APS News


Inflation or Flatulence?

In response to A.G. Jackson's letter in APS News (June 2001) there already exists a widely accepted, but embarrassing prefix, "peta-". To physicists, it denotes a factor of 1015, but to many Europeans it translates more as flatulence than inflation. For instance, the amount of methane in Earth's atmosphere is approximately 4.85x1015 grams, or 4.85 petagrams. That's enough to enhance the greenhouse effect, which seems to raise a big stink politically between us and our friends overseas.
Loren Booda
Arlington, Virginia

Educate Teachers First

The Back Page comments by Rep. Holt (June 2001 APS News) correctly identified the problem [science illiteracy] but missed the mark on the solution. Yes we need competent math and science teachers, but why don't we have them? The reason is that teachers come out of our Nation's Colleges of Education where they are taught methodology but virtually no content. Without properly educating the teachers we cannot hope to educate the students.
Michael Gold
University of New Mexico

Defending Oppie

This is with regard to the feature article on Oppenheimer in the June 2001 issue of APS News. The description of H. D. Smythe as a congressman at the time of Oppenheimer's memorial service would surely have brought a broad smile to his face. Smythe received many honors during his life but was never an elected official except as President of the American Physical Society in 1957. During the period of interest Smythe was serving as the United States Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. He was appointed to this position by President Kennedy in 1961. Smythe's obituary appears in the May, 1989 issue of Physics Today, page 96.
Val L. Fitch
Princeton University

I initially enjoyed the article about the revoking of Oppenheimer's security clearance but it left me with a bitter aftertaste. The APS News was protecting the identity of his despicable enemies. Even after an evocative quote such as "[Oppenheimer's surveillance] was 'supplemented by enthusiastic amateur help from powerful personal enemies", there are no hints given.
Eugen Tarnow
Avalon Business Systems

Editor's Note: APS News received several letters in response to the historical column on Oppenheimer's security hearings. We ruefully acknowledge the misidentification of Smythe as a Congressman. These articles are intended to briefly highlight key milestones in physics history, not to promote specific political agendas. Space limitations often prevent the inclusion of in-depth detail. Readers are encouraged to use the listed references for further reading to explore such topics in greater depth. The complete transcript of the Oppenheimer security hearings can be found online at [http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/abomb/oppmenu.html].

No Degree for Kelvin

In the legend to the figure accompanying the article "New CMB Measurements Further Support Inflationary Universe" (APS News, June 2001), it is said, "The maps depict tiny deviations, on the order of one hundred thousandth of one degree, in the otherwise uniform 2.73 degree Kelvin background."

Since the adoption of the International System of units (SI) in 1960 by the 11th General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM), it has been recommended by International Committees (CGPM, IUPAP, IUPAC, ISO, e.g.) that the word "degree" not be used for temperatures on the Kelvin scale, temperatures on that scale to be referred to simply as kelvins.

If the terminology in the article mentioned above were to follow the International Recommendation, the article would read, "on the order of one hundred thousandth of a kelvin, in the otherwise uniform 2.73 kelvins background." Publications of APS should follow International Recommendations on notation and terminology.
Ralph J. Tykodi
S.Dartmouth, Massachusetts

In the Beginning...

In the June issue, you have a box on p. 6 that shows Mike Turner pondering the future of the universe together with a list of the top 11 questions at the Physics/Astronomy Interface. The sixth question asks, "How did the universe begin?" This formulation of the fundamental cosmological question is not neutral, and introduces a bias into the investigation. A more neutral formulation is, "Did the universe have a beginning or has it always existed?" This latter formulation can serve to generate a broader range of ideas with which to tackle some of the other questions, particularly, space-time dimensionality, nature of the dark energy, and proton stability.
Frank R. Tangherlini
San Diego, California

Source of Cat-Powered Monorail Revealed!

Regarding your Zero Gravity article "An alternate theory for perpetual motion" (APS News, October 2000), I can reveal the source of the theory: it was me. While writing up my PhD three years ago (and I can't stress strongly enough that it's in an entirely unrelated branch of engineering) I received the first part of the article, the theory of cat levitation using buttered toast, by email from a friend. The chicken tikka masala idea was thought up in five minutes, embellished with a few scientific words and a formula, and sent back to my friend, who has obviously sent it on.

Sadly, I can confirm that, to the best of my knowledge, there was no magazine contest, but I think I may have stood a pretty good chance of winning.

Requests for funding for further research and (you never know) construction of a prototype have proved unsuccessful so far. I have, in any case, abandoned the idea on economic grounds. While I am sure the cat powered monorail would be both cheap and environmentally sound, the resources needed would deprive the United Kingdom of its many curry chefs, making our national dish (and my staple diet) ridiculously expensive.

I was absolutely stunned when I saw my theory resurface for the first time on an Internet message board this morning, and a subsequent search revealed that it is posted on at least 20 sites, including yours, in the UK, USA and Australia.
Julian Griffiths
Manchester, UK

Science Testing Adds to Teachers' Burdens

The Council Statement on including science in educational assessment (APS News, June 2001) is certainly well-meaning in drawing attention to the importance of science in school curricula. It also hints at what Helen Quinn makes specific, that testing drives the curriculum. This situation gives short shrift not only to science, but also to all subjects other than the focus of the tests. Those subjects can be social sciences, arts, humanities and even physical education. In fact, good math practices and reading for interest are also downgraded in many instances.

In the last year, aside from my usual physics research, I have been involved in physics education research in elementary schools. I see the remarkable learning that occurs when dedicated teachers are given the opportunity to explore physics intelligently with their young students. Such opportunities are being threatened by state mandated testing that presumes to include science while emphasizing facts. And now Bush's government is requiring more assessment, particularly of reading and math.

It is unfortunate that the APS and other scholarly societies did not speak out against this standardized testing fever before it swept through Congress. The inclusion of science testing in an essentially wrong-headed program may only add to the burden that is already decelerating educational progress.
Gary R. Goldstein
Tufts University

A Reform Agenda for APS Meetings

James Langer's concern about the decline of our general meetings (The Back Page, APS News, May 2001) is a courageous effort to address a problem that has actually been in the making since 1966, when the Society surrendered its traditional character of being one big society in favor of being a federation of assorted specialists.

That profound change altered the character of the Society in many ways. The decline in attendance and interest of our general meetings began most conspicuously with what used to be the grand AAPT-APS Joint Meeting, held annually in January in New York City, which has since long faded into oblivion. Langer's recipe for reform is to convene larger meetings. But why should that work, when it is the general meetings that have been persistently moribund? If divisions meet concurrently, will that mean genuine scientific interaction among them?

Rather than prescribe for the ailing patient, I suggest that the patients be given a chance to diagnose their own condition and propose their own remedies. I strongly suggest that at the next general meeting, the problem of general meetings themselves be open for discussion with a series of invited and contributed papers.
Lawrence Cranberg
Austin, Texas

Article Rejection Tied to SSC Demise

The June 2001 issue of APS News summarizes the views of four speakers on why the SSC project was terminated. I would like to add a view related to that of Goldston and Schopper. Some time ago I wrote an article to explain on a solid technical level, but without reference to field theory, the important ideas of gauge theory and the Standard Model. The prerequisite is only a decent understanding of the Schr”dinger Equation and a willingness to learn a very narrow part of group theory and Lie algebra, all self contained in my very short article. In the article I assert that 95% of all living physicists don't understand at all the Standard Model and that the majority of the physics faculty at leading universities also don't understand it. I have no proof those statements are accurate except that nobody has ever challenged them. When my article was refused by the American Journal of Physics the accompanying letter, written by a theorist, acknowledged that the paper was correct if "idiosyncratic" but said there is no use trying to get the majority of physicists to understand the basic ideas of modern particle theory because "the geometric and algebraic imagination that is needed to assimilate these ideas is hard and hence takes time to absorb". If the majority of members of the American Physical Society have little interest in basic understanding of modern particle physics, why should the man in the street underwrite the next multi-billion-dollar SSC project?
Henry R. Lewis
Boston, Massachusetts

Women in Science, or Women Scientists?

As a retired woman physicist, I was very interested in Howard Georgi's Back Page article in the January 2000 APS News and the subsequent letters in response. While I agree with Georgi that much progress has been made by women in science in the last 25 years, the situation then was so bad that any reasonable improvement could easily be qualified as "much progress." The situation is still not entirely satisfactory, as one woman graduate student pointed out in response to Georgi's article. She finds the repeated question, "Why are there so few women in physics?" difficult to bear, and like many other young women scientists, considers affirmative action an insult to women's abilities.

The situation differs from one country to another, but the final result is the same: in the highest rungs of the ladder, the ratio of women to men physicists is extremely small. In North America, I think the discrimination process that culminates in this situation begins very early in a girl's life, and is much more cultural than gender related.

Georgi addresses the problem mostly at its latest stage, but provides useful insight into the thinking processes of hiring committees. He establishes five hiring criteria, of which the second seems the most important to me: "Do not define the area of search too narrowly." In order for the ratio of women to men PhD physicists to increase, it will be necessary to follow this principle. Physics will be much more appealing to young women if they see several women physicists on the staff of university departments. In addition to having useful role models, they will also be more inclined to consider the field as a viable career option.

I have some reservations about Georgi's fourth criterion: "Ask your informants to list the best minorities and women in the field, even if they do not rate them as highly as the top men." Nevertheless, this criterion might still be necessary, not because women physicists aren't as good as the men, but because hiring committees are still mostly male. Every man will see a woman applicant through his cultural prejudice, which, no matter how slight, will add up in a collective final decision that will usually be biased in favor of a man.

As a woman physicist who has suffered from unemployment and under-employment, I would like to say that if anyone is serious about welcoming women in physics, the first way to prove it is by hiring those women who are now ready to enter the physics job market, and by promoting equitably experienced women physicists. With the cycle thus completed, the wheel of change will be able to start turning. And as a sign of this change the designation "women in science" so often seen might one day evolve into "women scientists."
Luce Gauthier
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Feynman's Large Numbers

The recent flurry of activity in APS News (April 2001; June 2001) concerning large numbers was interesting and amusing. It reminded me of my graduate school days at CalTech, when Richard Feynman was teaching senior/graduate mathematical physics around 1964.

He enjoyed describing a contest in which the object was to describe or define the largest number on a 3x5 card using a standard typewriter (this means about 1000 characters, so if one just writes out 9999. the number would be about 101000). After debating with himself the merits of writing 10999. or 1000999., etc., he described the hair raiser function [H(N)], which is defined by H(1)=1, H(2)=22, H(3)=3x, where x=33=27, and so on. H(4) would be 4 to the (4 to the (4 to the 4)), and evaluating H(5) leads to the realm of large numbers.

Feynman's solution was to define H(N) via H(1), H(2), and H(3) on half the card, and then his large number was H(999...) = H(10500), as only 500 characters remained. Of course, anyone who knew Feynman also knows that his fun came from showing us how to evaluate H(4) and H(5) on a blackboard without use of a slide rule (handheld calculators didn't appear until after 1970).

In light of the above, I suggest that Feynman's Hair Raiser Function takes precedence over Ottinger's "Gufa" numbers or Cockburn's "Fuga" numbers.
Lorin S. Vant Hull
Houston, Texas

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