APS News

Centrifugal Forces Spawn New APS Units

Editor's note: This is the second of two articles by Jordan Raddick focusing on centrifugal tendencies within APS and the physics community. Last month's article dealt with issues related to meetings; this article concerns the formation of new APS units.

In last month's Back Page article of APS News, outgoing President James S. Langer wrote about "centrifugal forces" within the Society. He worried that APS was becoming decentralized. In the past five years, four new topical groups have formed, and some physicists have talked about forming even more in the future. The groups' organizers say that the new groups offer a home for research areas not adequately represented within the present structure of APS, or for emerging research that requires interdisciplinary collaboration. Judy Franz, APS Executive Officer, thinks new topical groups can bring added vitality to APS if they reach outward into new areas and attract new members to APS.

Last November, about 50 physicists interested in the strong interactions gathered on the outer banks of North Carolina for a workshop called Key Issues in Hadron Physics. The workshop set research goals for the community and created a list of research projects and recommendations to distribute to other physicists. On the meeting's day off, Eric Swanson, of the University of Pittsburgh, asked participants to hold a special session discussing how to increase hadron physics's visibility in the physics community at large. "[The community] needs an identity," Swanson said. Today, with nuclear physicists concentrating on the atomic nucleus and particle physics pushing on to higher-energy phenomena such as the Higgs particle, "hadronic physics. should have split off to form its own niche in physics. It hasn't done that yet," Swanson said. Swanson said that the community sometimes has difficulty presenting its case to funding agencies. "Because we don't have a niche, people tend to think that we don't exist," he said.

At the conference, attendees decided that to bring visibility to their field, they should form a new APS topical group in Hadron Physics. "A topical group seemed like the easiest way to achieve our goals without making a lot of people upset," Swanson said. Swanson, along with Alex Dzierba of Indiana University and Bill Zajc of Columbia, formed an ad hoc committee to examine forming a topical group.

According to the Article VIII of the APS constitution, a proposal for a new topical group begins when at least 200 APS members petition the APS council. The council then votes on whether to approve the group. The hadron physics topical group committee set up a web page (http://fafnir.phyast.pitt.edu/topical/) with a petition and has collected over 200 signatures.

When the group's organizers approached the Division of Nuclear Physics (DNP), the leaders of DNP were skeptical for many of the reasons that Langer brought up in his back page. "Initially, I was against it, because it looked to me like it would be an effort that would essentially balkanize the nuclear physics program, which is a very diverse program," said Joel Moss of Los Alamos National Laboratories, Chair of DNP.

At the same time, physicists who study soft condensed matter, i.e., condensed matter in liquid or gaseous states, have felt similarly squeezed between the Division of Condensed Matter (DCMP) and the Division of Fluid Dynamics (DFD). Some soft condensed matter scientists have talked about forming a new topical group. "I would not be enthusiastic about it," said Guenter Ahlers, a physicist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who studies nonlinear flow in fluids. Ahlers said that the study of soft condensed matter is in part represented by the topical group on Statistical and Nonlinear Physics (GSNP), which he chaired a couple of years ago, and that other parts have a strong overlap with DCMP. These relationships to existing units should adequately serve the needs of the soft condensed-matter community of the GSNP and DCMP suitably broaden their scope. "I think the proliferation of new units is not a good idea," he said. "It tends to balkanize the physics effort."

Since 1995, the society has added four new topical groups in the areas of gravitation, magnetism and its applications, statistical and nonlinear physics, and plasma astrophysics. These groups generally formed when scientists thought that their research area was either being overlooked by other APS units, or was an interdisciplinary area that overlapped several other APS units. The leadership of most of these groups feels that the groups have been successful in meeting their goals.

The Topical Group in Magnetism and its Applications was founded in 1996 in response to what many researchers saw as a lack of attention to magnetism. Magnetism has no associated journal, and not even an undergraduate physics text. "It's kind of an afterthought," said Larry Bennett of George Washington University, the group's past chair. The group works closely with, and draws most of its membership from, the Divisions of Condensed Matter and Materials Physics (DMP), but is working hard to attract new APS members.

The Topical Group on Statistical and Nonlinear Physics began in 1996, and was founded by several researchers, including Katepalli Sreenivasan of Yale University, the group's first chair. It was started to emphasize the study of systems far from thermodynamic equilibrium, such as fluid flows that are driven hard, soft matter such as polymers and gels, and biological matter such as membranes and cells. "The intersection of dynamics, structure and statistical physics was new in many ways, in the tools of analysis as well as physics, and it needed some impetus to go," Sreenivasan said. The group draws most of its membership from DCMP and DFD. In the future, Sreenivasan wants the group to help link graduate students in the group's research areas with jobs in industry and academia. The most recent topical group is Plasma Astrophysics, founded in 1998 to study plasmas in astrophysical settings. "There's really no organization that represents the common overlaps of these areas," said Jim Chen of the Naval Research Laboratory, the group's current chair. The group tries to apply knowledge of plasma physics gained from laboratory experiments, theoretical studies, and space plasmas in the Solar System to new discoveries from astrophysics, as well as to publicize astrophysical discoveries in the plasma physics community. "We try to enhance the awareness that these communities have for each other," Chen said. The group has grown every year, although it is still the smallest topical group in the society. "I think it works better every year," Chen said, "but it's only been three years."

The groups formed in the past few years have worked closely with the divisions from which they drew most of their membership. Langer is satisfied with the way the topical groups are functioning. New topical groups will not decentralize the society "as long as they work together and cooperate," he said.

The organizers of the proposed hadron physics topical group are working with DNP to ensure that their plans and goals will mesh. The topical group drafted a statement saying the group would work closely with DNP in planning events. Moss, who had worried that the topical group could weaken DNP, said, "I think we've actually reached a compromise. The organizers of the hadron topical group agree to work within the umbrella of DNP to make sure it isn't really a splinter group, but it is clearly within DNP, which is where I think it belongs."

The proposed topical group is being advertised in the newsletters of both DNP and the Division of Particles and Fields (DPF). "We're certainly a subset of both those communities," said Dzierba. Moss estimates that, depending on how the new topical group is defined, as many as a 25% of the membership of DNP might be interested in joining. "A group like this would in fact have a big draw from both the DPF and the DNP," Dzierba said. "We certainly don't want to create any ill will by starting this topical group."

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