APS News

Brinkman Outlines Priorities, Challenges for APS in 2002

Editor's Note: Incoming APS President William Brinkman, retired vice president of research at Bell Laboratories/Lucent Technologies, assumed leadership of the Society on January 1st, succeeding George Trilling (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory). In the following interview, he offers APS News his thoughts on the priorities and challenges facing the APS in the coming year.

William Brinkman
William Brinkman
Q: You've served for the last two years as APS vice president and president-elect, and hence are familiar with the Society's current slate of activities. What do you view as the top priorities for the APS in the coming year?

A: The primary role of the APS is organizing the publications and the meetings. The APS operating officers have done an excellent job over the last few years in bringing the APS journals online and in completing the PROLA archives (see APS News, August/September 2001). There are now virtual journals coming into existence that make it easy to follow a specific subject. In addition, the cross-linking of references makes searching the literature much faster and more efficient. The APS deserves a lot of credit for leading in this transition but we must continue to think through the impact of new technology on our publications.

In the education arena, the new PhysTEC program spearheaded by Fred Stein is going to be a major thrust this year, as we explore the possibility of bringing together education departments and physics departments to create a better curriculum and better-trained science teachers for K-12. As an effort to serve the nation, the APS-sponsored study on national missile defense (see APS News, January, March and October, 2001), focusing on boost-phase intercept technology, is a very important activity in terms of helping people understand what is possible in missile defense. Prior studies, such as that on Directed Energy Weapons, have left a permanent mark on national defense policy.

Q: What are the predominant challenges?

A: In our publications, we need to rethink the role of refereeing for the Physical Review and Physical Review Letters. Before the internet, the publication of a paper was sufficiently expensive that it was important to make sure whatever was published was of high quality. Today, the cost of putting a paper on the web is very small so ensuring the quality is not as important as it was. Almost every physicist I talk to uses the Los Alamos preprint site and doesn't mind the fact that the papers on it are not refereed. We haven't responded to the implicit message contained in the success of this site. What is the proper role of refereeing? Many people think the refereeing process is vital to maintaining the quality of our journals; others think it could be done away with entirely. Still others think that a new process should be put in place where expert opinion is used to guide people to the important papers on the subject. We need to have an open debate on this issue in the coming year.

Given the rapid changes that are already occurring, we're wrestling with the question of how to maintain our journal revenues in an online world. The journals are growing at between 3.5-4% per year, and costs continue to rise. We must find a way to continue the revenues that traditionally came from libraries for paper versions of our journals. We are gradually moving to a use-based charging scheme and perhaps that is the sensible answer.

There has also been some concern expressed about the organization of meetings, namely that they do not seem to encourage cross-fertilization between subfields. But at the same time, the divisions and topical groups have made their own decisions about how they want to meet, and the Society has responded to the desires of the people involved. I do not know how to solve this conflict.

Q: There has been much talk in recent years of the end of the dominance of physics among the sciences in favor of biology, bolstered by declining numbers of students and federal funding. How do you view the situation?

A: The question often arises as to whether physics is in some sort of malaise. The number of students has decreased and to many it seems like a mature field with less relevance to modern society than it has in the past. I think this is true to some extent. Many of the problems we're examining today are not going to affect individual human lives directly: the anisotropy of the black body radiation, neutrino oscillations, organic single crystals. But they are all intellectually fascinating and one never knows. We should recognize that while some problems, such as the discovery of the transistor or understanding the difference between a metal and an insulator, were particularly closely tied to industrial progress, others more remotely connected to products may provide the breakthroughs for the future. We should be proud of what we are doing and contributing, and share the excitement when we find new things.

I also believe that physics training teaches one to question answers and assumptions and that physicists tend to do well in a broad range of jobs using their strong understanding of the basic physics.

Certainly funding for physics research has been on the decline. The APS has worked very hard to create a Washington office that effectively addresses this issue. The staff there has done an excellent job of educating APS members about what's going on in Washington and recruiting them to write their Congressional representatives to alert them to important issues in science funding. The Washington office has also established itself as a reliable source of information for many members of Congress. The APS should continue to be involved in public affairs issues related to the concerns of our members, particularly the health of the physics research enterprise. We're trying to expand our activities in this area through our involvement in an advocacy organization called ASTRA, which is focused on support for the physical sciences.

Q: Obviously the tragic events of September 11, 2001, have had a tremendous impact on the entire country. How is the APS responding to the current national need?

A: We're trying to determine the proper response to the anti-terrorism efforts of the US government. There could be areas where the APS and other professional scientific organizations can help, whether it's creating lists of experts or conducting a study centered around some aspect of terrorism. Basically, we need to determine whether there's some physics-related issues that could be studied that would help the nation in its fight against terrorism.

In a more immediate response to the tragedy, we are offering our members the opportunity to contribute to a new charitable fund that is establishing a scholarship fund for the survivors specifically directed towards education in science and technology (see page 7).

Q: In recent years the APS has sought to better address the needs of its industrially employed members through the formation of the highly successful Forum in Industrial and Applied Physics. Coming from an industrial perspective yourself, why is this important, and how might the APS continue its outreach efforts?

A: A very large fraction of physicists are employed in industry today, and work on many different things. They are a large percentage of the membership of the APS. Many are working at jobs that are not closely related to physics research, but still find it interesting to hear about the latest results. So it's very important for the APS to continue to reach out to them. FIAP does this well.

Q: One of the strengths of the APS is the dedication of its many volunteers, including members of the presidential line. Why do busy scientists such as yourself devote so much time and energy to furthering the Society's objectives and activities?

A: All of us feel some social obligation, as part of the physics community, to participate in the activities of the APS. We find it interesting to associate with our colleagues in the Society and therefore we do not mind doing voluntary work. You get to meet a broader spectrum of physicists than you might otherwise, and to learn what they do not just in physics research, but in other activities that are related to it. So it provides a broadening of perspective and I think people like myself enjoy that aspect of volunteerism.

Brinkman at a Glance

  • Received PhD in physics from University of Missouri in 1965.
  • Joined Bell Laboratories in 1966 after one year as an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at Oxford University.
  • After serving in various positions, became vice president of research in 2000; retired in September of last year. Previously, responsibility for directing research in physical sciences, optoelectronic and electronic devices, and fiber optics.
  • Personal research in theoretical condensed matter physics, including theory of spin fluctuations in metals, metal-insulator transitions and superfluidity in He3.
  • Recipient of the 1994 George E. Pake Prize

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette