APS News

Members Tell the Board What They Think About a Possible APS Name Change

Should APS change its name from the American Physical Society to the American Physics Society?

That question was posed by APS President Marvin Cohen to all APS members in an email message asking them for their reaction. The email, sent out in late June and early July, directed members to a website where they could record their opinion on a scale from one (strongly opposed) to five (strongly in favor), and also express their views in a comment box. All members with a valid email address should have received the message, and the website remains open until August 19. The final results of the survey will be available to the APS Executive Board at its September meeting.

The initiative for the survey arose from discussions at the Board's June meeting on how APS could be more effective in representing the physics community to the public. Many Board members felt that the confusion over the meaning of the word "physical" was a serious problem. As stated in Cohen's email, "the word 'physical' means several things to the general public, most often not physics. This causes confusion and uncertainty regarding what kind of organization APS is, and dilutes the impact APS can have in representing the physics community to the media, the government, and the public at large."

As APS News goes to press, member sentiment is running heavily in favor of the Board's proposal. Seventy-six percent of members are either strongly or moderately in favor, with eighteen percent strongly or moderately opposed. The remaining six percent are neutral. The survey response rate is close to 20%, slightly lower than the percentage that has voted in the annual Society-wide elections in recent years.

Another issue raised implicitly by the Board was whether the name American Physical Society should be retained for internal purposes. In Cohen's email message, members were informed that "the Board is mindful of the 106-year history of the American Physical Society, and would continue to use this name for internal purposes, such as our journals and prizes."

However, in their comments, both those in favor of the name change and those opposed by and large rejected this idea. A typical comment from a member strongly in favor was "if you are going to change the name, go all the way; 'Physical' should not be used even internally." Another said "Keeping 'Physical' for internal use may sastify nostalgia but will necessitate duplication and a constant need for explanation. I vote for clean change to American Physics Society." A member who was strongly opposed said "I'm particularly opposed to the concept of having two identities, which is bound to lead to significant confusion."

Many of those who responded in favor had personal experiences to recount regarding confusion over the word "physical." Said one, "I now work in a non-academic field (venture capital). Trust me on this...95% of the people I know and work with have no idea what 'physical society' means. Sounds like an aerobics organization. And these people are not idiots, they are engineers, businesspeople etc. CHANGE THE NAME!"

Another person commented, "Many years ago during an APS March Meeting, a colleague met me in a bar for a drink. The illustration on the cover of that year's program was a Buckyball. My colleague, while heading to the bar, overheard a couple of people on a street corner, where one said 'What is this American Physical Society?' The other said, 'They must be Physical Education instructors, because they have a soccer ball on the book they all carry'."

Many of those in opposition noted that the name American Physics Society was less inclusive. Said one opposed member, "There is more than just physics to the American Physical Society. The word physical is more inclusive. APS represents materials scientists, polymer scientists, etc. who do not consider themselves exclusively physicists." Added another, "The change from physical to physics suggests an exclusion of physical scientists who are not physicists, e.g., physical chemists, physical biologists. As a physical chemist working in the area of biophysics and biological physics, I find the name change ill-advised."

"Many of these comments make valid points," Cohen said, "I was especially struck by the opposition to having two names, and by the contention that 'physical' is a more inclusive term than 'physics'. The Board will consider action on both issues when it meets in September."



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