APS News


A Slip of the Pen

In his insightful column, Inside the Beltway, June 2000 issue of APS News, Michael Lubell suggests that the Republican leaders of Congress will have four choices if faced with a Presidential budget veto - and then goes on to list only three of them. This harmless slip of the pen reminds me of the humorous observation of a former colleague that there are three kinds of physicists: those who can do math and those who can't.

John G Wolodzko
Princeton, New Jersey

"Wrong-Way" Corrigan a Misnomer

Marc Abraham's back-page summary of the top twenty screw-ups for the 20th Century (APS News, May 2000) mentions Douglas Corrigan twice. Neither statement is correct. In spite of the myth which surrounds this story, Corrigan's trans-Atlantic flight to Ireland had been disapproved by the U.S. Department of Commerce as unsafe. In those days, a flight plan consisted of getting permission from a government inspector. So he requested instead to fly from Long Beach, California non-stop to Roosevelt Field in New York where he would re-fuel and supposedly return to Long Beach. This was approved, and he departed. After landing at Roosevelt Field, however, he then proceeded on to his actual destination. To avoid the Department of Commerce inspector, he switched airports to Floyd Bennett Field and took off for Ireland under the scrutiny of a different unsuspecting inspector. Corrigan made the trans-Atlantic flight safely. A fair discussion of this episode can be found in C.R. Roseberry's The Challenging Skies (Doubleday, 1966), Ch. 36, "The Great Lindbergh Derby." If there was a screw-up, it was probably the manner in which the U.S. Government had this man's airplane seized in Ireland so that he could not fly it back to the United States. Contrary to Abraham's remarks, it was the flight plan, not the flight, that "took off (west) for California."

Thomas L. Wilson
NASA, Houston, Texas

Earth Science Can't Ignore Space

In the June 2000 issue of APS News, Robert F. Cahalan objected to the inclusion of subjects about solar dynamics and super nova remnants in the subject of Earth Science and Geophysics. The Earth's environment does not end at 100 km above the surface. Processes that occur in space can have just as dramatic an effect on the Earth's environment as process that occur on the surface. The connection between the Earth and the Sun is very strong, exemplified by the increase in auroral activity in conjunction with the increase in solar activity. The conditions in the Earth's ionosphere are not only directly connected to the conditions in the Earth's magnetosphere, but the ionosphere's very existence is due to the constant bombardment of the Earth by high energy particles from the Sun and other sources outside our solar system. And the very existence of life on Earth is due to the generation of heavy elements by Supernova. While I agree that important physics is occurring in the study of the processes that occur on or near the Earth's surface, one cannot ignore the effect on the Earth's environment caused by the Sun and its celestial neighbors.

Erika Harnett
University of Washington

Bias Against Women in Physics Starts Early

I find the discussion in APS News about discrimination against women in physics astonishingly superficial. One must look back much earlier than university or graduate school to understand the problem. The striking fact that leads in this direction is the enormous preponderance of successful American women in nuclear and particle physics who were born outside the U.S. Maria Mayer, C.S. Wu. Gertrude Scharf-Goldhaber, Fay Ajzenberg-Selove, Noemi Koller, Sulamith Goldhaber, Juliette Lee-Franzini, Sau Lan Wu, Inga Karliner, etc. Where are the American-born women physicists of comparable stature? There may be a few exceptions, but the asymmetry is still striking. Subtle prejudices and sociological factors in American culture seem to already be crucial at high school and perhaps even at elementary school levels. Some of the foreign-born women physicists confirm this. One who immigrated from Europe to America when she was in high school said that she was considered peculiar, because "girls were not supposed to be smart." Another said that the best road to success for a woman physicist would be to start her education in Europe and move to the U.S. at a later point in her career. Girls who wanted to be physicists had a much easier time in Europe until they hit a point in the academic ladder where there was real discrimination. At that point they could do much better in the U.S. It is also true that the ratio of women to men in physics is much higher in France, Italy and Poland than in the U.S. Some of my European colleagues have pointed out that European women seem to do better in Catholic countries than in Protestant ones and immediately present theories for this: Marie Sklodowska Curie as a role model, the importance of the Virgin Mary in the culture, etc. All of this indicates that while discrimination at the top levels may certainly be present, the basic causes for the asymmetry go much deeper.

Harry J. Lipkin
Weizmann Institute of Science; Rehovot, Israel

Drug Czar Nominated for Flying Pig Award

I am growing weary of the never-ending war against psychics. I think there is a more worthy and socially important target for the war against American ignorance and superstition, namely the federal marijuana policy that equates marijuana with heroin as a substance too dangerously addictive to be medically useful, a position that has been officially debunked by the Institute of Medicine report last year. The Flying Pig trophy should go to Bill Clinton's drug czar General Barry McCaffrey for being an aggressive promoter of the supernatural evil powers being attributed to this plant and for having ignored, distorted or lied about every major and minor scientific report or publication issued in the last ten years that has undermined the Clinton administration's position on this issue.

Patricia Schwarz
Pasadena, California

Responses to Goodstein's Revolutionary Views on Physics Education

What is crucially missing from David Goodstein's call for a "revolution in physics education" is incentive. The present system amply rewards professors who seldom teach below the graduate level, if that. Pursuit of research grants and the graduate students to man their projects is by now a deeply embedded way of life. I hesitate to suggest this, but the most direct method of freeing this resource to address Goodstein's agenda, and of re-ordering priorities among faculty at all levels, is to end Federal funding of physics research by teaching faculty. Short of implementing such a drastic solution, elementary thermodynamics tells us the equilibrium state that this system will seek - despite the good intentions of a few errant molecules.

William F. Hall
Thousand Oaks, California

David Goodstein has said things that needed saying and said them very well. The whole concept of physics teaching has been aimed at producing scientists, not people who understand and appreciate physics but are not prepared to practice it. Goodstein feels that the needed transformation in curricula and approach cannot be done by physicists alone. I agree completely. Some kind of collaboration between talented animators, teachers and physicists may have a chance. It is going to require time to change attitudes and money to provide the materials. I hope the NSF in combination with the Department of Education can be persuaded to start such a program. I have felt the same things that Goodstein presents so clearly for at least 25 years, but have not had the platform to have anyone listen. I sincerely hope that Goodstein's words will enlist enough support in our community to start these efforts on their way.

Robert M. Hill
SRI International

I obtained my undergraduate and graduate degrees in the Netherlands. This seems to be an educational background that has several of the components that David Goodstein proposes in his commentary. Everyone in high school was required to have at least a few years of physics and my high school teachers had a PhD or equivalent. In addition, I started out as a physics major from day one, with hardly any courses outside the sciences. This gave me a head start compared to freshmen in the U.S. system. However, after five years as a faculty member in physics at an engineering school, I can also see the disadvantages of the Dutch system, making physics even less accessible at the university level. One of the other differences I see between the two systems is the much larger participation of women in physics in the U.S. At AAPT meetings, I get the impression that a larger fraction of our female graduates end up in educational positions, preparing the next generation of college and university students. As a first step into changing our society, I propose we welcome back these high school and undergraduate institution teachers and show our appreciation for the vital role they play. These people can be invaluable resources to show research university professors how to teach the masses rather than the elite. As a second step, I think it is time that physicists start to take credit for the innovations that make our culture technologically advanced. As an example, we teach E&M theory in our introductory courses, but we don't show how a microwave works and how to determine 'c' from a tray of puffed marshmallows (a high school demo). Physics is everywhere, but you seem to need to be a physicist to notice that. Finally, I think we need to get out of our ivory towers more and talk with ordinary people about what we spend their tax money on. It is arrogant and incorrect to assume that our research and interests cannot be made accessible to the masses. Astronomers have an excellent track record in this respect, and I believe that astronomy is by no means easier than other physics topics. The most difficult aspect of this attitude change will be to learn to listen and take our audience seriously, even if they don't 'know physics.'

Mariet Hofstee
Golden, Colorado

In my mind, the June 2000 "back page" article by David Goodstein is right on the money. In my experience, people are eager to know and understand physics: its conceptual content. They are not eager to learn our tools. These don't need to go together. QED by Feynman is an advanced example of communicating the conceptual content of quantum field theory with a bare bones of math tools. And witness the immense success of A Brief History of Time and Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe. I, for one, totally agree that it is a major failing of our profession that we have not sought to seriously share the fruits of our labors with everyone. As David Goodsein suggests, they can be placed in the curriculum where one now has humanities. It is a major change in human perception to "make your own" the understanding of the way we tick and our evolution from the Big Bang. It could be expected to have a dramatic impact on our relationship with ourselves and each other. A reduction in superstition is only a beginning.

John Irwin
Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada

I couldn't agree more with David Goodstein's opinion in regards to our physics education. I was trained as a physicist but employed by a chemical specialty company (a materials company). Over the years, I feel the same way as Goodstein, that our college physics education produces physicists as the clones of professors. Worse yet, the publication Physics Today, which symbolizes the physics community, is written only for pure physicists such as the college professors. The articles are nearly unreadable for a person who is foreign to the field. They forget that physics is something that everybody has to deal with everyday. In contrast, the American Chemical Society does a much better job in terms of publicizing themselves. In their front door publication, Chemical & Engineering News, the articles are more public friendly. One does not need special training to follow the content.

Chih Chang
Hartsdale, New York

Is Hydrogen Hazardous? Two Views

I was both pleased and dismayed to see the little article in the July 2000 APS News concerning the role of hydrogen in the Hindenburg explosion. I am pleased because the article makes it clear that the material the ship was made of burned well without need for an accelerant (obvious to most people familiar with fire that have watched the video). I am dismayed because although hydrogen was not the only culprit in the Hindenburg disaster it was a major player. This is not made clear in the article. Hydrogen is a wonderful fuel. It has the highest energy density of all chemical fuels. It is not significantly more dangerous than gasoline if handled properly, but it is VERY HAZARDOUS!! I regularly do demonstrations of hydrogen explosions in the introductory chemistry courses I teach. Balloons that have just hydrogen in them do not burn with the classic hot blue flame, but with a yellow flame because they are oxygen starved and do not get as hot. Thus the arguments about the amount of visible light emitted do not exonerate the hydrogen. Hydrogen was definitely a fuel for the fire, but because of the amount in the dirigible much of it had to mix with the air before there was oxygen available for combustion. It is also likely that a hydrogen leak into a region where there was a spark and some oxygen started the fire.

Jonathan Gutow
University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh

Your welcome July correction could even have been headlined "Hydrogen Fire Aboard Hindenburg Probably Killed Nobody." Dr. Addison Bain's splendid research indicates that 35 people - 22 of 61 crew and 13 of 36 passengers - were killed by a diesel-oil-and-canopy fire, plus one fatality on the ground. (Perhaps some jumping out might also have occurred.) However, as the clear, low-emissivity hydrogen flames swirled above the flaming canopy, 41 people rode the dirigible to earth and survived. The fire in the cotton canopy substrate coated with an aluminized cellulose acetate butyrate dopant - indeed a cousin to rocket fuel - was almost certainly triggered by electrostatic discharge as the craft was improperly flown near a thunderstorm. The hydrogen then contributed to the conflagration, but its combustion probably didn't kill anyone, and the envelope would almost certainly have ignited and burned without it. Nonetheless, the persistent Hindenburg mythology remains an obstacle to public understanding that hydrogen, while hazardous like any fuel, can be substantially safer than gasoline - mainly because it's so buoyant, diffusive, and largely free of radiant heat than can cause burns at a distance.

Amory B. Lovins
Rocky Mountain Institute

Y2K Bug Really a Screw-Up

Hugh Porter's assertion that "most 'turn-of-the-century readers' would agree that (the Y2K computer bug) didn't really have any effect at all" is specious. It cost the world $500 billion to successfully fix this bug that computer scientists have known about since the 1960s because it wasn't seriously addressed until the 1990s. It deserves to be listed among the "Top Twenty Technological Screw-ups of the 20th Century."

Richard Klein
Falls Church, Virginia

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette