History of the APS Forum on Physics and Society

by David Hafemeister

David Hafemeister
David Hafemeister

Physics is a major component of many of society's difficult issues: nuclear arms and their proliferation, energy shortages and energy impacts, climate change, and technical innovation. Because physics principles underlie so many of these societal issues and because physics offers a way to quantify some aspects of them, APS members should be encouraged to understand, analyze and debate them. That's precisely why the APS formed the Forum on Physics and Society (FPS). To those of us who have been long involved in FPS affairs, it seems but yesterday that we attended the organizing meeting at the 1972 APS San Francisco meeting. As the APS celebrates its Centennial by looking back over its first hundred years, it is fitting that the FPS also looks back at its own accomplishments, and looks ahead at the direction of its future activities.

orum of Physics and Society Chair Ruth Howes presented the Forum Award (now the Burton Forum Award) in 1992 to (L-R) Fernando Barros, Luis Maspari, Alberto Ridner and Luis Rosa, who successfully worked with their governments to renounce nuclear weapons and to mutually inspect their nuclear facilities.
Forum of Physics and Society Chair Ruth Howes presented the Forum Award (now the Burton Forum Award) in 1992 to (L-R) Fernando Barros, Luis Maspari, Alberto Ridner and Luis Rosa, who successfully worked with their governments to renounce nuclear weapons and to mutually inspect their nuclear facilities.

The FPS was born in the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s. The issues of that era — the Vietnam War, the debate over the Anti-Ballistic Missile system, the energy crisis, the start of the environmental movement, the civil/human rights revolution — impelled that generation of physicists to consider their professional responsibilities. Many felt that the APS should have a forum in which appropriate science and society issues would be debated by informed participants before the APS membership. Thus, the FPS became the first APS forum. Today its membership numbers roughly 4500, or 11% of the total APS membership. [For more on the early days of the FPS, see article by Mike Casper, Physics Today, May 1974.] One of the most important activities of the FPS has been to sponsor sessions at APS meetings on topical science-and-society issues. National security proved the most frequent topic, followed by the scientific process, energy, education and the environment, as well as miscellaneous topics. There are also FPS award sessions and numerous contributed sessions. To provide more in-depth background on certain issues, the FPS also offers occasional short courses, four of which have had their proceedings published in the AIP Conference Series. The AAPT has published three past FPS sessions as informative booklets for its members.

The goal of FPS sessions is to present both sides of an issue in a no-holds-barred debate. This is not always possible, since there are occasionally heretical views that don't make sense and confuse the debate. For example, at the 1986 APS Spring Meeting in Washington, DC, the FPS held a session on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), inviting representatives from the Reagan administration and the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, as well as some university professors. It never occurred to us to invite Lyndon LaRouche's Fusion Energy Foundation. However, since this group felt they should have been invited, they attempted to shut down the session. Threatened with police action, they eventually quieted down, and the details of lasers in space were duly quantified and debated. The more interesting papers in FPS symposia frequently are published in Physics and Society, the forum's official newsletter, which serves to keep FPS members informed of current topics, and also provides a useful outlet for physicists who have some viable data or theory to publish. The newsletter publishes a wide variety of letters on both popular and unpopular topics, even when the editorial board disagrees sharply with the viewpoints expressed. With the passage of time the contents have shifted from more general commentary to the more technical aspects of physics and public policy issues. It has long been our goal to convert the newsletter from a "quasi-journal" to a full- fledged subscription journal.

The first "job crisis" for young physics PhDs took place in the early 1970s. The FPS responded by organizing two conferences at Penn State University in 1974 and 1977, to examine the data and possible responses by the physics academic community. Of course, there was no easy solution then, or now, to the vulnerability of young PhDs and postdocs to a tight job market, but the conferences developed a number of partial solutions, which were subsequently published by Physics and Society and in the AIP Conference Series.

Over the years, FPS members have played significant roles in such achievements as the formation of the hugely successful APS Congressional Fellowship Program, and of the APS Forum on Education. Today, a number of our members have moved on from FPS activities to larger roles. Examples include former FPS Executive Board members Vern Ehlers, who serves as a Republican Congressman from Michigan, and Rush Holt, recently elected to that position as a Democrat from New Jersey. I like to think that the forum's examination of the critical aspects of science and society issues not only helped send them on their way, but also shaped their approach to some of the issues that they deal with today. It is imperative that the FPS keeps the candle of professional responsibility well lit. We cannot slip backwards to the old days when APS meetings had no sessions on physics and society issues. The FPS continues to be a way for physicists in all fields of endeavor to easily keep abreast of the technical aspects of problems facing society.

David Hafemeister is a professor of physics at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California, and a founding member long active in FPS. This article was adapted from January 1999 Physics and Society, the FPS newsletter.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette

April 1999 (Volume 8, Number 4)

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Articles in this Issue
Mass Media Fellows Reflect on Internship Experience
Style and Substance Characterize APS Centennial Celebration
International News: Dakar Workshop Fosters Research Collaborations in Africa
Yale Olympics Show Students That Physics Can Be Fun
APS Resolution Urges Amending Data Access Law
Festival Spotlight: Teaching the Science Behind the Magic
Prominent Physicists of the 20th Century
In Brief
APS Views
The Back Page
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
Quoteworthy Science