APS News


Of Grammatology and Beyond...

An occasional light note is certainly to be encouraged, but I take exception to your limerick in response to Fabrizio Pinto (APS News, October 1996, p5). In selecting a classic of the genre and coarsening it a bit to meet modern entertainment standards, you have achieved a verse which does not scan (an unpardonable sin!) - that is, unless you want the reader to accent the first syllable of "eloped" and "conceived," making for a very artificial, strained reading. Moreover, you have lost the sense of the "impossible," which was, of course, the essential feature of the original (conceiving before eloping being perfectly possible and quite likely these days, in fact).

The original, innocuous as it is, would have been preferable on all counts:
There was a young fellow named Bright
Who travelled much faster than light.
He set off one day, in a relative way
And came back the previous night!

Ralph P. Hudson
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Editor's Response...

There once was a poem misquoted
And commas left out that were noted.
When genders reversed,
The writer was cursed
And regrets he transgressed as denoted.

(M. Freedhoff, 1996)

Physics Limerick Contest
Clearly physicists care deeply about their limericks. In response to member demand, we announce the APS Physics Limerick Contest. Limericks selected will be printed in APS News and authors awarded a dunking bird, arguably the best physics toy ever invented. Author of the best limerick will win a flock. Submit entries to: letters@aps.org, or mail to: Limerick Contest, APS News, The American Physical Society, College Park, MD 20740. Deadline for submissions is January 15, 1997.

McKinsey & Co. a Boon to Downsizing

The opinion by Wolfgang Hierse in the October 1996 APS News ("Leaving Science Can Be a Good Career Decision") hits the nail on the head: by choosing to join McKinsey & Company he will help eliminate the few physicists that still remain. McKinsey & Co. has been the star of such management consulting firms all over the industrialized world for a great many years. Their activities have been good for society, because the current oversupply of scientists and others might turn into an oversupply of culinary experts (see the NEW YORK TIMES, Sunday, September 16, 1996), and who would turn down a good meal? Rich meals might even cut the life expectancy of the general population enough to help reduce Medicare budgets.

The writer is grateful to the McKinsey organization for having been instrumental in forcing his early retirement after more than 30 years of service to a major corporation, thereby bringing him into an academic career.

James L. Lauer
San Diego, California

More Thoughts on Leaving Science...

I enjoyed the Opinion article by Wolfgang Hierse on "Why Leaving Science Can Be a Good Career Decision." I credit him for being blunt... it's needed! Society can only afford to support a certain amount of pure "quest for knowledge" research, and I believe that society is telling us that we can no longer be this big. Take this as a wake-up call. As physicists, we all have valuable skills in analytical thinking, problem-solving, mathematics, etc. Unless you're one of the "absolute geniuses," you should think seriously about applying some of your valuable skills elsewhere. Like Dr. Hierse (and myself), you might even find it more enjoyable than doing traditional physics!

Peter Heimann
Middletown, New Jersey

The commentary by Wolfgang Hierse illustrates a large and welcome trend, as we witness competent newly minted science Ph.Ds compete successfully for well-paid non-academic positions. This means that science is respected outside of its field. How many bankers, business analysts, or consultants could, in three months, jump into the position of a physics or chemistry professor?

But I was very sad as I read Hierse's following words: "I chose to join the consulting firm McKinsey last August. It seems to me that these people care about the right problems. I also have the somewhat disturbing impression that what they are doing is actually science in a way - the way it should be."

Well-educated scientists, especially those who have earned Ph.Ds, should know when something is a science and when it isn't. And most practicing scientists and engineers at all degree levels would agree that management consulting is not a science, nor are management consultants scientists. There may be some similarities, but they are not the same. "We must make clear that if a thing is not a science it is not necessarily bad," Richard Feynman once said. "For example, love is not a science. So, if something is said not to be a science, it does not mean that something is wrong with it; it just means that it is not a science." Hierse's misunderstanding of the endeavor of purely academic research and for the people conducting it is so unfounded and distressing because it is the very skills, abilities and credentials that he acquired through his Ph.D. that gave him entree into the types of jobs he was pursuing.

"If you tackle problems nobody has solved yet," says Hierse, "If you do whatever it takes to solve them, if you believe in the power of reason, you are a scientist." I disagree. It is curiosity about the natural world (not the financial, business, or social world) and the courage to try to intelligently pose and answer questions about it; it is the humility that one may or may not be able to offer some insight; and it is the rational application of the imagination. These, in my mind, are the defining characteristics of scientists.

Aaron Moment
Boston, Massachusetts

Population Growth is Root of Energy Problem

The facts recounted in "The Current Energy Situation: Federal Role Remains Important" (The Back Page, October 1996) have been recounted before and have been largely ignored for years. The situation is truly frightening. But it is really distressing to see that the article contains a clue to, but no overt recognition of, the root of the problem, in the statement, "On the other hand, energy use [in the U.S.] on a per capita basis has been relatively constant." This suggests that perhaps the main cause of the continuing increases in total energy consumption in the U.S. is the continuing rapid growth of the U.S. population, which is now over 3 million additional people each year.

Here is a challenge. Can you think of any problem, on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted or advanced by having large populations at the local, regional, national or global levels?

Albert A. Bartlett
Boulder, Colorado

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