APS News


Crotchety but Saintly

My wife tells me that as I get older I am becoming more crotchety. This episode is stimulated (and justified) by Alan Chodos's Viewpoint piece in the [APS News, February 2002], which castigates some of the science press for their treatment of the un-discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN. I would remind him that "As you sow ye are like to reap". The "discovery" was of marginal statistical significance and the statistical analysis was understandable to all but its creators. But, it received a big play in the press and became the basis of many stories on the agony of the decision to shut down LEP so as to keep the LHC on schedule.

We in the physics world do sometimes make big claims based on marginal data (g-2 of the muon is another recent example), though we are saintly compared to the biomedical community. We should be grateful that the press treats un-discoveries as gently as it does.

Burton Richter
Stanford, California

Vacuous Scapegoating Harmful to Peace

I found Professor Hoodbhoy's opinion piece [APS News, February 2002] to be, for the most part, a thoughtful discussion of nuclear proliferation issues. He lost me, however, when urged the United States to engage "with those it grievously harms" without citing specific examples. Certainly neither Pakistan nor the United States have always acted above reproach in the international arena, but vacuous scapegoating does nothing to further the cause of peace.

David Winchell
Upton, New York

Where Tornadoes Really Come From

I presume that Alan Cummings letter about tornadoes in the [APS News, January 2002] was tongue in cheek. However, the actual cause of tornadoes is not well known. The fact is that, pace Cummings, the Coriolis effect does not act upon vortices to any appreciable extent. What it does do is cause objects in motion (including air molecules) to deviate to the right (in the northern hemisphere). Cyclonic flow is caused by this deviation of air flowing in to fill a low pressure area, leading to the familiar counter-clockwise rotation.

The low pressure area which leads to tornadoes comes from rising air currents, in which the air pressure is lowered by the Bernoulli effect. These rising currents occur in unstable atmospheres (temperature gradient greater than the abiabatic lapse rate, so called, of about 7K/km). When the relative humidity is sufficiently high, water vapor condenses as the air rises, and clouds are formed, so that tornadoes are usually associated with thunderstorms. However, vortices similar to tornadoes can also form in dry air, and are usually referred to as "dust devils."

Whenever the unstable air continues past the freezing level, thunderstorms are likely since the electrical charges responsible for the lightening are formed from friction of ice crystals in the cloud. During my pilot days I discovered this to my dismay while flying the western US where, due to the high elevation, even the bases of ordinary cumulus clouds, even in the summer, may well be above the freezing level. So in the West clouds which would appear to be innocuous in the East could, and did, zap me!

Paul Zweifel
Radford, Virginia

NIH Breakup Won't Work

One of a bureaucrat's first priorities is turf protection. Does Daniel S. Greenberg [APS News, February 2002] really believe splitting up NIH would increase the efficiency of the administration? Has he any experience in academic politics?

Tom Hahs
University City, Missouri

Insanity Defense

"The Mad Scientist's Love Song" by Gary McGrath [APS News, February 2002] has diminishing literary value and was inappropriate otherwise, in my opinion, although I don't believe that he intended to offend. We don't think twice about the slur "Mad Scientist". How would we feel about the disparagement "Sambo Scientist" or "Yid Scientist"? As much as it hurts me to make that comparison, all of these epithets should be recognized as part of a shameful history, not encouraged by our professional class.

Mentally ill children and adults, students and colleagues, are often denied justice, even survival. People today can be jailed or shackled for a no-fault, biological brain disease. These folks, suffering here, now and for a lifetime, we callously label as "crazy." Please let us remind the world that physicists are known not only for their brains, but for their hearts.

Loren Booda
Arlington, Virginia

Improvement Noted

I wish to compliment the editors Schewe, Stein and Riordon who prepared the supplement "Physics News in 2001". It was very understandable - much more than in previous years.

Norman Septimus
Flushing, NY

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette