APS News

Cohen to Stress Outreach, Continuity in 2005

Marvin Cohen
"If we could get members to go to K-12 schools and levitate a magnet or something, we really think these efforts could bring great rewards."


Fun Facts about Cohen
  • Completed PhD in physics from University of Chicago in 1963.

  • Joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley in 1964 after one year as a postdoctoral researcher at Bell laboratories.

  • Senior Faculty Scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 1965.

  • His research covers a broad range of subjects in theoretical condensed matter physics. He is known for his work with pseudopotentials with applications to electronic optical and structural properties of materials, superconductivity, semiconductor physics and nanoscience. "I have arrested development—I still think my best work is ahead of me."

  • Recipient of the APS Buckley Prize and the APS Lilienfeld Prize.

  • Received the National Medal of Science in 2002.

  • Hobbies include playing the clarinet and running.

  • Has been interested in physics since childhood. "I have thought about physics every day for the past 50 years. If we could get members to go to K-12 schools and levitate a magnet or something, we really think these efforts could bring great rewards."

Marvin Cohen, University Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Senior Scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, assumed the APS presidency on January 1, 2005. In the following interview with APS News, he outlines his concerns and priorities for the year.

Q: What are your priorities for your presidential term?

A: I think I would separate my priorities into two parts. One is to continue major thrusts started by the past three presidents who I have worked with. For the other part, I think it's likely that the largest component will be a focus on outreach, partly because 2005 is the World Year of Physics.

Alan Chodos is directing our efforts in the WYP. He and his staff are doing an excellent job. I've been partly involved with this project since 2003, and now it's here! I think that the WYP activities are going to be a big part of my activities in 2005.

Q: What do you hope the World Year of Physics will accomplish?

A: We're hoping to bring more talented students into physics and to enhance our efforts to promote diversity and inclusiveness. Programs to attract more women to choose physics careers are doing quite well. But the African American and Hispanic components of the American Physical Society are too small. There's a lot to be done if we plan to achieve an APS population which more closely represents the diversity in our country's population.

With the World Year of Physics, APS and other organizations hope to bring the message to students that physics is an exciting field, and that a physics education is valuable even if they choose another field for their ultimate career. We will try to get the message out about the current developments in modern physics.

In our outreach to the general public, we want as many members of APS as possible to get involved. If we could get members to go to K-12 schools and levitate a magnet using a superconductor or to give public lectures, we think these efforts could bring great rewards.

The WYP is an international event. We will have opportunities to maintain and expand the wonderful international cooperation and goodwill physics has had in the past. Even when governments have had limited communication, scientists have continued to communicate and collaborate.

I hope that we can foster even more collaborations in the future. During the World Year of Physics we can communicate the international flavor of science to the public and world governments. Hopefully, the importance of this aspect of science will be appreciated.

Q: One of the American Physical Society's missions is education. What needs to be done to improve science education?

A: For K-12 education, part of our concern is the training of science teachers. It's been my experience that when you get dedicated, well-trained teachers working with the students, even if they use different methods, the fact that they're involved and care makes an enormous difference. The trouble is that the effort in this area isn't big enough. We really have to do much more. One way to get more dedicated teachers would be to raise the salary of teachers. This would indicate to the public and also to the teachers themselves that society values them. We also need to support good research on education in science to create better programs. In addition, the country as a whole has to have the expectation that there is a certain level of math and science that everybody ought to know—boys, girls, whites, African Americans, Hispanics, everyone.

At the college level, I hope to see an expansion of some of the successful experiments in broadening the physics major. There are new programs where undergraduate majors have the opportunity to take not only the standard physics courses but can use courses in other fields to satisfy requirements for their major in physics. For example, subjects such as biology, chemistry, materials science, psychology, sociology, engineering, computer science and history have been "mixed" with physics successfully. One important objective is to allow students to prepare for careers in fields like biological physics and nanoscience where one needs training in chemistry and biology and materials science.

The physics major is an excellent background for many fields because of its emphasis on problem solving. If one of the by-products of loosening up on the major is ending up with lawyers who know physics, physicians who know physics, and people in all walks of life, particularly government, who know physics, I think that's a step in the right direction. So I hope we think and act along those lines.

Q: You said that one of your priorities would be to continue the work of the past three APS presidents. What were some of the important aspects of their work?

A: When I first joined as Vice President, Bill Brinkman was Past President. One of the important achievements of his term was the boost phase missile defense study initiative. I think that the fact that the American Physical Society can counsel government and can do a really first-rate job of analysis is important. I think Bill did an excellent job, and I would like to keep my eye on how we can continue to interact effectively and counsel government.

Myriam Sarachik focused on diversity and inclusiveness. She is still very active in trying to help our African colleagues get into the modern age of physics and science. I think that's very important. She also took on the task of trying to bring the various subareas of condensed matter physics together. Condensed matter is the largest branch of physics, and it is probably the most diverse. It is also strongly coupled to hybrid fields like nanoscience. Myriam has organized workshops and discussions to try to strengthen interactions within the field and between fields, I hope that I can keep this effort alive, and further her work on bringing physicists in developing countries into the fold.

Helen Quinn's emphasis has been on planning. She made us take a closer look at ourselves and ask hard questions about where we are and where we're going. She asked us to examine what our values are, and what our vision is. This was not just a simple task of creating a mission statement. Helen's questions had ramifications related to the kind of committees that we have and the types of programs that we support.

Led by Helen, we did a lot of soul-searching. Even though one doesn't come out of these exercises with a few final statements of purpose, it gets you thinking and acting in a more constructive and effective manner.

I hope not to drop the balls handed to me by Bill Brinkman, Myriam Sarachik, and Helen Quinn.

Q: What role can APS play in public policy?

A: I think it's important for us to develop the best possible relationships with the various agencies of government. It's very hard to avoid politics, but we have to be aware that the polarization that comes from politics can be dangerous because it affects funding for future science and future scientists. I think we have to proceed in an orderly, ethical, and thoughtful manner. One of the recent successes, which I hope will be maintained, is that the visa situation is getting better, and that's due in no small part to the efforts of the American Physical Society and other scientific organizations.

I think it would be of great importance if we could do more to expand our opportunities to give advice to government. We need to strive to give absolutely the best advice with the highest credibility. I hope that over the next four years that the Bush administration will work closely with the scientific community, and that we all work together for security, for economic development, for education, and for the general welfare of society.

Q: Recently it has been suggested that the US might be "losing its dominance" in science. How do you view the issue?

A: I think that's a hard question, because it is hard to quantify. If you look at numbers, it's clear that in some of our best journals, the number of papers coming from Asia and Europe has gone up, while the number of papers from the US has remained almost constant.

On the other hand, I think that we have attracted some of the best talent worldwide to the United States. A major reason is because education at the graduate level in this country is excellent. Although we're still the unchallenged leader in this arena, this may change if the visa problems continue. Foreign graduate students and postdocs have enhanced the whole picture of American science. Having foreign graduate students has been a win-win situation. If they come here for an education and stay, that's great. And if they come and then go home, that's great too because they often remain our friends and collaborators for life. Having said that, we still want to encourage American students to choose physics for their career. It's worrisome that we went through a period where the number of undergraduate physics majors went down, but that's turning around. Hopefully we'll get more Americans going into physics. I think it's inevitable that as the economies in countries like China and India get better, more of their people will be going into science and engineering. More worldwide competition in science is inevitable; hopefully this will foster better progress in science.

Q: In recent years, biology has been called by some the "science of the 21st century," while physics is viewed as the science of the past century. Do you think this is true?

A: No! First of all no one knows where the big scientific discoveries are going to come. Biology has had tremendous growth and extremely exciting science is being produced. As biology develops, there may be more in the way of underlying principles discovered. Perhaps the observed science will be interpreted in terms of physics.

I think it is possible that there will be more coalescing of the fields, so maybe by the end of this century, this will be a non-question as the fields will be so intertwined. I can predict that there are going to be a lot of discoveries in physics in the next 95 years. That's a safe prediction. The 21st century like the 20th is going to be a great century for physics, too.

Q: Why did you decide to take on the task of being APS president?

A: It's a question of giving something back. I care about physics, the welfare of physicists, physics education, and students. I'm happy to report that up to now, almost everything that I have been asked to do or that I have chosen to do with the APS has impressed me as important.

One of the main reasons for this is the marvelous trio, Marty Blume, Judy Franz, and Tom McIlrath. They are extraordinary. They are the secret of the success of this organization.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
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