APS News

Communication, APS Centennial Are Sessler's Top Priorities in 1998

Andrew Sessler (Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory assumed the APS presidency on January 1st, 1998. In the following interview, he outlines his prevailing concerns and priorities for the Society in the coming year.

Q If you had to pick one over-riding theme to define the underlying common denominator for your priorities as APS president, what would it be?

A First and foremost, I would say communication. By that I mean communication with the general public, with politicians, and with students at all levels of the educational ladder. It's very important that the public become more aware of physics. We have a great story to tell: all the accomplishments of the last century and the exciting prospects for the future.

In addition, we need to foster better communication with our own members. We have so many education and outreach activities in the areas of K-12 education, women and minorities in physics, and public affairs, but very few APS members are aware of what we're doing. We know this from the recently completed membership survey (see APS News, October 1997), and I have also experienced it anecdotally. Every time I talk with members about APS activities, they say, "Well, why don't you tell the members?" And I respond, "My God, all we do is tell the members. The members don't listen." Editors note: See insert in this issue; Educational Outreach.

Also, although the APS is a volunteer organization, we do have a very large, highly skilled staff of about 200 - operating under the direction of APS Executive Officer Judy Franz, Associate Executive Officer Barrie Ripin, Editor-in-Chief Marty Blume and APS Treasurer Tom McIlrath - that is necessary to carry out all the functions we undertake, but the membership is often not aware of them. Better communication with our members allows then to better communicate APS activities to the general public. This in turn ultimately helps us improve our communication with the general public, which is, after all, one of our primary missions.

Q How has the Society evolved in terms of how it interprets its mission over the last 100 years?

A Over the years the APS has evolved into a society with a social conscience. Until 1972, the Society was primarily concerned with organizing meetings and publishing its journals. That year, the APS organized the Forum on Physics and Society. Later in the decade, this gave rise to the Panel on Public Affairs, which dealt with physics and public affairs. In 1980, we formed the Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists to address human rights issues, since, as Andrei Sakharov has said, "The interests of science must include the defense of members of the scientific community from injustice." Also in the 1980s we formed committees on women and minorities in physics. The Physics Planning Committee was born in 1988 to focus specifically on physics funding. In the 1990s we witnessed the formation of the Committee on Applications of Physics and the Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics (FIAP). And just last year we established the Committee on Careers and Professional Development.

So we've evolved from an organization concerned only with physics, to an organization concerned about the social impact of physics, and finally to an organization concerned about the civil and human rights of physicists in this and other countries, as well as employment opportunities for physicists. I think that's an important element for physics in the coming century. Ilya Ehrenberg, one of the greatest Soviet writers of this century, said in Moscow, in 1966, "A person who has only knowledge but no.conscience, this is not a person, but a half-finished thing. Even if we are talking about a talented physicist." That's still true in America today.

Q The upcoming APS Centennial celebration in 1999 will undoubtedly require a great deal of planning and effort in the coming year.

A Absolutely. The Centennial celebration is our number one priority for 1998. We have a team in place now, with Brian Schwartz and Franmarie Kennedy (see APS News, December 1997), and we're working on a broad range of projects connected with that. It's going to be a very large, festive affair, and very much an international collaboration. We're expecting more than 40 Nobel laureates to attend, who will be available to interact with the public. We're also developing projects designed to last beyond the Centennial celebration: a special issue of Reviews of Modern Physics, outlining the great accomplishments and themes of physics in this century; a 27-foot wall chart depicting physics highlights; a coffee table book for the general public; and a collection of photos of famous physicists from this century.

Also, we've hired a large public relations firm to assist us, not just with the Centennial, but with the whole issue of communication. We, as physicists, have certainly not been very good at communicating, so maybe it's time to go professional. However, this is a long-term objective that cannot be accomplished overnight. We're hoping the Centennial celebration will mark the start of a major new direction for the APS. I feel it is the next logical step in the Society's continuing evolution: from building physics in the U.S., to developing a social conscience, to being concerned about physicists as well as physics. The next step is fostering better communication of physics to the general public.

Q Obviously an important compo-nent of communication is education. Is this another top priority for the Society?

A Yes. The recent Campaign for Physics, spearheaded by Nico Bloembergen and Darlene Logan, raised more than $5 million for educational activities. The APS has been focusing a great deal of effort on the Teacher-Scientist Alliance program, headed by Education Director Ramon Lopez, which is a way to encourage scientists to interact with teachers and contribute to public schools. I think it's unclear to most physicists how they can contribute to their local schools. Better communication is needed to get them involved, whether they give a lecture, visit a class room, judge a science fair, or simply be a resource for teachers. I know a Livermore physicist who set up an Email- Net a few years ago with local high school teachers. If they get a question in class that they don't know the answer to, they email him for the answer. I've talked to some high school teachers in this area and they would love to do that with scientists. It is less threatening than having a scientist come into your classroom, and can be quite effective.

The APS Division of Plasma Physics just sponsored a special day for more than 1,000 school children at its meeting last November in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and other APS units have undertaken similar efforts. In addition, many university departments are making substantial outreach efforts in K-12 and general public education. For example, the University of Michigan holds free public lectures on physics every fall on Saturday mornings, given by postdocs. The University of Illinois has a Cyber lab, a Saturday honors program, teacher's workshops, and nearly 6000 children and 200 teachers in Central Illinois and Chicago areas have enjoyed the 63 physics traveling van shows given between the program's conception in 1994 and the spring of 1996. There are also more than 200 hands-on science museums that have sprung up around the country and are very popular. So a lot of effort is being made, and more needs to be made, in education.

Q What is the APS doing to ensure the continued economic health of the physics enterprise?

A There has been substantial effort for the last year to garner support for a bill to double the amount of R&D funding in the U.S., spearheaded by [APS Past President] Allan Bromley (see APS News, November 1997) with the assistance of the APS Office of Public Affairs, led by Bob Park and Mike Lubell. This mustn't be an isolated, one-time effort. Politicians need to appreciate that physics is a driving engine to economic wealth, to our quality of life, and especially to advances in medicine. We wouldn't have MRI, PET scans or CAT scans without physics. It's all inter- related and we will need sufficient funding in the future for physics research if this growth is to continue.

The public shouldn't consider physics to be irrelevant. We can accomplish this by communicating the new role of physics, emphasizing that it does have a role in post-Cold-War society, just a different one. For instance, physicists are addressing what is inevitably going to be a significant problem for society in the next 100 years, namely sources of energy, specifically fusion and solar energy.

Q Is there still room in the current tight budgetary climate for less strategically focused research, which many scientists believe is equally necessary for the future of science and technology in this country?

A I think so. After all, beyond the practical benefits of physics research, there are significant intellectual contributions. That's a harder sell these days, but physics still has a lot to contribute in purely intellectual areas. For example, high energy physics is grappling with the question of why there is more matter than antimatter, which is presumably related to the question of CP noninvariance. It's a wonderful question and we're building B factories to try to answer it. Another major question is, What is the origin of mass? We simply don't know why some particles, like the proton, are massive, while the electron has almost no mass. So we are engaged in activities like the Large Hadron Collider to try to understand this problem.

These are two very fundamental philosophical questions in which the public would be very interested if the facts were presented correctly, along with topics like the significant absence of many solar neutrinos - we're only seeing a fraction of what is theoretically expected - the existence of dark matter, and whether the universe expands forever, or not. That's one reason we hired a public relations firm.

Q Will the APS continue to emphasize the importance of international collaboration?

A I believe international collaborations evolve naturally from the day-to-day interactions of scientists as they go about their work. For example, the Department of Energy has provided $500 million for the Large Hadron Collider, and the plasma physicists for a very long time have had an international collaboration on fusion physics. Another example is that U.S. radio astronomers are designing a millimeter wavelength telescope in Chile, and SLAC has initiated a major collaboration with the Japanese on linear colliders. However, although they arise from the grass roots of the scientific enterprise, these international activities often reach the point where they require formal agreements and discussions at a higher level than that of scientists interacting with scientists. Often, the APS, through the efforts of APS Director of International Scientific Affairs Irving Lerch, can and does play an important role in that regard.

Q What do you feel will be the most pressing issues for the Society as it enters the 21st century?

A The most immediate pressing concern for the future is the transition to electronic publishing. We're undergoing great changes. Nobody knows exactly where we're headed, and it's a very important issue since much of our Society's activities rely on surplus income from publications. So we have to make the transition with care and caution and presumably we will, under the capable direction of Marty Blume and Thomas McIlrath.

I would also hope to see the APS continue to broaden its view of what physics is to accommodate emerging new disciplines and avoid splintering into numerous smaller societies, as has happened in the past. For example, at present more than half of the new PhDs are going into industry, so we have to be sensitive to that. FIAP is now the biggest unit of the APS, and has developed a jobs engine that's quite effective for acquiring positions. The APS must educate professors about what it's like in industry these days, because most of them have never been employed in industry. Those who have worked in that realm did so many decades ago. Educating industry is equally important, because so many industrial employers prefer to hire engineers in instead of physicists. We must convince industry that the new generation of physicists is a different breed with a lot to offer, with a flexibility that just isn't found in people trained in other professional lines.


Andy Sessler At a Glance

Undergraduate studies in mathematics at Harvard University. PhD in atomic and nuclear structure physics from Columbia University, 1953.

Worked with Hans Bethe on elementary particle physics before joining faculty of Ohio State University. Research in low-temperature and accelerator physics.

Moved to Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in 1962, serving as director from 1973 to 1980. Currently a senior scientist. Also a Trustee of Associated Universities Inc.

Chaired the Federation of American Scientists from 1989 to 1991. Co-founder of Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov and Sharansky, for which he received the first APS Nicholson Medal for humanitarian service in 1994.

Extensive APS service over the years includes chairing CIFS, POPA, CAP, and the Division of Physics of Beams. Helped establish the FIAP, CIFS and the PPC, on which he also served.

Recipient of E.O. Lawrence Award in 1970 and Wilson Award in 1997. Fellow of the APS, AAAS, and the New York Academy of Sciences. Member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Considers physics to be a "social sport" and enjoys the personal interactions as much as the science.


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin