APS News

Langer Outlines Challenges, Priorities for APS in Y2K

James Langer
LANGER LOWDOWN
  • Born in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1934.
  • Briefly considered a career as an artist, but found himself pulling out his math notebook during art classes and realized that was where his true interest lay.
  • BS from Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University) in 1955.
  • PhD in mathematical physics under the supervision of R.E. Peierls at the University of Birmingham, England in 1958, as a Marshall Scholar.
  • Joined the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University in 1958; in 1982, became a professor of physics and member of the Institute for Theoretical Physics (ITP) at the University of California, Santa Barbara; served as director of the ITP from 1989 to 1995.
  • Research in quantum many-body theory of transport in solids; kinetics of first-order phase transitions; dendritic pattern formation in crystal growth; and, most recently, in the dynamics of earthquakes and fracture.
  • Received the 1997 APS Oliver Buckley Prize for his contributions to the theory of the kinetics of phase transitions, particularly as applied to nucleation and dendritic growth.
  • Former chair of the APS Division of Condensed Matter Physics.
  • Member of the National Academy of Sciences; chaired the Physics Section of the AAAS in 1992, and the National Research Council's Panel on Research Opportunities and Needs, Materials Science and Engineering Survey, from 1986 to 1989.
  • Why he ran for APS presidency: "Physics has been a wonderful career for me, and has given me many opportunities. So I have a strong sense of responsibility to do my part in maintaining the vitality of the American physics community."

James Langer, a professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, assumed the APS presidency on January 1, 2000. In the following interview, he outlines his prevailing concerns and priorities for the Society as it enters the new millennium.

Q What do you see as the primary challenges facing the APS as it enters the new millennium?

A There are two big issues that are driving everything else, and must be dealt with seriously and with a great deal of energy. One is the publications and how they will develop in our rapidly changing world. The other is political advocacy, speaking up for the scientific community in general and physicists in particular. We have to make our own case these days and we've been doing that very effectively in recent years.

Q What do you see as the main objectives for the APS journals in the future?

A The APS journals - the Physical Review, Physical Review Letters and Reviews of Modern Physics - are the most successful physics journals in the world. More generally, we're among the leaders in scholarly publication, largely because we've innovated. [APS Editor-in-Chief] Marty Blume has done a fantastic job. We're trying new things and we're taking risks. The main challenge is in electronic publication. We're participating actively in the development of bulletin boards so that physicists have easy communication with each other. Most important is the task of making the APS publications as accessible as possible, archiving them electronically, having them cross-linked to other journals, and making them a research tool of a sort that was unthinkable until just a few years ago. That's our top priority.

Q What are the challenges the Society's journals must overcome to realize those objectives?

A Clearly, we need to figure out how at least to break even financially in this new era of electronic publishing, to receive adequate compensation for the effort we put into it. This is a very deep practical and philosophical question that's much debated around the country at the moment. What is the role of scientific societies, and who has responsibility for the scientific journals? I believe that the best institutions for taking this responsibility are not government agencies or for-profit publishers, but independent scientific societies that are broadly representative of the scientific community. We need to bring our scholarly scientific capabilities to bear on choosing the best modes for disseminating information and maintaining the quality of the publications. The APS can do this more effectively and economically than any other kind of agency.

Q How do you view the role of the APS in terms of political advocacy, particularly when it comes to key policy issues and federal funding for science?

A The APS has been playing a leading role in political advocacy in the last few years, especially with Allan Bromley's presidency and the organization of the consortium of scientific and engineering societies. We'll continue to play as out-front a role as is diplomatic. We'll try to provide advice and exert influence in areas where we are especially competent, like arms control and the comprehensive test ban treaty, or how science ought to be funded in this country. So long as we can be accurate and responsible, I think we're obliged to be outspoken on such issues.

We're also obliged to help the physics community make contact with people in government. We have been stepping up our efforts to inform our members about how and when to make those contacts, and what the prevailing issues are. A particularly good example is the budget situation this past year. It looked for some months as if this was going to be an absolutely disastrous budget year for science, but it turned out to be much better than expected. There were many people from the physics community as well as other scientific societies making contacts in Washington, and we had built up the credibility of those contacts over the course of several years, making the arguments in Congress about the importance of investing in basic research.

Q The Society has had tremendous success in cooperating with other scientific organizations on policy activities. Why is this so?

A For one thing, just count the numbers. The consortium of science and engineering societies represents a lot of votes and a lot of influential people in many constituencies across the country. It also makes a much more convincing statement when it's not just everybody out for his or her own special interest. We're making the point that the driving forces for the current economy and national security are advances in basic and applied science, particularly physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering. These were points that for many years after WWII we just assumed were taken for granted in Washington. Well, they're not now. So it's our responsibility to state them clearly.

Q The APS has ramped up its education and outreach activities in recent years, most notably in the smashing success of the City-Wide Physics Festival held in conjunction with the APS Centennial meeting in Atlanta last March. What does it have planned for the future?

A Both the APS and AIP are now very active in trying to produce television spots and making contact with the folks in the news media to ensure that they not only have access to, but understand the importance of, developments as they occur in the sciences. We're also working to make lots of material available on websites, including our archive of events from the Centennial meeting.

There are other ways by which efforts on our part, especially through our units and our direct contacts with university and college physics faculty, can have big effects. We can have major impacts on education, improving the APS meetings, getting more young people and more women and minorities into physics. I would like the APS to work with academic physics departments to make the physics curricula much more broadly interesting to a wider range of students, not just physics majors. For example, the physics undergraduate degree ought to be a wonderful prelaw or premed degree. Similarly, one of [APS Director of Education and Outreach] Fred Stein's major goals is getting more university and college physics departments involved in elementary and high-school teacher preparation. The Teacher Scientist Alliance is another program that has had significant impact.

One goal that I would like to emphasize is getting more industrial physicists actively involved in the APS. Many of our activities, especially the meetings, could be much more useful to physicists in industry than they are now. I would like to see lots more industrial participation in the March Meeting, for instance, and I would like more input from industrial physicists so that our policy statements better reflect the needs of the industrial community. We need those points of view.

Q The APS geographical sections seem to be becoming more active and prominent within the Society in recent years. What do you see as their emerging role in APS activities?

A I have never lived in an area where there was an active geographical section, and had hardly been aware of them. But, as a member of the APS presidential line, I'm now seeing the sections in operation. Of all the APS units, they have the best connections at the grass-roots level, including to the smaller colleges and universities, and to the smaller industrial laboratories. The most effective politics is grass-roots politics, so the sections should be especially effective in maintaining contacts with Congressional representatives. Also, the pricing of APS journals is of very great importance to the smaller institutions. We need the section input on lots of such issues.

Q What do you see as the role of the Society in the international arena as it enters the 21st century?

A I think it is clear that, today, the APS is effectively an international organization. Close to one-quarter of APS members are residents of foreign countries, and 70% of all manuscript submissions to the APS journals come from outside the US. Our involvement in international affairs also continues to increase through interactions with other national physical societies and efforts to develop research collaborations with scientists in developing countries. Our participation in global affairs will be even more important in the coming decades. Environmental issues, such as global climate change and the development of alternative energy sources, as well as the construction of very large facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider, will require increased cooperation among the scientific communities around the world. I've already been abroad once in part on APS business, and expect to do much more travelling next year.

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