By James J. Wynne
Physicists generally agree that the public does not understand or appreciate physics research. Furthermore, most physicists realize that the majority of non-physicists gain information about physics through the mass media, both print and broadcast. Recognizing that the physics community could greatly benefit from a broader and deeper understanding and appreciation of physics by the public, the inescapable conclusion is that we have to enhance the frequency and accuracy of physics reporting in the mass media.
The APS Forum on Education has focused its attention on programs to educate the public: both students of physics and adults. Ultimately we decided to have physicists join the ranks of science reporters, at least temporarily, through a short-term fellowship program. Rather than create an entirely new program, we decided to work with an established, successful program that has administrative infrastructure and contacts with media organization: the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program. In its 21- year existence, the program has placed approximately 350 fellows with news magazines, newspapers, TV networks and many local organizations. Following completion of their fellowships, about half of the fellows returned to traditional science and engineering careers, while the other half found employment in the mass media.
We proposed to the APS Council that the Society set up a similar program to enable physicists to spend up to three months working in the mass media. Initially, the fellowships will be intended for two physicists in the early stages of their careers, including, in particular, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Council approved our proposal in November 1995 and applications are now being accepted for internships this summer, with a deadline of January 15.
Just imagine what might happen to the public's perception of physics and physicists if one of our Mass Media Fellows became the screen writer for a popular TV program starring "cool" physicists - some sort of cross between "ER" and "Flash Gordon," with Dr. Zharkov (Flash's older, wiser scientist colleague) portrayed as not only smart, but also youthful and dynamic. We could call the program "College Park Crisis Center" and focus on a team of physicists called upon to troubleshoot when crises arise.
Here's a sketch of a possible episode: the federal government is threatened by financial crisis because the ink on the new $100 bills fades, making the money unreadable. Our heroes conduct spectroscopy experiments and discover that exposure to excess solar ultraviolet radiation (a consequence of ozone depletion) has optically pumped the dye molecules in the ink to a long- lived triplet state from which they do not absorb visible light. A brilliant graduate student from UCLA (who also happens to be an Olympic diving champion), spending her Kumar Patel fellowship at the American Center for Physics, solves the problem by two-photon irradiation of the dye molecules with an infrared photon from a carbon dioxide laser - that just happens to have been invented by Kumar Patel, recent National Medal of Science winner and 1995 APS president - and an ultraviolet photon from the NIST synchrotron, photochemically converting the ink dyes to a new isomer with a short-lived triplet state. A government default is thereby narrowly averted.
Too far-fetched, you say? Then consider the case of Neal Baer, 1983 AAAS Mass Media Fellow, who was originally hired as a technical consultant for "ER," but after rewriting Michael Crichton's pilot, replacing Crichton's dated medical school knowledge with state-of-the-science knowledge, was hired as a full-time writer - the only one with any medical training.
Whether or not the APS Mass Media Fellows become sources of hit TV programs, we expect them to provide their journalist colleagues with a better understanding of physics, while gaining on-the- job experience in mass media. At the end of their fellowship tenure, they will serve as a resource for the physics community to facilitate and enhance our communications with the mass media and, ultimately, the public.
James Wynne is a research staff member at the IBM/T.J. Watson Research Center and was the Forum on Education's representative to the APS Council from 1993-96. Application information for the APS Mass Media Fellowship Program can be found in the November and December 1996 issues of APS News and on the APS home page. The submission deadline is January 15, 1997.
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