APS News

Letters

Administration Needs Sound Science

In the October 2002 "Back Page," Colin Powell states that "the formulation of our foreign policy must proceed from a solid scientific foundation." If he truly believes this, then he should try to persuade the Bush administration to listen to scientists. So far, it has not.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. National Academies, and the Environmental Protection Agency have all proclaimed that global climate change is a grave and pressing threat. Yet the Bush administration has actively opposed attempts to address it. The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Federation of American Scientists have argued for years that the proposed National Missile Defense will be worse than useless, yet the Bush administration continues to promote it. And international aid agencies all over the world have shown that sex education and the promotion of the rights of women are the keys to fighting AIDS and controlling overpopulation.

Yet the Bush administration has allied itself with countries like Iran, Libya, and Syria to fight against family planning programs and treaties to protect the rights of women. The citizens of the U.S., and the world, deserve more than just lip-service to scientific ideals. The Bush administration needs to base its actions on sound science, regardless of ideology.

Brian Cluggish
San Diego, California


Need to Understand How Others Think

Secretary of State Colin Powell (APS News, October 2002) is right in pointing out the role of scientists in the US Department of State, and the same also could be said for the ministries of foreign affairs in other countries. Let me add one point in favor. Some scientists had the occasion to work in an international surrounding as e.g. at CERN. They may have discovered that people from other countries on other continents, who were not educated with the logics from the ancient Greeks as one of the bases of thinking, do at times appear to behave surprisingly. Only if we really understand how the others are thinking, how they are planning, working and arguing, will we be able to discuss constructively and to transmit our thoughts and arguments to them. It is not the fact that people are speaking English which makes them think in the same way we are used to.

Reinhard Budde
Begnins, Switzerland

Letter Maligns Teller

Robert A. Levy (APS News, October 2002) comments on Hans Bethe's favorable review (Physics Today, November 2001) of Edward Teller's recent "Memoirs". Ostensibly concerned with balance, Levy quotes at length from a contrasting review of Teller's book, by Anna Mayo in "The Texas Observer".

Unfortunately Levy doesn't bother to describe the magazine "Texas Observer" or the reviewer (Miss Mayo), or to compare her qualifications as a judge of Teller and the crucial Los Alamos era with those of Hans Bethe. If a leftist critic in a leftist magazine slams Edward Teller, that's not really newsworthy. If a Fellow of the APS endorses Mayo's view, that might arguably be newsworthy. But Levy nowhere gives his own opinion. He just quotes Mayo's nasty review, replete with phrases such as "toad-like book", thereby managing to malign Teller without taking personal responsibility for doing so.

Opinions from members are fine, but judging by the results, it was a mistake to let Levy assume the role of guest editor.

James E. Felten
Greenbelt, Maryland


Junk Due to Plain Ambition

Bill Brinkman's article on scientific fraud in APS News, November 2002 touches on another point, often neglected in the larger discussion framed by the Schoen affair. By this I mean the practice whereby tenuous, tentative, or just plainly mundane results are pumped up by authors pursuing the attention of the larger physics community. It often goes by the name of "theory chasing," if the authors are experimentalists, or more generally "fashion passion."

This issue, namely that of over interpretation of uncertain or ordinary results, is not an occasional event, sad to say. And it speaks to the largely unspoken ethic of our profession to seek the truth, to represent our results honestly, and to accept the fact that one may, from time to time, be wrong. In the latter case let it be for the best reason: that one argued from imperfect data or just made a mistake. Usually, however, plain ambition is behind much of the junk in the literature. This not fraud but fraud's cousin, misrepresentation.

Simon C. Moss
Houston, Texas

Physical Laws Must be Obeyed

In APS News, November, 2002 Richard Jones et al provides an argument on behalf of the "intelligent design theory." I have little knowledge of this theory, so I will not attempt to address its merits. I would like, however, to point out a flaw in their argument.

Jones and company claim that, "Modern science makes the assumption that life began only by simple, natural processes," but that it is "just an assumption." Are Jones and company arguing that the laws of nature no longer apply when one discusses the origin of life? The assumption that life began by natural processes is based on the success of the existing physical theory, developed after hundreds of years of experimental study. This theory has led us to a broadly successful model of the interactions in the universe, and explains a huge variety of natural phenomena. To argue that these interactions apply in all circumstances except life is counter to a wide body of physical and biological evidence.

It may be that there is no good, well-understood theory for the origin of life. But if we are not going to discount the past several hundreds years of scientific progress, we must require such a theory to be consistent with the known physical laws of nature.

Chris Hays
Chicago, Illinois


Life's Origin Not Supernatural

I want to respond to two letters in APS News November 2002 issue. In "Origin of Life a Complex Question", the authors say it's unfair to put Creationists in with UFO enthusiasts. Which is more ridiculous, that aliens are visiting the Earth, or that the entire infinite Universe was somehow deliberately made by a single person?

They then say, "There is no qualitative theory, nor even a widely accepted qualitative model, for how life began from nonliving matter." Biochemists have a very good idea how it took place, and any class of biochemistry will walk you thought the process. We can almost reproduce it in the laboratory.

Even if we didn't know how it happened, we do know how it definitely did not happen. It definitely did not happen because of anything magic or supernatural. There is a logical scientific explanation for everything, even if we don't currently know what it is. The authors point out what they claim are flaws or gaps in our knowledge, and then try to subtly suggest that belief in magic should be an alternative.

In another letter Mike Kent says, "Intelligent design and naturalism are both possible inferences that one might make from the data and knowledge of science." There is absolutely no evidence that there has been artificial selection in the evolution of life on this planet, other than that done by humans. When he says "intelligent design", he is referring to the Judeo-Christian God. This is another example of someone pretending that belief in magic constitutes a scientific theory. They don't want to come out and say it, because they know how ridiculous that sounds, but that's the implication.

Jeffery Winkler
Hanford, California


Authorship Should be Limited

I read W. Brinkman's "Scientific Fraud—Lessons Learned" (APS News November 2002 issue) with interest. I think he is moving in the right direction, but one issue that deserved more attention was multiple "authorship" on papers reporting results of big physics projects. Some of the reports have listed several hundred participants as "authors". This doesn't add up: 300 authors on a 3,000-word paper equals 10 words per author. Should contributing 10 words mean coauthorship of a 3,000 word paper?

I think not. This is just an honorific form of authorship which shifts responsibility away from the person(s) actually writing the report. Many of these "authors" will have contributed calculations, "crystals" (as mentioned by Brinkman), unique insights, criticism, etc.—but none of these justify mention as other than a technical assistant, consultant, or peer reviewer.

There are two distinct efforts in such projects: Completion of the work, and authorship of the paper. Participants should be encouraged to write their own papers, in addition to the "main" report bearing everyone's name. The actual authors should be revealed, so they might be contacted by readers for meaningful comment, criticism, or questions.

I would suggest that the team leader, or a designated author, write such a report. The many other participants possibly should be listed NOT as authors, but as other valued team members. Perhaps all the names should be listed on the first page, as often done—but not as "authors"; rather, perhaps, as "project contributors", "scientific coworkers", or something along these lines. Socialistic honorifics are just as bad as royal honorifics, as I see it.

John Michael Williams
Redwood City, California



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