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Sections: APS' Mini-Physical Societies

By Barrett Ripin, APS Associate Executive Officer

When I attended my first section meeting a couple of years ago, my initial reaction was that it seemed much too enjoyable to be a 'real' physics meeting. A stimulating range of current physics topics outside of my specialization presented in an understandable tutorial manner reminded me of what enticed me to become a physicist. My second reaction was irritation at not being introduced to sectional meetings much earlier, particularly during my college/graduate school days.

There are five geographic APS sections in the United States (see map) with memberships in the one to two thousand range. In 1931 Council amended the APS Constitution to allow both geographic sections and technical divisions to be established. A number of independent physics clubs were already active at different locations in the US. All sections were formed in the 1930s except for the Texas Section, which was established in 1982, fifty years after the first, the New England Section. Distant travel was not so prevalent back then and, for many, these sections were the focus of physics communications.

Regional physics activities are still vital, even in our fast-paced mobile world. Industrial-academic interactions are typically local phenomena, as are many professional collaborations that enhance our research, teaching, and pleasure of doing physics. Students from physics departments feed local industry and graduate schools. Faculty are a resource of technical expertise for industry and government laboratories. Industry, in turn, often provides regional departments with a technical focus, internships, and support. Regional meetings enable faculty and students from small departments to become connected to the broader physics community.

Section meetings draw professors, undergraduate and graduate students, retirees, and physicists working in local industry together to discuss a diverse range of research or educational issues. They are usually held at easy to reach (and inexpensive) sites and have low registration fees. Professor/mentors from physics departments throughout the region will cram their students into vehicles and go on a section meeting 'road trip.' Meetings are usually informal and attendees tend to get to know each other well. They provide a unique educational experience for PITs (physicists in training) to meet working physicists, to experience the terror of presenting their work to others (in as nurturing a context as they will encounter in the outside world), as well as possibly making post-graduation employment connections.

Sections develop unique characters to suit their region's membership. Some hold meetings that are primarily comprised of thematic tutorial invited sessions. Thematic sessions typically feature world-class researchers selected for their ability to give both tutorial background and a good feeling for research frontiers. Other sections draw large numbers of invited and contributed papers in diverse areas and have the flavor of small general meetings. Close to 500 attended the most recent Texas Section meeting. There is a strong student involvement and educational component to most section meetings and they are frequently held jointly with sections of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) and the Society of Physics Students (SPS).

If you live in a region that has a section and you wish to join, then contact the APS Membership Department or 301/209-3280. There is no charge to join an APS section.

If you do not live in a region that has a section and are interested in helping to form one, please contact me.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin