APS News


Back Page Rehashes Same Old Arguments

This letter is specifically a comment on the Back Page article by Norman Augustine in the July issue of APS News, and more generally a comment on many such discussions that have appeared over the past decade.

This article makes the point that, for a variety of reasons, the funding from the US government for "hard science," particularly in the universities, should be increased. The primary reason stated is that much of the job formation in this country can be attributed ultimately to advances in basic research. Among the challenges quoted in this article are: i) the infighting between physics and chemistry, particle physics and astrophysics, experimental physics and theoretical physics, etc.; ii) making a direct connection between advances in basic research and applications, creation of jobs, etc.; iii) publicizing those connections to the general public.

This article also makes the point that basic research in industry is much smaller than several decades ago, and arguably nonexistent at this point.

We have all seen these same points made numerous times in Physics Today, APS News, in talks at conferences and at our own institutions, etc. The basic question I would like to ask is: After 10 or 15 years of these same arguments being made over and over, why have they not succeeded?

I don't know the answer, but rather than continuing to make the same arguments to ourselves, we should either figure out a better way to make this case, or to (gulp) accept the fact that US government-funded physics research will continue to shrink, and figure out what to do differently after we accept that.

Neil Zimmerman
Gaithersburg, MD

Innovation May Not Pay Off

I read with general agreement Norm Augustine's editorial, "Making the Case for University Research." However, one of his premises, "Only one acceptable choice remains: to be among the world's foremost innovators," is unfortunately open to question. It is a well-known fact that venture capitalists, at least in Silicon Valley, are increasingly sending their venture money and the associated jobs overseas. This is one of many pieces of evidence that suggest that innovation may not pay off for our economy today.

Looking back at the history of the United States of America, innovation has usually been greeted with praise and interest, but rarely rewarded. It's been natural for our country, with its great natural resources, to focus on resource exploitation, and the present day seems to be no exception. For those of us who innovate by choice, we will likely continue, whether or not there is any real reward.

Richard Holmes
Cannon Park, CA

APS Should Survey Members on Intelligent Design

It is disturbing but hardly surprising that President Bush has gone on record as supporting the teaching of intelligent design along with evolution in the nation's public schools (NY Times, Aug 3rd). Even more disturbing, though, is the statement attributed in the same article to Dr. Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention that "evolution is too often taught as fact....if you're going to teach the Darwinian theory as evolution, teach it as theory. And then teach another theory that has the most support among scientists."

One has to wonder from whom Dr. Land gets his information (presumably not from the APS), and I would like to propose that the APS undertakes a very simple statistical survey of its members to see which side they support, and whether evolution and intelligent design should be taught side-by-side in science classes. I hope the results would be communicated to the White House by the President's Science Advisor.

David Cox
Bellport, NY

Republicans in Physics: Are they Underrepresented? Do We Care?

In a July Viewpoint, Gary White commented on Andrew Warden's letter in the April issue, which in turn referred to the January "Inside The Beltway" article by Michael S. Lubell. Andrew Warden claims that Republicans are underrepresented and that this is an "obvious fact." Before considering why this might be, or what we should do about it, we should first establish whether it is real. It's relatively easy to collect information by gender, and we have data on the under-representation of women in physics. It's harder to even define what "Republican" might mean with respect to science and scientists. (As Lubell quoted the late Representative George Brown, science itself should not be a partisan enterprise.) Has anyone collected any hard data on the politics of physics students, APS members, or APS officers? Would APS members answer such a survey? Although there is room for all political persuasions in APS, and we should try to ameliorate real inequities within our community, we don't yet know whether Warden's assumed political asymmetry is real. In addition, I believe that we should not dedicate any of the time and treasure of this Society toward specifically recruiting political ideologues of any stripe.

Randall Brynsvold
San Jose, CA

Invention of the Maser and the Laser Clarified

In "This Month in Physics History" in the August/September APS News, you give Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow credit for inventing the laser, in particular crediting Schawlow for the idea of trapping the photons in a mirrored tube.

In fact, Townes invented the maser, not the laser. The laser was invented by Gordon Gould, and in particular he conceived the idea of the mirror-ended tube which he patented. After a long court battle, Gordon's patent claim was recognized, and he became a very wealthy man since he derived royalties from every supermarket scanner, CD player, etc.

On another note, your description of stimulated emission asserts that the original photon and the stimulated photon "will travel in the same direction." I wonder how you concluded this. The two photons are coherent (i.e. their amplitudes are additive) because, even in principle, there is no way to distinguish between them. But coherent particles need not travel in the same direction. Think of two-slit (or neutron) diffraction or, for that matter, scattering of alpha particles by helium.

Paul Zweifel
Radford, VA

Lamb Understates Nuclear Risk

Frederick Lamb’s Viewpoint article on US security in the August/September APS News is certainly to the point, and certainly unsettling in its description of the catastrophic effects of a nuclear bomb. But the catastrophic effects of a nuclear bomb detonated in a US city hardly stop there. Consider how the Second World War ended, a mere 60 years ago, with the systematic destruction of city after city first with firebombing and then with nuclear weapons. Does anyone really think that we have come far since then? If a nuclear bomb is detonated in the US and hundreds of thousand die, there will be a ferocious “it's us or them” reaction. There are plenty of Curtis LeMay types around and the all- too-likely result will be that those countries suspected of having anything to do with the perpetrators of the bombing –countries suspected of being sources of nuclear material or sources of terrorist fanatics –will be wiped from the earth. Tens of millions of innocent people will follow their American cousins to the grave.

Jon Orloff
College Park, MD

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