APS News


Ethical Principles Not Determined by APS

I was distressed to read the new "Ask the Ethicist" column in the November APS News. I would hope the author of such a column would display a higher level of ethical sensitivity than this author has displayed in the first concocted contribution.

In my view it was never ethical to add an author to a paper without permission, or at least a very serious effort to get permission, whether this person is an influential senior figure or a Research Experience for Undergraduates summer visitor.

I can remember one case of unauthorized addition of well-known coauthors (by other well-known authors), when I was a graduate student, and the people who told me about this were shocked that it should happen.

It has happened every now and then since then, but there has never been to my knowledge, a community acceptance of such practice that might justify the disrespect implied by failing to allow an author to dissociate himself from a paper. This occasional form of malpractice is, to a senior person like myself, particularly unwelcome when it associates a respected author with a dubious piece of work.

I think I would also have disliked when I was a student having my name attached to a paper I did not understand just because I had done some technical work for it.

Of course anyone, even an ethicist, can make mistakes, although it is better not to make serious mistakes in a first performance. What offends me deeply is the suggestion that the explicit statement made by the APS in 2002, "Every coauthor should have the opportunity to review the manuscript before its submission", rendered an action unethical which was up to that point ethically acceptable. When I conducted a seminar on scientific ethics last spring I had arguments with a Jesuit-educated student who tried to persuade us that ethical principles were universally recognized, while I was arguing for determination by culture. However, none of us thought that ethical principles were determined by the University, the APS, the NAS, or any other such body.
David Thouless
Seattle, WA

Two Major Problems Face Hydrogen Economy

Susan Ginsberg's article "Revolutionary Breakthroughs Needed for Hydrogen Economy" (APS News, November 2003) is a reminder of a woeful and widespread misunderstanding in the public regarding hydrogen as a potential for fueling vehicles. Hydrogen is touted as the "ultimate clean energy source," a phrase that hides not just one, but two fundamental errors.

In the first place, hydrogen is not an energy source but a means of transmitting energy from one place to another. It would be an energy source if pure hydrogen were available somewhere in the atmosphere, or on the surface of the Earth, or in the bowels of it. But such is not the case, for hydrogen is always bound, to oxygen as water, or to innumerable other compounds, organic and inorganic. To obtain it from these, say water, an input of energy is needed, equal to the energy that will be gained by "burning" the hydrogen back to its compound form. And that energy must eo ipso be obtained from some conventional source—coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, or hydro. Thus a "hydrogen economy" is no panacea for those who worry about exhaustion or undesirability of these conventional energy sources.

Second, would then the "hydrogen economy" be clean? A byproduct is produced, namely water vapor. But water vapor is not nothing. In large enough quantities it may, for instance, influence the climate. Until a detailed and scientifically quantitative investigation of this effect is done, it is far from clear that carbon dioxide emission—treated as such a menace in some quarters—is more harmful than water vapor would be. But that is not all. As pointed out above, to obtain hydrogen, some conventional energy source is needed. And if that source is to be fossil hydrocarbon burning (coal, oil, natural gas), then even if one ignores the possible effect of water vapor emission, there remains the old carbon dioxide emission problem. Again, a reliable, unbiased study is needed to compare the benefits or otherwise of burning extra hydrocarbon fuels in hydrogen factories, versus burning the hydrocarbon, as now, in the internal combusion engines themselves.

These reflections are not intended to throw cold water on research on hydrogen as a means of transmitting energy; quite the contrary. They are only intended to call attention to a great need to disseminate the basic facts to the public in order to forestall false hopes and prevent disappointment.

What organizations are better suited to this task than the APS or the AIP who in the past have not shied away from initiating studies in important and major areas where science impinges on public concern?
Andrew Lenard
Bloomington, IN

No Need for "Capsule" Degrees

In her informative analysis of the job market [APS News Back Page, November 2003], Merrilea J. Mayo states that "a once-per-lifetime degree no longer makes sense, when a complete turnover in technology occurs in a fraction of a lifetime." As a solution she proposes the accredited ("capsule") degrees in a form of "specialization modules."

The introduction of a system of extra accredited degrees would be a step in the wrong direction. First, not all active professionals are (or will be) in a position to pursue extra degrees. Thus, regardless of their actual competence, those without fresh capsule degrees may find themselves with an aura of inferiority ("your PhD is too old").

Second, an industry (largely for-profit) of extra short-term accredited degrees will almost certainly develop typical short-cuts such as credits "earned" on-line or other similar practices of questionable validity.

Undoubtedly, with the exponential growth of the body of knowledge and the fast advent of new methods and technologies, a practice of lifetime learning becomes an integral part of a professional life in almost all areas. However, the habit of upgrading professional skills through self-education (including informal workshops when needed) is quite different from the pressures of earning extra formal accredited degrees.

While I see a great merit in the former, the latter, in my view, is largely an unnecessary waste of time and resources.
Alexander A. Berezin
Hamilton, Ontario

Undergrad Enrollment is Key Factor

One factor that Merrilea Mayo [Back Page, November 2003] should consider is that the need of teaching assistants by Physics Departments depends upon undergraduate enrollment, which is not tied to the job market.
Bruce W. Wessels
Evanston, Il

Employment Data Show Interesting Leads and Lags

Regarding Merrilea Mayo's Back Page on physics workforce issues (APS News, November 2003), I was especially interested in the lead-lag experimental data, since feedback loop delay line time was part of a discussion with George McClure, Chair of the IEEE Career Policy Committee, about my paper, "Toward an Analog Circuit Model of Engineering Employment", given at the fall 2003 meeting of the APS Texas Section in Lubbock.

It appears that the shift from a one-year lag in '63-'68 to a one-year lead in '81-'85 could have been due to the slow recovery from the '73-75 recession, although there seems to be zero-lag during '70-'75 just as there is from 1992 to 1996 (perhaps due to the 1990-1992 jobless recovery?).
E.G. (Jerry) Bylander
Sherman, TX

Woody Allen Column Deemed Inappropriate

Woody Allen's column in the November issue of APS News (under the Zero Gravity banner) perpetuates stereotypical attitudes of men towards women. Insofar as one of the goals of the APS is to involve more women in physics, we think it was inappropriate to include this column in an APS publication.

Members of the Colby College Physics Department:
Virginia Long
Duncan Tate
Murray Campbell
Charles Conover
Brett Fadem

Waterville, ME

I can accept that the editors of the APS News found Woody Allen's "Zero Gravity" column (November 2003) amusing, but I am not amused that they found it acceptable.
Tevian Dray
Corvallis, OR

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette