APS News


Science Textbooks Riddled with Errors

Instead of debating philosophical subjects, such as "Religion and Science", I believe we should concentrate our minds and efforts on problems within our large realm of science teaching. A recent study of the science textbooks widely used in middle schools has shown them to be riddled with errors. The study is entitled, "Review of Middle School Physical Science Texts", and is authored by Dr. John L. Hubisz, visiting professor of physics at North Carolina State University. He is a coinvestigator in the 2 1/2 year study, sponsored by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

The full report can be seen on the internet. It is a devastating and disturbing account. While gross errors, such as showing the equator passing through the United States, leap out at the reader, they do not compare with the damage done by discouraging the young students. Experiments that can not possibly work, irrelevant photographs, diagrams and drawings that represent impossible situations, and patently false statements serve only to drive away potential science students. The damage is compounded by lack of response from the publishers, and the inability of the investigators to contact the real authors.

How can we claim respect and acceptance of science, when such pervasive and destructive teaching is allowed? This did not happen overnight - we have not paid attention to this growing problem in our children's schools. Where is the attention of the APS members and directors? We must attack this problem in our own back yard!

David A. Lupfer
Southern Pines, NC

Keyworth Promotes Reagan-Bush-Bush Agenda

I am writing in response to George Keyworth's Back Page article in the February APS News where he promotes the Reagan-Bush-Bush agenda of deploying the SDI system using high power lasers. He claims that only marginal attention has been paid to this technology over the past 20 years. However, the reality is that we have poured over 100 of billion dollars into the Star Wars program and have yet to produce a working system. We still cannot produce a laser or a rocket capable of destroying a missile or a surveillance system that can accurately identify one. In addition, it would be relatively easy to harden a missile against a laser attack: a highly reflective and conductive cladding should be sufficient.

Also (and I am not the first to state this), deployment of an anti-missile system would just induce other countries to build more missiles to overwhelm it. It is especially dangerous to build such a system (at a cost of over $100 billion) when it does not work.

Michael Bleiweiss
Methuen, Massachusetts

Physicists Obsess Over Small Part of Religion

Anantanarayanan Thyagaraja added Lysenkoism to the list of false belief systems that have inflicted suffering on millions. But I must dispute this claim. Lysenkoism by itself never did anything to anyone. Lysenkoism was a movement in biology that was supported by Stalin for political reasons. Lysenkoism was never at any time a driving force behind Communism. Quite the opposite.

It was the Soviet Communist Party that inflicted suffering on millions. They did it because the leadership thought cruelty and suffering were a valid means of building a society that replaced religious belief by scientific reasoning in the name of constructing and maintaining a scientifically engineered socialist economy.

But this suffering was not merely or simply imposed from the top down. It was a fully collective effort, inflicted by citizens upon other citizens. Family, friends and lovers were willing and eager to betray each other to the system. The deep reach and lengthy persistence of Stalinist suffering depended on the ability of one human to see another human suffering and then turn away without guilt or a sense of responsibility for the suffering.

As poet Anna Ahkmatova said about the year 1956 when the surviving prisoners of the Stalinist labor camps began to return home, "The half of Russia who went to the camps came home to face the half of Russia who sent them there." Physicists continually obsess over the small portion of religious thought and discourse that attempts to describe the external world. (Sometimes this reminds me of Napoleon obsessing over the parts of Europe that weren't ruled by France.)

But the majority of religious thought and discourse in the world does not concern the structure of spacetime or behavior of objects in the material world. The majority of religious thought in the world concerns the development of the individual's relationship with self and others. Some questions that religion asks and then tries in various ways to answer are: What should one human do upon seeing the suffering of another human? In what sense is the individual responsible for any part of the suffering of others? Who is guilty and who is innocent? And if there is guilt, what should the punishment be, and then what should happen after the punishment is delivered? And how can such suffering be alleviated? What actions and words and ideas have the power to bring solace to those who suffer?

Science, and especially physics, can never replace those thoughts or those conversations. The only responsibility felt by scientists is the responsibility to be correct about science. The scientific community spends a great deal of time arguing that this is where individual responsibility ends within the context of science.

The problem in the Soviet Union was that they did try to replace that thinking and conversing with what was at the time believed to be logical scientific reasoning. The tragic outcome of this endeavor should tell us something about where science belongs and where it should never try to go.

Patricia Schwarz
Pasadena, California

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette