APS News


Chemists are to Moles as Physicists are to.....?
Today I was treated to free cupcakes to celebrate "National Mole Day" as part of National Chemistry Week. Mole Day is celebrated every October 23 in recognition of Avogadro's number (the connection is obvious if you think chemical constant and not small tunneling animal), and there is even a National Mole Day Foundation.

I was asked by a chemist (the one who makes such excellent cupcakes) why physicists don't have a similar celebration, and if we did what constant we would celebrate. Not having an immediate answer, I checked the back of an introductory physics text for possibilities. There I found quite a number of constants (beginning with Avogadro's number, but that's taken). My chemist friend suggested perhaps celebrating Pi on March 14, but that seems to be more appropriate for mathematicians.

Has the APS has ever asked the physics community which constant we would consider to be the most noteworthy for physics? In what units should it be expressed? (Planck's constant could be a problem in MKS units, even if you ignore the negative sign in the exponent.) Do we need a National Speed of Light Day? Or maybe a National Fine Structure Constant Day? On which day would our constant be celebrated? How would we find a name that competes with "Mole Day?"
Fred DeAngelis
Spartanburg, SC

Ed.Note: Another reason to celebrate Pi day on 3/14 is that it also happens to be Albert Einstein's birthday.

Hurricane Prediction Misses by 2 Orders of Magnitude
Let me get this straight - in the October "Inside the Beltway" column, scientific studies dealing with a major hurricane hitting New Orleans "predicts more than 100,000 people could die" and "extensive evacuations would be impossible" and these studies are celebrated as predicting "just the sort of outcome southern Louisiana would suffer." Hail science! Since only slightly more than 1,000 people actually died and the majority of New Orleans residents were evacuated, shouldn't we be applauding the government for the much better result than the revered scientists predicted? Hail Nagin, Blanco and Bush! Perhaps the author's viewpoint is a little skewed.
Mark Campbell
Annapolis, MD

I feel compelled to write you concerning Michael Lubell's article "The Avoidable Tragedy of New Orleans" in the October, 2005 issue of APS News. Lubell misses a crucial point in his criticism of the Bush administration. He refers to scientific studies that predicted tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people could be killed if a big storm caused the levies to fail. If the government deserves scorn for failing to prepare for such an event, does it not also deserve praise for a rescue effort that resulted in far fewer deaths than anticipated? A fair critique should consider the good as well as the bad.

As an aside, towards the end of his article, Lubell ponders whether "Perhaps scientists and engineers are too arrogant." He then writes, "Perhaps science is too complicated for policy makers to understand." I'd say the latter sentiment proves the former.
Robert Hueckstaedt
Los Alamos, NM

Michael Lubell’s article in the October APS News was not very helpful. His main thesis is that the Corps of Engineers was not given all the money it requested for flood control work. And, oh yes, scientific studies and computer modeling had been forecasting what was going to happen and were ignored. The obligatory blame is placed on the Bush administration.

Preliminary reports from the engineering teams sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the American Society of Civil Engineers tell a different story. There were dozens of levee breaks that resulted from poor design and construction where the failure could not have been associated with over-topping the levees. This was apparently the case for the 17th Street and London Avenue canals, which led to most of the flooding in central and western New Orleans.

The Corps of Engineers did not ask for money to rebuild those levees, which would have required recognition that they were not designed and built properly in the first place. Furthermore, the Corps of Engineers were not asking for money to undertake large construction projects to protect against water surges produced by hurricanes stronger than Category 3.

It’s difficult to see how restoring the office of science advisor to Cabinet rank, as proposed by Lubell, is the way to fix problems of this sort.
Joseph Sternberg
Woodbury, Connecticut

Students Asked to Take Science on Faith
It is a mistake to identify the motivation to do science with the science itself. After all, Newton proceeded from a deeply religious point of view, and would likely assert a belief in intelligent design. Such an assertion is not science, but may be the inspiration to do science. Religion can motivate both art and science, but only the arts have made religion the subject of the discipline. Science has had very little to say about religion in any constructive sense. However religion cannot ignore science the way science ignores religion. Religion cannot ignore the fact that science continues to make statements about the world which turn out to be true. Intelligent design has nothing to say about global warming, but science is fully expected to yield useful results in the long run. Because science solves difficult problems which religion cannot, it is easy to see science as a competing, and more effective, religion. (See "Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge" by Steve Fuller.)

The physics community contributes to this image when it puts forward the Bernoulli explanation of the picture on page 1 of the October issue of APS News. If the student blowing on the ping pong balls walks away with the idea that high velocity causes low pressure, she is infected with a magical view of the world. With such a view, she cannot understand; she can only hope to ask authority.
John W. Dooley
Millersville, PA

Many Scientists are Religious, Too
Regarding the comment by Steven Weinberg in the "Members in the Media" section of the October 2005 APS News: while his anecdotal experience of scientists not being religiously inclined may not be disputable, several studies have shown that it is not necessarily accurate on the large scale. Larson and Witham reported in Nature in 1997 that 39% of scientists believe in a personal God. An article in the Washington Times in the same year reported that "many scientists see God's hand" in evolution and cosmology. As a religious person and a scientist myself, I will add my own anecdotal experience of being acquainted with many scientists of a religious persuasion, including an entire organization, the American Scientific Affiliation.
Brian Thomas
Topeka, KS

Scientists: "Smarter Than Thou"?
Marshall Berman’s back page article raises three important questions. (1) Why are Americans so anti-science? (2) Why is the furor focused upon the theory of evolution? And (3) what, if anything, should members of APS do about any of this? Here are my opinions.

People resent being coerced or ridiculed. Evolution is a required topic in a required subject in a required public education. Controlling biological texts is coercion. Evolution has been deliberately used to ridicule certain religious ideas, and vice versa. None of this helps anyone.

Scientists are perceived as having “smarter than thou” attitudes, which invokes either a “so who elected you God” or a “don’t question authority” response. The result is a mean-spirited public exchange between those who insist evolution is bunk and those who insist evolution is fact.

The hallmark of theological statements is unchanging truth. By definition, a fact does not change, but theories are supposed to be subject to change. When a scientific theory is presented to the public as “fact,” the public hears this as a theological statement and responds accordingly. Evolution is the only theory being defended as not subject to change. I think that is why it has attracted the furor.

Unless we teach the public the difference between a theory and a fact, and make it clear that even the most accepted theory (including evolution) is subject to change when new facts are discovered, things will get worse.
J.W. Lane
Tallahassee, Florida

Religious Bathwater May Contain Scientific Baby
The October 2005 Back Page article by Marshall Berman on opposing the Intelligent Design (ID) movement–which threatens to destroy science, secular democracy and public science literacy – prompted me to write this letter. I wish to aid Berman’s holy cause by critically examining and expunging the so-called contributions to physics of ID-quacks, since believing in a designer obviously invalidates all of one’s scientific ideas.

Faraday and Maxwell were devout Christians who believed in a Creator, so remove electricity and magnetism. Newton wrote extensively about his scientific findings glorifying the Great Designer, so calculus and mechanics and gravitation have to go. Even Einstein talked a lot about the “old one.” Just to be careful, in case he was a closet ID guy, we’ll expunge his contributions to physics, too. One must also worry about Galileo and Kepler, but I’m running out of space.

After getting rid of ID-tainted ideas, our remaining physics will be ideologically pure, democracy will be safe for our time, and public science literacy can only improve by not being hampered anymore with the crackpot ideas of scientific imposters like Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Faraday and Maxwell.
Edward J. Garboczi
Gaithersburg, Maryland

No One Person Invented the Laser
The matter of "inventorship" of something as important as the laser is rarely suited for a short summary such as found in "This Month in Physics History", APS News, August/September, 2005 or in Paul Zweifel's letter ["Invention of the Maser and Laser Clarified"] in the October APS News. Our paper, "Who invented the laser: An analysis of the early patents", [Historical studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 34, 115 (2003)] provides a more detailed account for readers who want to look at the primary sources.

It is generally understood that "inventorship" is determined by patent priority and the matter of Gould v. Townes et al. was extensively litigated. To the extent that litigation settles anything, that case resolved Gould's claim to the inventorship of the laser. He didn't. He did, however, receive some valuable patents, of which the patent for the Brewster angle window is perhaps the most brilliant [Gordon Gould, US patent 4,746,201], and he died a relatively wealthy man from his royalties. The first reference we found to the parallel mirror configuration, in fact, was in a patent of Robert Dicke's [R. H. Dicke, US patent 2,851,652, filed May 21, 1956, issued Sept. 9, 1958].

After extensive investigation, we concluded that there is no single inventor of the laser. There is no argument that Townes is the inventor of the maser, and Townes and Schawlow certainly deserve much of the credit for the invention of the laser, but–perhaps surprisingly–a good deal of the credit should also go to Bloembergen.
Richard W. Dixon and Robert A. Myers
Bernardsville, NJ

Ed. Note: Dicke's patent is the subject of a letter in the November APS News by John Hopfield

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