APS News

Letters

Explosive Arithmetic

Your third "Physics Product Warning" (APS News, February 2000) said that the product "contains the energy equivalent of 85 million tons of TNT per net ounce of weight."

I have two problems with this:

  1. Einstein's equation is for the equivalence of mass and energy, not weight and energy.
  2. When I do the arithmetic, I get 21 thousand tons of TNT per gram or 607 thousand tons of TNT per ounce, not "85 million tons." (1)

Have I done the arithmetic correctly?

Albert A. Bartlett
University of Colorado, Boulder


Sympathy for Wen Ho Lee is Misplaced

While I agree the poor treatment of Wen Ho Lee (APS News, April 2000) in prison seems out of proportion to his alleged crimes, I am made highly uncomfortable by the protestations from our society and others about his treatment. Have we lost a sense of perspective here? Lee didn't just happen to be at a weapons laboratory; he was actually contributing to the design and development of weapons of mass destruction - objects whose purpose in use is to destroy the lives of millions of people. In that context, Lee's prison conditions seem trivial. Those who work in our country's armed forces understand that, in the line of duty, bad things can happen - among other things they can be mistaken for the enemy, and hit by "friendly fire." Perhaps that is what has happened here. If Lee's imprisonment is causing recruitment difficulties at the weapons laboratories, surely this is only because of its effect as a reminder of what those laboratories are really intended for.

Newt Gingrich has called upon scientists to take more seriously their responsibilities as citizens. Our reaction to this case seems to only provide more evidence of how divorced our priorities are from real civic responsibility. Do we think the law that governs and regulates the communities and country where we have such freedom to work should have no application to us?

Arthur Smith
Selden, New York


Earth Science Not Given Its Due

The supplement to the April 2000 edition of APS News entitled "Physics News in 1999" shows a poor understanding of the category "Earth Science, Geophysics." In that section are listed five items that are supposed to be important stories in that category. But two of these, "coronal mass ejections" and solar wind disappearance, relate to solar physics, not earth science, and a third on supernova material found in South Pacific, has to do mostly with astrophysics.

Earth science is a separate discipline from solar physics or astrophysics. There were many important news events in 1999 in earth science. For example, the first satellite rain radar flew on TRMM, and the Landsat 7 satellite launched on 15 April, 1999, began a global dataset of the Earth's surface of unprecedented detail and global coverage. Both TRMM and Landsat inaugurated EOS, the "Earth Observing System," a comprehensive array of satellites, continuing with 1999 launches of QuikScat for measuring winds, ACRIMSAT to measure solar irradiance, and the 18 December 1999 launch of Terra, the flagship satellite of EOS, that gives three-dimensional information on clouds, aerosols, and Earth's radiative energy distribution.

Thus, 1999 was a watershed year for earth science, and you missed an important opportunity to report it, replacing major earth science stories with ones that, important though they are, have no direct bearing on observations of the Earth.

Robert F. Cahalan
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center


Park Goes Off the Deep End

This letter concerns your front page article ".March Meeting Madness" especially in regard to the Robert Park spinoff on this theme on page 3 (APS News, March 2000). Park is to be congratulated for the courage he has shown in taking on pseudoscience and the paranormal. But in one important respect he has gone off the deep end and needs to "get it right" himself. Things get pretty shaky when he claims expertise in fields he knows very little about.

For example, his objections to the L5 society and the colonization of space. He would have to base that claim on the certain knowledge that there will never be a cheap way to get into orbit. But many alternative technologies already exist for lowering the cost of space travel. Does he know for sure that none of this can work?

On cold fusion there are some fine points that Park probably isn't aware of. Certainly the Pons and Fleischman results are phony. But in the late 1980s there were WKB quantum mechanical studies done of the probability of deuterium tunneling in a metallic lattice. The end result was that the hamiltonian gave too high a potential barrier for significant tunneling and therefore fusion. But it didn't look all that impossible to raise the tunneling probability to the required levels. One wonders whether high pressure or temperature would do it. Is Park an expert on these WKB studies and how to interpret them, too?

People like Park are creating an atmosphere of intolerance to new ideas such as this. He is an advocate of what you might call "negative science;" science that results in new and non-establishment challenges to the mainstream are being summarily and superficially dismissed without even an attempt to determine whether they are right or not. From my perspective both "negative" science and pseudoscience are equally disreputable.

Who really are the inmates in this asylum? I'm having a difficult time distinguishing the staff and the patients these days.

Joel Maker
Huntsville, Alabama


Newt Gingrich Corrected

I think Mr. Gingrich (March 2000 APS News) has his WWII history a little wrong. The Battle of the Atlantic was finally won by about May 1943, with short wave radar and long range aircraft each being a much more significant contribution to victory than sonar.

Walter Baker
Hartsdale, New York


Physics Can Lead to Divine Truth

I am deeply disappointed in the opinion piece by David Markowitz (APS News, March 2000), in two key ways. First, it is clear that Markowitz knows nothing about the role of women in the Catholic Church. What a shame for a distinguished educator to make such statements out of ignorance. Were he to do that in physics, he would lose all respect.

Second is the statement that "I think reference to God in this enlightened age is largely a ploy." I am truly sorry if Markowitz has known only religious hypocrites. Shame on his hubris to assert that we who search to know something about our God are charlatans, and that the only way to truth is through physics. This narrowness of thinking is considerably less than enlightenment, and an offense to many who find faith another way to truth. We are more than mere physical beings. While faith can lead to truth, I generally don't depend on my faith in God to lead me to truths in physics; but I do revel in physics leading me to still more truths about God.

David W. Knoble
Tupelo, Mississippi


"What Is Science" Statement Ignores Religious Element

The 2 April 1989 issue of the London Sunday newspaper The Observer published an article by Michael Ignatief under the heading "Defenders of (Salman) Rushdie (are) Tied Up in Knots." The explanation ran briefly as follows: The Islamic (and other religious) fundamentalists have a dogma, and they are absolutely certain about their dogma. On the other hand, the western intellectuals have a so-called "philosophy," but they are not even certain about their own "philosophy." Therefore, the western intellectuals cannot really believe in whatever they say. For the same reason, Clifford Longley, the then religious affairs correspondent of the London daily The Times, could boldly claim that the scientific "philosophy" of the modern secular western world is now dead, and he could thus carry out, with evident delight, the "Inquest on the Enlightenment" (The Times, 25 March 1989).

I note that the article on the APS Council approval of the revised "What is Science?" statement (APS News, January 2000) does not address the above objection. It thus regrettably fails to convince the significant proportion of Americans who are religious (mostly Christian) fundamentalists.

Theo Theocharis
London, England


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