of the Society's decision-making process, which seemed unusually disorganized and almost impulsive at the end, when I realized how much it resembled my own lengthy and agonizing deliberations.

My position in Maryland as administrator to Council and the Executive Board affords me a bird's eye view of the organization. My job is to help record and chart the progress of the APS as it grows and makes changes, studies the results, falters, heals itself, learns new tricks, and moves forward. Many staff members and even more volunteers find the APS as compelling as I do, and share my faith in it. The Society captured me early on, and I'm still buying what it's selling.

Amy Halsted is Administrator of Operating Committees at the College Park, Maryland, APS Headquarters.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin