APS News

Letters

Collins is an Honorable Man


I read with great disappointment the Back Page article by P. D. Zimmerman in the June 2007 issue of APS News. My disappointment is less with Zimmerman than with the editors of APS News for allowing this sort of article to appear. The article is a criticism of “the hafnium project”. Zimmerman focuses on a PRL published by Carl Collins’s group [Ed. note: Collins is a professor at the University of Texas, Dallas]. Last I checked PRL was a refereed journal. Does this mean that everything published there is correct? Of course not; just as not everything rejected is bad. However, the blind refereeing system is the best system we’ve got to print good science while winnowing out the junk. I certainly don’t know if Collins’s PRL work is correct: I didn’t do the experiments.  However, I do know that Collins is an honorable man; a man who will not fudge the data; a man of his word. If the conclusions Collins draws from his experiments are incorrect, this should come out in other refereed articles. If his data are somehow flawed, due to some contaminating effect that he has not considered, then that will also come out. Let the scientific method triumph, not the exalted priesthood who may, or may not, have an axe to grind. So much for Zimmerman’s thinly disguised attack. But what of the APS News editors’ decision? Are they actually encouraging a move away from the peer review system? I hope that they will consider very carefully the message they send to scientists if they allow future attack narratives to be published.

Brett D. DePaola
Manhattan, KS

Editor’s note: In the January Physics Today, former presidential science advisor Jack Gibbons reviewed the book Imaginary Weapons by Sharon Weinberger about the Hafnium bomb. Here is his opinion, taken from that review: “Weinberger’s story is about the government’s pursuit of an allegedly new kind of powerful weapon envisaged by scientist Carl Collins, who hyped the results of a bad 1998 experiment and, over the course of several years, doggedly sold his dream to people in the defense community for untold money. It was, at best, a case of selling ‘snake oil ’.”

And Those Caissons Go Floating Along


Peter Zimmerman’s Back Page article about Hafnium bombs and pigeon research (APS News, June 2007) reminded me of a research contract that was let by the US Army R&D unit in Dayton, Ohio around 1959 or 1960. The contract was to study possible ways of canceling or shielding the force of gravity. Varian Associates, in Palo Alto, California where I was working at the time, accepted the contract, not because they thought it made any sense, but because they hoped that it could be redirected into research in other fields that would be meaningful to the Army and possibly useful to them.

I was given the unpleasant task of dealing with the Army contract originator, who would come out west every few months to find out what progress had been made in the contract work (zero, of course). He refused to have the contract redirected out of gravity and after a year or so complained to his superiors about the lack of diligence on the part of Varian. At that time, fall 1961, I left Varian for other reasons. I pity my successor who had to handle the contract details afterward.

Arnold L. Bloom
Menlo Park, CA

Creationist View Not Presented


I believe that there is an inappropriate lack of evenhandedness in the front-page article in the July APS News headlined “Creation Museum Draws Scientific Fire”.

After a description of the new Museum in Kentucky, the article goes on for many paragraphs of criticism. I work as a research physicist, and I am a firm believer that the theory of evolution best explains a wide variety of data, but it was quite striking to me that there is not a single quote from anyone associated with this Museum, commenting on the issues raised in the article. 

I believe that this lack of evenhandedness does not reflect well on APS News; it suggests that you do not believe that people reading this publication have the ability or the desire to analyze the issue if it includes a viewpoint counter to that dominant in the physics community.

Neil Zimmerman
Gaithersburg, MD


Our Children Will Not Be Us


Two articles in the July APS News attracted my attention: Parker J. Palmer’s Back Page, and the page 1 story on scientific criticism of the new Creationist Museum. Palmer describes an authoritarian teaching method: “Listen to what I say, sit down, shut up, make notes on it and feed it back to me at the end of the term.” He speaks of this as a form of violence. Indeed. Yet, without this, no one will learn from the past! With too much of it, knowledge will not increase. A balance is needed. The supporters of the Museum and its detractors are all people of the authoritarian bent. But there is another way of viewing the existence of the Museum and its effects–one implied in Palmer’s remarks.
 
The Book of Genesis, which forms the basis for the museum’s presentation, is a keyhole into how people thought more than 6000 years ago. Children are likely to learn from it things that neither the creators nor the detractors of the museum expect. And this is true of all instruction. Our children are not going to be us.

The weather conditions described in Genesis before the flood suggest an unvarying warm surface temperature, mist rather than rain, and long-lived people perhaps due to low exposure to radiation. One could speculate that Earth once had a water corona. Bunk says the authoritarian mind, but the imaginative mind would create a model, test the possibility, and learn ideas he or she could apply to Venus.

It is likely that those doing absurd experiments will be the ones to make discoveries. The environment that will produce these people is probably one in which people can go to museums that question what they learn in school.

J. W. Lane
Talahassee, FL

Objectivism and Reduction are Pillars of Learning


With regard to the Back Page article in the July 2007 APS News by Parker Palmer: I’m glad that Palmer has found a personal philosophy that he finds fulfilling. But like many who find such a philosophy, he then takes on an evangelical mission to convert the rest of us. Palmer states, “[O]ne key to non-violence is avoiding the arrogance of believing that I know how others should live their lives.” He then spends the rest of the article doing exactly that: telling us how we should put our educational and professional lives in better order.

He describes the various ways “violence” (as defined by him in very broad terms) is done in the academic community. He mentions “brutalization” of a graduate student without telling us how that student was brutalized. Now, to be sure, I have known faculty who view students as little more than convenient tools in their own careers. However, I suspect that Palmer has something larger in mind, as he goes on to assault what he views as “initiation rites,” general lecture format, academic competition, and also argument through attacking another’s weak points in their presentation.

Recalling my own graduate days, I would probably have agreed with Palmer that I was being “brutalized” by the “initiation rite” of having to take four days of six-hour exams called prelims; and the months of studying that preceded those exams.  A year or two later I realized it was at that point I truly became a physicist. I only wish I knew as much physics now as I did when I took them. Those “brutalizing” exams were life-changing.

Competition brings out the best in new ideas. Given the recent Duke study on grade inflation, it seems we may need to move back to even more competition in academia as A’s have become so plentiful that they hold no meaning. My own institution gave latin honors to 47% of this year’s senior class. Is this what Palmer wants: everyone is excellent and thus the term loses all meaning? 

When I submit a paper for publication I expect the reviewer to attack the weak points of my argument. Isn’t that their job? How can I improve or learn anything if someone doesn’t point out my “weakest link,” as Palmer would have us refrain from doing?

Finally, Palmer disparages what I consider to be the main pillars of classic liberal learning: objectivism and reduction. This is what my older colleagues in the humanities and social sciences used to call “the dispassionate search for knowledge.” He deplores his own learning about the Holocaust that was done by facts and figures. I can only wish it were still the same. A recent survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (www.goacta.org/publications/Reports/VanishingShakespeare.pdf) shows only 15 out of 70 colleges and universities now require Shakespeare for their English majors. If your institution is like mine, the English curriculum now consists of minor works that supplement a faculty member’s preferred political outlook. Objectivism and reduction are long gone from the humanities and social sciences, and it seems Palmer would like us to do away with them also in physics.

It is obvious that Palmer is not very well-acquainted with how physics is actually done when he asks, “What physicist, or astronomer, or chemist ever got anywhere by trying to reduce the amazing phenomena he or she is working with to the convenient frames that work for his or her own mind..?” That seems to contradict everything I’ve ever learned about how I, or most other physicists, do physics. Don’t we always try to reduce a complex phenomenon to a more simple model that we can begin to understand “for our own minds”? We then commit the sin of objectivism by testing that “reduced” model. Poor Newton, and Einstein. They tried to understand some phenomena by putting them in terms of models that worked in their minds, never knowing that they were disrespecting the “otherness.”
 
Michael Monce
New London, Connecticut

Wind Power is at Best a Supplement


The letters by Fritz de Wette, Russell Dreyfus, and Alfred Cavello in APS News in May and July concerned the feasibility of wind power. Depending on one’s expectations for wind power, the glass may be regarded as half full, or well under half empty. If one hopes that wind power can be a useful supplement (~<10%) for conventional power generation, the glass could well be half full. There are tens of Gigawatts (GW) of wind power installed in Europe, around 10 GW in the USA, and several GW elsewhere in the world.

However if one expects wind power to be a large component of our electrical power generation, the glass is well beyond half empty. This installed capability typically delivers only a small fraction of its potential, due to the sporadic nature of the source. Dreyfus mentions that lots of steady wind power is available below 40 degrees south, as if transporting this power to 40 degrees north is a minor detail. 

Cavello mentions several paper studies from the 1990’s (and one from 2007) showing that large scale wind power is feasible.  There has now been a great deal of experience with wind power, however, and this mostly belies the rosy potential. Both Cavello and de Wette mention the EON-Netz experience in Germany. Due to the sporadic nature of wind power, when it is delivered to the grid, the power plants must be ready to turn on again quickly, so they still use power in a spinning reserve mode (like a car idling at a stop light). Also the grid can only accept about 10% of its power from such a sporadic source before the grid itself goes unstable. Hence as more wind power capability is installed, a smaller and smaller fraction can be delivered to the grid.  Less than 30% of EON-Netz’ capability can be delivered to the grid. We could imagine new types of electric grids, but the world has trillions of dollars invested in the existing grids, and they will not be readily replaced. Both EON-Netz and Hydro Quebec are only able to deliver wind power at all because of very large state subsidies.

The country that has made the largest commitment to wind power is Denmark. This has been costly for the Danes, but they have been unable to decommission a single thermal power plant, and they will be unable to meet their 2010 Kyoto requirements for CO2 reduction. I have studied this issue [1,2] and have concluded that while fossil fuel and renewables have their place, mankind’s best hope to power civilization, without destructive climate change, in the next half century or century, is the breeding of nuclear fuel by fusion or fission.

1. M. Hoffert et al, Advanced Technology Paths for Global Climate Stability, Energy for a Greenhouse Planet, Science, 298, 981, 2002  
2. W. Manheimer, Can Fusion and Fission Breeding Help Civilization Survive?, Journal of Fusion Energy, 25, 121, 2006
  
Wallace Manheimer
Camden, ME

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