APS News

Trilling Outlines Challenges, Priorities for APS in Time of Change


Target on Trilling

  • Received PhD in 1955 from California Institute of Technology.
  • Assistant and associate professor of physics at the University of Michigan, 1957-1960.
  • Moved to University of California, Berkeley, in 1960, chairing physics department from 1968-1972.
  • Served as director of the Physics Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 1984-1987.
  • Research focus in experimental particle physics, including studies of hadron interactions and resonances, electron-positron annihilation at high energies, and colliding beam experiments.
  • Served on APS Physics Policy Committee, and as chair and divisional councilor for the APS Division of Particles and Fields.

Editor's Note: George Trilling, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and Faculty Physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, assumed the APS presidency on January 1, 2001. 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 challenge facing the Society in 2001 and beyond?

A The APS must continue to pursue its objective of "the advancement and diffusion of the knowledge of physics" in a world in which the rapid progress of information technology leads to new challenges and new opportunities. The pursuit of the above goal requires more than communication among physicists through journals and meetings: it requires communication between the physics community and the public, and between the physics community and government officials. It also requires attention to many other issues, such as science education, international relationships, etc.

Q How is the APS responding to the rapidly changing environment for the publication of scientific journals?

A This was well discussed by [APS Past President] Jim Langer in the August 2000 Physics Today. Our journals, with a 70% input from abroad, are a premier vehicle of communication in physics. Major changes are occurring, among them the move to an all-electronic publication process to reduce costs. The Society has also undertaken the preservation of an archive (traditionally the province of librarians) as we move away from print, along with a move to a different model of pricing subscriptions: a multi-tier system based on expected average level of usage. Finally, this year saw the establishment of on-line virtual journals in specialized areas (biological physics and nanoscale science and technology). The APS journals represent our largest financial activity, and the challenge will be to keep that enterprise financially viable while maintaining quality and accessibility. Fortunately our Editor-in-Chief, Marty Blume, and Treasurer, Tom McIlrath, are doing an outstanding job in this regard.

Q What do you see as the Society's role in terms of public policy issues?

A First and foremost, we need to inform the public and the government of the importance of scientific research, and the necessity to support strongly a broad portfolio of programs through several funding agencies. The nation needs to invest in the research that will sustain health, security and economic prosperity in the future. Even sustaining any one area such as health, requires scientific efforts over a broad range of disciplines including physics. Unfortunately the federal support of physical science in recent years has not been as strong as needed to maintain a healthy research enterprise, and we need to try our best to rectify this situation.

We must also keep reminding government that many of the issues on which it must make decisions (such as missile defense, arms control, environmental concerns, foreign policy issues) require, for their wise resolution, considerable involvement of scientific and technical expertise. Such decisions must be based on sound science. The recent appointment of a Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State is very much a step in the right direction.

Q Physics education remains an important component of the Society's outreach activities. How is the APS expanding its efforts and involvement in this area?

A Promoting the advancement and diffusion of the knowledge of physics includes trying to improve the quality of science education. Many members of our Society have personally involved themselves in this effort through classroom visits, participation in school boards, running in-service teacher workshops at their institutions etc. The APS Education Department has recently focused on an ambitious program aimed at the improvement of elementary and secondary school science education, to respond to two major needs: i) developing enough motivated and well-prepared graduates of our school system to ensure an adequate supply of future scientists to maintain the health of our research effort, and ii) preparing the general public for a world in which science and technology are playing an increasingly important role.

The Education Dept. under Fred Stein, in collaboration with AAPT and AIP, is developing an ambitious new initiative to improve undergraduate college courses and curricula aimed specifically at future K-12 science teachers. If successful, this program may lead not only to better trained and motivated science teachers, but also may stimulate the broadening and modernization of the general undergraduate programs for physics majors.

Q It is also important to reach non-scientists in the general public. What is the APS doing to improve public awareness of physics?

A APS has recently set up the physics outreach web site, physicscentral.com, which I recommend that you explore. My problem is that once I go to it I find it so much fun and spend so much time that I neglect my other duties. Its numerous elements include physics news, people in physics, physics picture of the week, links to other physics sites, physics-related books, answers to physics questions etc. This is a site that should be of interest to both physicists and to non-scientists. Physical Review Focus is also providing physics developments aimed at a broader public than physicists. In collaboration with AIP, APS is sponsoring TV spots on physics-related topics. Finally I should mention that public lectures and Op-Ed pieces on physics-related issues provide a means for individual members to contribute.

Q Major changes are also occurring on a global scale. How is the Society responding to those changes, and why is its presence on the international stage important?

A Science is of course universal, and it is natural that globalization be highly relevant to current APS affairs. About 70% of our journal articles are submitted from abroad, and about 23% of our membership is resident outside the US. We have an active Committee on International Scientific Affairs (CISA), as well as the Forum on International Physics. These have close contact with Irving Lerch, head of the APS Office of International Affairs. CISA has recently made a very useful reassessment of the Society's goals in international relations, and I strongly endorse its eloquent words: "the Society should develop, support, and advance international activities for the benefit of the global physics community, without regard to political or other extraneous factors." This includes strengthening interactions among researchers in different regions, working to change government policies that hinder international collaboration in fundamental research, assisting the organization of international meetings and workshops, working to extend worldwide access to scientific information, strengthening collaboration among physical societies in different regions, and supporting the free expression of human rights everywhere.

An important new trend is that as we seek to build new and more powerful facilities, the capital costs may go beyond what any one country or region may be willing to provide. To keep moving forward, the scientific community needs global scientific planning to develop international arrangements and international financing for the construction and operation of very large facilities, somewhat as was pioneered for the Large Hadron Collider. It is politically difficult to convince governments to contribute to projects in foreign lands, and the APS may have a useful role here.

Q In recent years, the APS has sought to develop a policy of inclusiveness within the physics community. Why do you feel this is important?

A We need to increase our membership to include physicists who are not presently members, especially those in industry. We also need to broaden the physicist pool by encouraging more women and minorities to go into physics. Our ability to influence policy in science or in education is in direct proportion to our numbers. Our committees need the largest possible pool of physicists who are willing to participate. The wisdom of our actions can be enhanced through the input of a larger and more diverse membership. Judy Franz and her colleagues at APS headquarters have recently formed Task Forces on Graduate Student Participation and on Physicists with Disabilities, and I believe that these will help in increasing the participation of these important groups.

Q How do you view the role of the Society's geographical sections?

A I am delighted that a California Section has just been formed. In this last year, our APS Constitution has been changed to give sections official voting representation on the Council even as the overall membership of the Council was being reduced. The sections have an important role helping to promote the participation of smaller colleges and universities and industrial labs in the "advancement and diffusion of the knowledge of physics". They are also well placed to make contact with and inform the local members of Congress and other public officials about the value of research and scientific education, and local school boards about educational issues.

Q Any final thoughts?

A I believe that it is extremely important that our members be well informed about the many activities of their Society. One of the lesser known achievements of the Task Force on the Organization of the Council was to initiate the fairly expeditious communication of Council and Executive Board minutes to all the units. The APS News and the APS Web Site also play a major role here. I would be highly receptive to further ideas on how to improve communication among ourselves.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette