APS News

New APS President Highlights Research Funding, Upcoming Changes in APS Personnel

John Hopfield
John J. Hopfield

John Hopfield (Princeton University) assumed the APS presidency on January 1, 2006. In the following interview with APS News, he discusses his priorities for the Society during his presidential year.

What do you see as some of the most important issues facing the physics community today, and how can the APS address some of these issues?

I think the most important things are the level of support for research in the United States, both at a federal level and in industrial labs, and the level of support for education in the physical sciences and math. Both of these have bit by bit become disaster areas. There’s a recent National Academy of Sciences report on ensuring America’s economic future in the global economy. The report outlines recommendations for improving education in science and math and increasing investment in research in the physical sciences, in order to ensure US competitiveness and innovation.

I think one of the most important things for the APS in the next year is working with other societies and groups to help be sure that appropriate legislation gets formed to meet some of the goals of that report. I think there’s a real opportunity there, and I think to miss this opportunity will be to enlist in a slow progress to a disaster. APS has the Office of Public Affairs and the Physics Policy Committee. There are people in these who have enough visibility, enough status with respect to the government, and who aren’t highly politically polarizing. I think this kind of representation puts the APS in a position to influence the right bureaucratic and legislative corners in Washington, to try to get legislation written. These issues must to be brought to the administration’s attention. While the NAS authorship and the membership of the report committee give strong credibility to the report, the NAS is not in a position to push for its implementation.

Q: What do you plan to focus on during your term as APS president?

When I look at the APS, I see that it’s in very good shape. There’s been excellent continuity over the years. However, a year from now there’s going to be a new Treasurer and a new Editor-in-Chief. That’s two of the triumvirate of three that really run the APS. The people who are leaving these positions have been very effective. As far as I’m concerned, this year for the APS has got to be one of successful transition wherein the people who are taking over those positions are brought into the loop. They must become participants early enough that they have a chance to learn from Tom McIlrath and Marty Blume. It has to be a smooth transition. 2007 will undoubtedly begin a new era, but the transition has to be adiabatic. That’s probably the most important challenge for the next year. It takes precedence over any particular pet project I might otherwise have had.

Q: As science becomes increasingly interdisciplinary, how can APS be as inclusive as possible? You work in a biology department. Does that give you a different perspective on the interdisciplinary nature of the field?

I will be the first president of APS who has been so far outside the fields of physics that have traditionally been viewed as hard-core physics. I was in the Princeton Physics Department from 1964 until 1980, then went to Caltech in Chemistry and Biology, and came back to Princeton in Biology in 1996. I would contend that I have been doing physics the entire time. It’s only that I went from the physics of condensed matter to the physics of biological matter and biological systems. Understanding the dynamical relationship between structure and properties, at an appropriate scale of resolution, is central to both. Physics is changing. Physics departments understand that they face the choice between keeping a broad definition of physics and keeping broad student interest, and having narrow definitions of physics and facing declining student interest and declining public interest and support. I think as a whole that physics is making the choice for breadth. If I look at physics majors leaving good departments, 30 years ago they largely went on in physics departments, but many of them now go to departments or jobs that are at the fringe of physics. That’s splendid for physics as a whole, as long as we run meetings where these people continue to be involved. I think that keeping up the breadth of the meetings is the biggest issue there.

Q: How does physics education need to change to better prepare students and keep them interested in physics?

At most institutions, physics education has changed lamentably little since 1950. Look at freshman physics. The old course was an appropriate course for potential physics majors, and for some engineers. It emphasized Newton’s laws and Maxwell’s equations. But it contained little thermal physics, and minimal discussions of physics at the microscopic scale, of chemistry, of molecules. I think the emphasis has not remained very well balanced with respect to a changing clientele. With the interest there is now in biology, condensed matter physics, and physics as the basis for other technologies (e.g. nanotechnology), I think a reordering of content and courses of a physics education is very much needed at most institutions.

Q: Science is a very international enterprise. Are there ways APS can better serve its international members and promote international collaboration and information exchange?

Anything that takes place electronically is going ever faster. The rate of exchange of information is almost not a limiting factor any longer. At the same time, the fact that everybody relies on the web and e-mail for exchange of information cuts down on true personal contact.

The APS is, by origin, the American Physical Society. But for many it is The Physical Society. It’s American in location, and in its lobbying activities, but not particularly in any other way or spirit. But because we don’t have very much support for individuals to go to meetings, there have been few ways for the APS to promote international contact. There is a small but active Office of International Affairs with a variety of activities, and APS involvement in a conference on physics and sustainable development, held in South Africa, was but one of many activities of that office. Historically, using the physics community to build bridges between the US and countries with which our political contact is belligerent has been very stabilizing to the international scene, and the APS should be alert to such possibilities.

Q:The Physical Review Journals are one of the major things APS does. How do you view the journals as publishing continues to become increasingly electronic and the journals face more competition?

APS journals have been going electronic at a marvelous pace–we have been leaders in getting our information online. One of the phenomena associated with everything going electronic is that the importance of a journal as such drops when I am reading for science information. I seldom have a journal volume in my hands. The question of what things are bound together in a particular volume, between covers with a particular title, seldom enters my head when I am reading research. The individual article, not the journal, is fast becoming the unit of selection by a reader. However, the journal in which an article is published tends to become a surrogate for the quality of an article when evaluating the scientific contributions of someone outside of your own research area. For that reason, authors will continue to compete to have their articles published in quality journals. It’s very important that the refereeing process, however it is done, results in articles that readers find important and of outstanding quality. We have a marvelous record in that regard, but it’s important that we keep it up in a rapidly changing publishing environment. I think it’s going to be very important for the next Editor-in-Chief to be somebody who focuses on where information dissemination is going, and is not too heavily tied to our admittedly glorious past, or even present.

Q: What can we do in 2006, now that the World Year of Physics is over, to keep up the enthusiasm?

That’s an interesting question–we ought to learn from the experience of the 2005 Year. 2005 became so much the World Year of Einstein that it lost some aspect of the World Year of Physics. I think as we try to keep physics in the newspapers, to keep physics in the elementary schools, to keep physics in the public view, and to keep the public interested in supporting us, we’ve got to do something to make physics more accessible. We have to show that it is not something that only somebody with the genius of Einstein can do well. We need to publicize the breadth over which physicists find significant problems. We have to do something that emphasizes that physics is behind the vast bulk of the technologies that make the world what it is today. We have to emphasize that understanding physics better and more deeply is very important to maintaining the United States position in a technological world, and that an increased popular understanding of physics is important to making political decisions about technology.

Q: How did you become interested in physics?

My mother was a physicist and my father was a physicist. I thought that was perfectly ordinary. Interestingly, I didn’t learn much about physics from them. What I got, particularly from my father, was the attitude that you ought to be able to look at the world and understand how it works. If something was broken you should be able to fix it. You ought to be able to make measurements, and take it apart into components, and eventually understand how ‘it works’. (I of course tried this myself when I was young, abetted by my mother and with results which were later repairable by one parent or the other). It didn’t matter to my father whether it was the voltage regulator of the car generator or the spectrum of a molecule, the general view about what a physicist ought to be able to do was a universal to him. To me that attitude became the essence of a physicist. It’s not the specific system you are working on, but the attitude you bring, that defines a physicist. You can do good physics whether you’re studying quarks or the water drops coming from a faucet. The attitude about what kinds of questions should be asked, and what is meant by an answer—that’s what characterizes physics to me. Nothing is a priori out of bounds. There are many significant questions outside of the bounds of physics, but when you run across one, you know it because you are unable to find the kind of answers that are satisfactory to you. For instance, I remember talking with Feynman at one point about consciousness. He had given considerable thought to it over the years, and decided that because he couldn’t conceive of how to do objective experiments of relevance to the central issues of consciousness, it lay outside of physics.

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