APS News

Lessons from BAPS: Vol 1 (Second Series)

By Harry Lustig, Sante Fe, NM

Bulletin of the APS cover, 1925
1925 Cover of the Bulletin of the AP

The Bulletin of the American Physical Society (BAPS) was created by the founding assembly of the Society on May 20, 1899. In 1902, BAPS was discontinued and its functions of recording the proceedings of the Society's meetings were subsumed by The Physical Review. APS resumed publication of its Bulletin in 1925. This Second Series carried not only the announcements and presubmitted abstracts of the scientific meetings, but also matters of record, such as lists of the APS membership and other material of interest to the members. Examination of the Bulletin, at periodic intervals, therefore conveys not only interesting information about the progress of physics and the structure of the meetings, but also about the sociology of the profession and of the country. Excepts from Volume 1, covering 1925 and 1926, give a snapshot of that era.

Frequency, Location, and Structure of the Meetings
By this time, the tradition of holding all meetings in New York City (which meant at Columbia, the Society's de facto headquarters) had been replaced by holding only the annual winter meeting there. The Society regularly held a spring meeting in Washington, DC at the Bureau of Standards (which the APS was instrumental in forming) plus three or four regional meetings around the US each year.

Most meetings were scheduled for two full days. Although most had single, consecutive sessions, some doubling up had already become necessary. In theory a "Program Committee" was to approve abstracts for presentation, but in practice this requirement was usually ignored until much later when a "Committee for Eccentric Abstracts" was temporarily in operation. According to one notice in the Bulletin, the abstracts of contributed papers were to be limited to 211 (!) words.

Some meetings were held jointly with those of other associations. As part of a long-lasting tradition, the annual meetings were joint with those of Section B (Physics) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a progenitor of the APS.

Contributed Papers: Geographical and Workplace Distribution of Authors
With the exception of the annual Washington gathering, most contributed paper sessions at the meetings had a decidedly regional flavor, surely because of the time and cost of long-distance travel. Thus at the New York meeting of 1925, all of the 23 papers from academic institutions came from the East or nearby, with the exception of one from Washington University in St. Louis. Over one-third of the papers were from government, industrial and other non-academic laboratories. The high proportion of non-academically based authors at this meeting, and at several other meetings during this period, should cast doubt on the commonly held belief that the APS was not hospitable to industrial and government research.

In sharp geographic contrast, at the Pasadena meeting, 15 of the 20 contributed papers were from Cal Tech, including papers authored by Linus Pauling, Paul Epstein, H.P. Robertson and R.A. Millikan. The annual meeting in Kansas City had its center of mass in the Midwest, with a slight list to the south. In line with the composition of the physics profession, most of the authors were men with a sprinkling of women.

The academic or job titles of authors were never given, except for one select group, the National Research (Council) Fellows. This unique fellowship support program played an important role in furthering the development of the most promising American physicists and other scientists of the period. National Research Fellows giving contributed papers in 1925-26 included J.W. Beams, Otto Laporte, and Ernest O. Lawrence.

Invited Papers and Other Events
In the early years invited papers were rare at APS meetings and manifestly opportunistic. At the February 1925 meeting, there was a talk by P. Debye (who was visiting MIT from Zurich) on the diamagnetism of gases at low pressure. There were joint sessions of APS and Section B, featuring the retiring address of the Section B chairman, K.T. Compton, on Dielectric Constants and Molecular Structure. Compton's chairmanship of AAAS' Section B illustrates the continued close connection and interlocking directorships of AAAS and APS.

All of the APS meetings sported a dinner at a hotel or club. The cost of these was $2.00 except for those in Washington, where it was $2.50. Washington appears to have been an exceptionally expensive city even then. By 1939 the cost of dinners dropped to $1.25 -$1.50 in Washington, evidently reflecting the Depression. In the 1930s, the rate for a single room at the Hotel Pennsylvania, in New York City, was $3.50. The Bulletin (six issues) could be subscribed to for $1.00 per year.

Governance, Membership and Other Information
In addition to programs, abstracts, and announcements of future meetings, the Bulletin, in 1925-26, published three other items. One was the constitution and bylaws of the Society. The second was the lengthy Report by the Educational Committee of the American Physical Society on The Teaching of Physics — With Especial Reference to the Teaching of Physics to Students in Agriculture. It was the fourth (and last) in a series of APS reports on the teaching of physics to various student constituencies and exemplifies the Society's long involvement, if intermittent, with education.

The most voluminous non-meeting oriented section of the Bulletin was the Membership List of July 1926. There were seven honorary members, all foreign: Svante Arrhenius, V.F.K. Bjerknes, Niels Bohr, H.A. Lorentz, Max Planck, Ernest Rutherford, and Emil Wiechert. Also listed by name were the Society's 487 fellows and 1658 ordinary members. There were an estimated 50 foreign members and fellows (in addition to the honoraries). The fellows included Abraham Joffe of Leningrad, Russia (as the USSR was designated in the Membership List); Charles Darwin of Edinburgh, Scotland; M. Le Duc De Broglie of Paris, France; Victor Hess of Graz, Austria; and Sir C.V. Raman of Calcutta, India. An E. Shrodinger of Zurich, Switzerland is also listed as a member, but not as a fellow. Apparently Schrodinger had refused fellowship because the annual dues were then $2 higher than for members and fellows also had to pay a one-time $3 entrance fee. Perhaps his name was misspelled in retaliation. More than a dozen of the members residing abroad, such as Edward Condon, were Americans who were studying or working there. Among the authentically foreign members (other than Canadians), Japan led the list with nine (they still lead the list of the most members outside of North America), China followed with five and the other countries represented — Italy, England, Poland, Germany, Holland, and Belgium — each accounted for three or fewer.

Harry Lustig was Treasurer of the APS for eleven years until 1996. He has authored a history of the APS that will appear in the American Journal of Physics and can be accessed as a PDF here (45 pages; 272k).



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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette