By Ernie Tretkoff
Photo Credit: Ernie Tretkoff
Photo Credit: Ernie Tretkoff
Above: Several prominent scientists, including three Nobel laureates, discuss the role of physics in society at a press conference held during the WYP Launch Conference. From left to right: Denis Le Bihan, Carlo Rubbia, Maciej Nalecz, Martial Ducloy, Sylvie Joussaume, Harold Kroto, and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji.
About 1000 participants, including approximately 500 students from over 70 countries, attended the conference. Eight Nobel laureates spoke on a variety of topics ranging from biophysics to nanoscience to physics education in lectures aimed at highlighting the importance of physics and inspiring the audience. The conference was sponsored by UNESCO, the European Physical Society and a number of other international physics societies.
One focus of the conference was the declining student interest in the subject. It is hoped that the World Year of Physics will help increase interest among students and among the general public as well, and therefore the kickoff conference was designed to have a public focus, said Martial Ducloy, Chair of the International Organizing Committee of the International Year of Physics, in the opening session of the conference. "Physicists must come down from their ivory tower," he said. "Physics is not a discipline turned to the past, but continues to provide answers to fundamental questions."
Several speakers addressed the issue of how to get young people interested in science and insure that all students receive a good science education. Georges Charpak of France said, "When children are young they have spontaneity, but by age 11 or 12 this spontaneity has died. Scientific training is something they're not all that interested in." Science has to compete with television and video games to capture students' interest, he said. He emphasized the importance of hands-on learning in engaging students. "It's very important for people to do their own thinking," he said.
APS President Marvin Cohen also discussed education and outreach as part of a round table discussion on the public perception of physics. He described some of the events APS has planned for this year, and also discussed his own experiences presenting physics in high school classes, where he was able to interest the students in subjects like superconductivity and nanotechnology.
Jose Luis Moran-Lopez, director of the ISTR San Luis Potosi in Mexico, described a project called "Science for everyone," a series of books written by active Mexican scientists aimed at the high school and college level. There are also contests that invite students to read one of the books and do a project or report based on their reading, he said.
Also during the round table discussion, Pierre Lena, vice president of the Association Bernard Gregory, said that many students believe that science is out of reach for them. Strangely, young students in developing countries actually express more interest in becoming scientists than do students in the developed world, he said.
Ana Maria Cetto, Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said physicists need to bring physics to people "by demystifying it, but without taking away the fascination, by destroying the myth of inaccessibility, by humanizing it, by applying it, showing its usefulness, but not by trivializing it." She said physicists have distanced themselves from society. "We are too busy talking to each other or we are too afraid of losing our academic image."
Many speakers emphasized the importance of physics and the value of the international physics community coming together. Chen Jiaer, Past-President of the National Natural Science Foundation of China, said, "Without physics and science the modern world would lose its very nature and modern society its future. There are new challenges and action that must be taken. Physical societies of all lands must unite."
Another issue discussed at the conference was science and developing nations. In one session, Katepalli Sreenivasan of the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, talked about physics and development. He pointed out some of the vast differences between the developed world and the developing nations, including the availability of internet access. Without access to the latest information, it is difficult to practice science, he said. "We live in a connected world, but yet in a highly divided world," Sreenivasan said. "We should mitigate this imbalance not only because it is a moral imperative but also because it is a practical necessity." Science has revolutionized the world, by bringing about developments in energy, electronics, information, and communication. But investment in science is low in developing countries. They need skilled individuals, support for these individuals, and transparent institutions.
Sergio Rezende, President of FINEP in Brazil, also discussed the widening gap between rich and poor countries, and the need for physicists to convince governments to create institutions for improving science in developing countries. He said that politicians and the public, especially in developing countries, are mainly concerned about short-term results, and therefore do not invest enough in science. It is not simple to change that situation, he said. A further problem is the "brain drain" from developing nations—young people who wish to become scientists often must leave their home country to study, and often they don't return.
In a round table discussion on what physics can bring to the socio-economic challenges of the 21st century, Burton Richter of SLAC said that one major challenge would be energy demand. Economic growth, especially in developing nations, will lead to too great a demand for oil. There are many approaches to solving this problem, he said, and the role of physicists is to help develop options. "The sooner one starts to fix the problems the easier it is to solve," he said. For instance, scientists can work on ways to conserve energy and make our energy use more efficient, and develop other energy sources, such as nuclear, hydrogen, and solar power. Richter said that he honestly believes that science can meet the world's energy needs. "But it's not going to be one thing. Solar energy will be a part of it; nuclear energy will be a part of it; wind will be a part of it; conservation will be a part of it; efficiency will be a part of it."
Environmental challenges are another area where physics can contribute, said Sylvie Joussaume, Director of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). For instance, physics can help in the areas of climate modeling and satellite observations to predict or provide warning of natural disasters.
For the students, one of the greatest benefits of the conference was the chance to travel and to meet other students from around the world. The students hailed from over 70 countries, including the United States, France, England, Russia, Czech Republic, Poland, India, Israel, Pakistan, Sudan, Tanzania, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, and Indonesia. The students, selected from recent participants in Physics Olympiads, were some of the best physics students in their countries. Some of them knew each other from the Olympiad and were pleased to see their friends again. Others said they really enjoyed the opportunity to meet new people. During breaks from the lectures they discussed physics problems, science education in their countries, their career plans, as well as issues such as the challenges facing women in physics. They also joked around, played games, and just had fun. A special banquet was held on Friday night for the students. Many of them said they especially liked getting to travel and see Paris, a rare opportunity for some of the students.
One university student from India, Varun Balerao, who planned to become an engineer, said he was enjoying the conference very much. He said he really liked spending the evenings after the conference touring the city. Chintan Hossain, one of the four American students attending the conference, especially appreciated Denis Le Bihan's talk about physics and brain imaging. Hossain is a sophomore at MIT, double majoring in physics and brain and cognitive science, and hopes to work with some of the imaging techniques that Le Bihan described. Abdelfatah, a student from Sudan, said he felt inspired by the talks, but especially liked meeting the other students. He was studying medical physics, and hopes become a doctor in his home country.
The World Year of Physics has now officially begun. Many other events will be held throughout the year.
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