APS News

Broad or Narrow? Members Debate APS Meeting Structure

Editor's note: This is the first of two articles by Jordan Raddick on "centrifugal forces" within the APS. This article concentrates on the dynamics of APS society-wide and divisional meetings. Next month's will look at the dynamics that leads to the formation of new divisions and topical groups.

APS sponsors two general meetings a year, and many of the Society's divisions hold their own separate meetings as well. Outgoing APS President Jim Langer, writing in the Back Page of this month's APS News, fears that the increasing number of meetings threatens to divide the society. "It's not playing to the strength of a broad based membership of APS," he says.

The interplay between the divisional meetings and the society-wide general meetings has often been a source of controversy within the Society. Recently, the controversy has come up again because of Langer's concerns, because of the shrinking size of the April meeting, and because of the increasing tendency of divisions to concentrate their efforts in stand-alone meetings. The issues the meetings create are complex and defy easy solutions.

In the middle decades of the twentieth century, the Society typically met five times a year. The most general meeting came in January, when APS met jointly in New York with the American Association of Physics Teachers. Other APS meetings focused on specific topics in physics — the March meeting focused on condensed matter and materials science, while the April meeting focused on particle and nuclear physics. After World War II, when government funding for physics was high, researchers started several smaller meetings focusing on more specific topics. Attendance at the general meetings, especially the January meeting, dwindled. "It just got smaller and smaller," said Judy Franz, Executive Officer of APS. As early as 1968, the meeting left its traditional New York venue and began traveling about the country. In 1992, the January meeting was discontinued altogether.

Today, some people are afraid that the same fate could befall the April Meeting, which used to be held in Washington every year, but now moves around the country (although this year it was back in the nation's capital). The meeting focuses on particle, nuclear and astrophysics, and it attracts few attendees from other disciplines. While the March meeting typically attracts over 5,000 attendees, the April meeting has recently had fewer than 1,000. "It's smaller than some of the divisional meetings," Franz said. Attendance has been declining partly because government funding for travel expenses has declined in recent years, with particular restrictions affecting DOE grants that fund participants at the April meeting (see APS News, April 2000).

The meeting is now too small to take up an entire convention center. "If you have a convention center, but you don't need a convention center, that creates an expense," Franz said. As a result of this expense, the meeting has been in financial straits three of the past four years. To reduce expenses and to more accurately conform to the size of the gathering, the 2001 meeting was held in a hotel.

In 1998, Franz worked with then-President Andrew Sessler to expand the April meeting and move it to the fall, where it would be spaced farther on the calendar from the March meeting. Franz worked with the Divisions of Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, and Particle Physics to move the meeting, while Sessler urged the Division of Plasma Physics (DPP) to schedule their own fall meeting together with it. "A large number of the senior leadership [of DPP] was in favor of the new arrangement," Franz said. But the divisional membership as a whole voted the idea down. The APS general meeting remained in April, and DPP continues to hold separate meetings.

Separate divisional meetings like DPP's lead Langer to worry about "centrifugal forces" within APS - forces that tend to divide the society into specialized research areas rather than uniting it to represent physics as a whole. Interaction between research areas is "a very practical necessity," Langer said — for example, his own research in condensed matter physics requires knowledge of algorithms studied in computational physics. "The APS has to be an agent for helping those interactions to occur," he said. He worries that if physicists only go to small, specialized meetings, they will lose the benefits of interacting with other research areas.

Of course, there are also benefits to smaller meetings. At smaller meetings, scientists can interact more personally with their friends and colleagues, and that personal interaction can lead to deeper discussion of research problems. "You can really learn a lot," said Shi-Yi Chen, who studies computational fluid dynamics at Johns Hopkins University. Chen works on a committee to organize the divisional meeting for the Division of Computational Physics (DCOMP), which will be held this June in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Over the years, DCOMP's annual meeeting has alternated between being at the March meeting, at a separate meeting, or at an international meeting that is co-sponsored by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physicists (IUPAP). "We don't have a steady tradition," said Bob Peterkin, vice-chair of DCOMP. "We've been almost randomly alternating the last several years." In 2001, the alternation sends the division's annual meeting to a separate meeting. Jim Gubernatis, chair-elect of DCOMP, explained that the division will hold its annual meeting separate from the March meeting, in part because DCOMP represents all areas of physics, not just condensed matter. "At the March meeting, DCOMP tends to lose its identity," he said. "Having a stand-alone meeting gives us more flexibility in planning a meeting to meet the needs of our entire membership."

Gubernatis estimates that about 250 physicists will attend the June meeting. The morning sessions will be plenary sessions that focus on issues of general interest to computational physics. Afternoon sessions will include discipline-specific invited and submitted talks, plus a special session on scientific visualization and a town hall meeeting on the education of a computational physicist. The meeting will small enough to allow all members to attend each plenary session, with no conflicting parallel sessions. "Hopefully the structure and topics reflect our particular needs as a division," Gubernatis said.

'Computational physics' needs as a discipline are unique, Peterkin explained. Most DCOMP members are researchers who use computers to study specific topics in physics, so most DCOMP members are cross-registered with other divisions. At the March meeting, many DCOMP members would be busy attending sessions in their research areas, and would not have time to work with other computational physicists. "[DCOMP divisional meetings] offer expert practitioners and students. the opportunity to interact closely with other expert practitioners," Peterkin said. Peterkin explained that since many members of DCOMP study condensed matter physics, the division will be well-represented at the March meeting; furthermore, computational physicists who do not study condensed matter were unlikely to go to the March meeting anyway. But Langer worries that the absence of DCOMP presentations from the March meeting will deprive other scientists of the opportunity to learn from computational physics.

Individual scientists need to consider the relative merits of attending large and small meetings, both for their own research and for physics in general. As more divisions sponsor their own meetings, scientists have more meetings to choose from. As government funding for travel expenses shrinks, the pressure to decide becomes more immediate. Jim Langer fears that the increased numbers of small meetings will excessively decentralize the APS. His fears underscore the fact that decisions of individual scientists could help shape the future of the society and its divisions.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette