APS News

APS Views

Celebrating a Century of Physics in '99

By Andrew Sessler, APS President

The APS Centennial is coming up in 1999 and it affords us a good chance to look back as well as forward. We are planning a great party in March 1999, in Atlanta, Georgia, combining the March and April meetings for that year. More than 40 Nobel Laureates and about 40 representatives of foreign physical societies plan to be there, as well as representatives of other professional societies in the U.S. and, of course, politicians. I hope many of you will be there.

We are also planning a good number of items of lasting importance. One is A Century of Physics timeline wall chart, depicting chronologically, in over 26 feet, the major events in physics of the last century. We plan to distribute it to all the high schools and colleges in the nation. A second item is a special issue of Reviews of Modern Physics, with articles by some of the outstanding physicists of our time covering most of the sub-disciplines of physics. The articles are at the level of colloquia, and we hope that many of you will desire this volume to read and remember.

A third item is a coffee table book, which describes the contributions of physics both in concepts and in practical applications in carefully chosen words, and has lots of beautiful pictures. We hope that the general public - especially our spouses, children and parents - will be interested in this volume. A fourth item is a booklet with a list of excellent speakers available to give special centennial colloquia. And finally, there will be a collection of photographs of famous physicists from this past century. We expect these last to be used during the year, and beyond, in colloquia and general lectures on college campuses and in industry.

After all, this has been a revolutionary century of physics. There were significant intellectual advances, such as relativity, quantum mechanics, symmetry, and the expansion of the universe. The investigations these advances precipitated resulted in tremendous scientific and technological progress. For example, understanding atomic structure produced lasers, atomic clocks, solid state electronics, and much of condensed matter physics. Studies of nuclear structure yielded nuclear weapons, nuclear power and nuclear imaging. Physicists also made important discoveries in sub-nuclear structure, including quarks, the unification of weak and magnetic forces, and the standard model. Astrophysics research resulted in the discovery of phenomena such as jets, quasars and pulsars.

What will be the great themes of the next century? What will be the intellectual and technological advances? Physics is not finished, but there are important questions still to be answered, such as the following one: Why are we here? Why is there more matter than anti-matter in the universe? What is the origin of mass? Why are there so many neutrinos coming out of the sun? What is the nature of the dark matter that comprises as much as 85% of the universe?

We also want to convey to the public that pure and applied physics go hand in hand. They can't be separated; one drives the other. Often conceptual advances lead to practical devices, and just as often the reverse can be true. In the 19th century, conceptual advances in electricity and magnetism led to practical electric generation and power distribution, electric motors, and electric lights, while the practical steam engine led to the development of the conceptual structure of thermodynamics.

In the 20th century, the practical need to win a war drove the development of nuclear power, supersonic jets, rockets and radar. Radar alone led to the development of the transistor, large accelerators, nuclear magnetic resonance and the laser. At the same time, conceptual advances in condensed matter physics have led to magnetic imaging, computers and consumer electronics. We want to make sure that the public understands that much of the advances in medicine are due to physics, that physics has made possible modern communication and modern computers, that physics creates jobs and economic growth, and that physics contributes to solving the energy problem with conservation strategies, fission, fusion and solar collectors.

In short, physics is an exciting intellectual activity that sheds light upon the basic questions facing mankind, while simultaneously driving the economic engine of the world and improving the quality of life. That's a great story to tell, and I think we can tell it. We view the APS Centennial not as a one time event, or delta function, but rather, as an opportunity to take a step function forward in the activities of the APS. In order to help us "get this message out" we have hired a public relations firm. Our efforts we expect to be ongoing, and we expect that our activity will help reverse the significant and worrisome trend of ever fewer students going into physics, while, at the same time, increasing the public appreciation of our science and, hence, the support of physics.

So, please, read on about the event in this and coming issues of APS News, mark your calendars for March 20-26, 1999, and I look forward to seeing you in Atlanta.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin