APS News

Letters

Collaboration with Iran could be risky

Ernie Tretkoff's reporting on the status of Iranian physics and Hessamaddin Arfaei's efforts to improve Iranian scientific collaboration with the international community is not just important reportage but also provokes many questions that we should ask ourselves as well as our prospective collaborators.

I do not know Professor Arfaei, and on simple principles of human rights and freedoms, I concur with his desire to improve the access that Iranian scientists wish to have to their peers in order to participate in and stimulate the very best in intellectual pursuits of truth and knowledge. The APS has been in the forefront of promoting human rights by way of supporting efforts of internationally recognized physicists to resist totalitarian suppression of freedom of speech and freedom from oppression. Perhaps Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky is one of the best known poster children of the physicists' determination to fight totalitarianism.

At the same time, I would wish to examine the broader implications of promoting freer access to the scientific community for Iranian scientists. Does, for example Professor Arfaei's desire for more international collaboration extend to any non-Muslim scientists that may still, if unlikely, remain in Iran? Does his humanitarian position include all Jews and Christians in the Iranian scientific community?

Perhaps just as important, if not more so, what are the implications for giving Iran access to more scientific exchange? Given that the Iranian government has moved in the recent rigged elections to a more restrictive fundamentalist regime, which is intent on furthering its development of offensive nuclear weapons (and I cannot take seriously anyone who disagrees with this premise), what is the wisdom of collaboration in areas of science that further enables the goals of a totalitarian regime, despite the yearnings of individuals who would wish to think and work unfettered? Were we not concerned during World War II that the Germans would reach the nuclear advantage before us, thus the secrecy and breakneck effort of the Manhattan Project? What is Iran's Manhattan Project, and do we wish to find out eventually that we helped to support it, if unwittingly?

I support the long-term objectives of freedom of access. An open society is apt to be a more democratic society, given that an economic depression does not destabilize the political institutions, as happened in Germany.

However, I believe that we should also ask ourselves what we are exposing ourselves to in terms of global risk. I cannot fully answer that question on my own, and believe that we should have a healthy discussion on the implications of our position and efforts.

This is and always has been the key dilemma of science in a free and democratic society: What is the proper balance between free and open expression of intellectual activity and the need to act responsibly to guard the security of the culture that enables such freedom?

Jeff Schoenwald
Irvine, CA.

***

Council slights one ex-President

The June 2005 issue of APS News featured four tributes to former APS presidents who had died within the previous year. The first three begin "The Council of the American Physical Society notes with great sadness...". The fourth, however, omits the adjective "great".

I don't know if this inconsistency is in the original resolutions, or if it was introduced in the reproductions that appeared in APS News. In either case, I assume it was purely accidental, and reflected no differing degree of emotion.

Nevertheless, it caught my eye. Perhaps more care might be taken in the future to standardize this language.

Richard Helms
Ithaca, NY

***

Metric system: political football?

Ernie Tretkoff's April article,"US Could Soon Be Playing Second Fiddle In Areas of Science and Technology," should be printed up as a pamphlet and sent to our colleges and universities, to be distributed to our students, faculties, and administrators alike. On the other hand, in one important area of science and technology, the US has not even been playing second fiddle–it is not in the orchestra at all! Were it not for one, or perhaps two, very small countries, the US would be the only country in the world that is not on the metric system. It is therefore not just a question of the federal government increasing funding to American colleges and universities to support research and education, it is a question of whether the federal government is going to appropriate whatever is necessary to convert the US to the metric system as soon as possible.

It is an enormous and expensive task, but it has to be done. It is unquestionably more important to the country than making plans to go back to the Moon and on to Mars lugging, as it were, the British system of units along with us.

Meanwhile, while waiting for Congress and the Administration to act, our colleges and universities could help to alert and to educate the public by carrying out such a conversion on a small, relatively inexpensive, but pedagogically valuable scale–they could do this by converting their football fields from 100 yards to 100 meters. The 100 meter football field, as I pointed out in 1996 in the American Scientist, can be used to make the learning of physics easier for our students.

Such a football field conversion by our colleges and universities might help to arouse the public to remind Congress of its Constitutional responsibility in this area, and to take the necessary action. The future of the US very much depends upon it.

Frank R. Tangherlini
San Diego, CA

***

Article misrepresents CLAS role

I was particularly troubled by your headline article by the CLAS Collaboration and I wish that APS had researched the situation. If one looks at Phys.Rev.Lett.92:032001, 2004, Erratum-ibid.92:049902, 2004, then one can see that the CLAS collaboration claimed a 7.8 sigma effect FOR a pentaquark. This is by far the most significant evidence for a pentaquark.

The headline article gives the impression that CLAS played a major role in casting doubt on the 1540 state. A more honest article would have been to try to explain how they found such a significant result in a previous report.

The main evidence against the pentaquark states does not come from CLAS, but rather from large collaborations that have a history of careful reports, systematic studies, and detailed analyses. Generally, collaborations do not report a negative result in a journal article, but rather these results percolate out to the field in conferences and seminars.

This article truly misrepresents the CLAS experiment's role in the search for pentaquarks. I am happy that they now agree with most other experiments.

John Cumalat
Boulder, CO

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CLAS spokesperson responds

While the headline of the APS News article was accurate, the article was unclear on one point. The latest CLAS measurement repeated a previous experiment by the SAPHIR collaboration and found a null result. It did NOT repeat the CLAS measurement on the proton which showed a 7.8 sigma pentaquark peak (that measurement was at higher beam energy and studied a different reaction channel). We plan to repeat that experiment with much higher statistics in about a year.

The article emphasizes the results from the CLAS collaboration, but does not ignore previous null results. In fact, the article states "But other studies soon produced null results, casting doubt on the original positive sightings."

One reason the new CLAS results are significant is because it was not clear that the previous null results had the sensitivity to see a pentaquark signal. For example, please see preprint nucl-th/0408001 which shows, in a theoretical model, that pentaquark production infragmentation-dominated reactions are highly suppressed.

When the existence of a signal is controversial, the scientific method is to repeat an experiment where the signal has been seen. The CLAS experiment presented at the Tampa meeting (which found no Theta+ signal in the same experimental conditions as the SAPHIR measurement) was the first to do this with high statistics. Previous null results (such as those at Fermilab) did not repeat a positive-evidence experiment.

John Cumalat has legitimate concerns about the lack of publicity for previous null results. However, we would urge the "large collaborations" to publish their negative results so we can judge all the evidence.

In any case, the important issue is whether the Theta+(1540) pentaquark exists. Currently, there are as many positive reports (many from "large collaborations that have a history of careful reports ...") as negative results. The last talk at the Tampa APS meeting on pentaquarks in fact was a positive result regarding another pentaquark state, the Theta++. Given that there are many different initial states and production mechanisms, one negative result can not be definitive. This issue will not be closed until other high-significance results are also repeated, such as the 7.8-sigma result seen earlier by CLAS.

Larry Weinstein
Norfolk, VA

***

Congress Destroying US Economy

Senator Bingaman gave a thoughtful but incomplete analysis of the perils of the continued reduction in the funding of research and development in the U.S. ("Maintaining America's Competitive Edge." Back Page, June 2005). Unfortunately, he concentrated on the symptoms rather than on the disease. He lamented the decline in interest in science, engineering and technology on the part of American students today, but he did not inquire as to why this is happening.

The day after I read the Senator's article, I read the story in the New York Times, "Cutting Here, but Hiring Over There," (June 24, 2005) which tells how one of our largest and best-known American technological firms is laying off "up to 13,000 workers in Europe and the United States" and that it "plans to increase its payroll in India this year by more than 14,000 workers." Students can read these stories and can see that the evidence points to a future in which they invest time and money to become skilled in science and technology. They then take technological jobs and about the time they are approaching mid-career, the present pattern suggests that they will be replaced by technologists from low-cost countries. They may be fired, without pensions or health care.

Both parties in the Congress eagerly embraced the expansion of trade that has brought these things about. Free trade was, and is, politically correct. This has allowed the major national retail discount stores to lower the prices they are willing to pay to suppliers. When American suppliers can't meet the demanded lower costs, the production contracts go to companies in foreign countries where wages and benefits are low. So American factories have been forced to close, devastating the economies of towns and cities where it is difficult for fired workers to find new employment. The U.S. trade deficit has soared because our low-cost suppliers do not return the favors and purchase goods made in America as was promised. So the two-way trade so strongly favored by the Congress is now working as follows: the low-cost producers export manufactured goods to us and in return, they import our dollars, which gives them the money needed to buy America's companies and resources. This strengthens their economies and their military establishments while weakening ours.

It is a classic case of sub-optimization. Our entire national well-being is being sacrificed in order to minimize the cost of goods in the big national supermarts. The Congress has put in place a system that is destroying major sections of our manufacturing and technological infrastructure. We shouldn't wonder why so few American students are choosing to study in the fields of science and technology. They can see the handwriting on the wall, but Congress can't, or won't.

It is difficult to understand the logic of the present situation in which the U.S. is exporting jobs and is importing people. We are exporting high-end jobs in science and technology, middle level jobs in manufacturing, and low end jobs in agriculture. At the same time we are importing people to compete with Americans.

This methodical destruction of our economy won't be fixed by sincere analyses of the symptoms. Both parties in the Congress have to step back and look at the long-term consequences of the policies they have so eagerly embraced and then address the illness, not the symptoms.

Albert A. Bartlett
Boulder, CO



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APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff