Saving Physics in America
Leo Kadanoff wrote an interesting article on physics aspirations and goals on the Back Page of the July 2008
issue of APS News
. In this article, he raised the concern of a decline in US physics research. With the recent funding debacles of ILC and ITER and the financial crisis at Wall Street, there are some jitters among many physicists. Concurrently, America just witnessed China’s first space walk. China has already passed the US in at least one area of scientific research—namely high temperature superconductor physics.
In the past, US partially relied on the import of scientific talents from other countries to sustain its science and technology. As the retention rate of foreign scientists drops, the US physics work forcewill weaken unless a local supply of fresh blood is infused into the system. As Kadanoff has so keenly observed, better physics education will be a strategic component of a multi‑prong approach to arrest the decline of US physics.
Good teaching skill essentially consists of detailed preparation for lectures, speaking clearly to the students, paying attention to blackboard etiquette, answering students’ questions respectfully, and most importantly writing reasonable quizzes and exam questions. Students generally learn best from other students. We can certainly encourage students to work in groups to solve physics problems so that they have a natural setting for mutual‑teach. It is contrary to the old school methodology of requiring students to work independently.
Another idea is to encourage more faculty‑student interactions. Intensive faculty‑student interactions provide another form of social support to stimulate learning. Students learn better in this environment. Unfortunately very few research universities can afford the economy of intensive faculty‑student interactions. However, undergraduate research can provide a setting for undergraduate students to collaborate with graduate students and postdocs.
Physics education is more than classroom teaching. It also involves apprenticeship training. For quite some time, many graduate students and postdocs have been burned under the old system. Graduate students and postdocs are utilized to provide labor to sustain the research enterprise. At the same time, they are put in the pipeline to become future competitors against their supervisors for prestige and research money. Shrewd supervisors will understand the strategic advantage of teaching graduate students and postdocs well enough to serve a purpose for a short time but not well enough to become future competition. As funding sources dwindle, these kinds of behavior will likely increase. If abuses widen, the number of graduate students and postdocs may further decline to drive the downward spiral of US physics even deeper.
Assuming that we have the best students undergoing the best training under the best professors, there is still a chance that these students will not succeed in finding permanent academic jobs in physics. NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators in 2008 shows that only 20% of the postdocs get permanent jobs (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind08/). Given the fact that only a small fraction of PhD graduates get postdoc jobs, the overall success rate of all those who enter into vocational physics training is probably just 5%. Prospective students are often aware of the statistics. Unless the employment problem is resolved, we continue to limit the physics gene pool by losing students to engineering and computer science.
Given the bleakness of the physics job market, we need to prepare our students for the rainy days by educating them about various options in non‑traditional physics jobs. A supervisor may not be able to provide training in non‑traditional physics vocations per se; but he can at least give general advice to his students and send them to job fairs. The important idea is to create a safety net for the unlucky majority so that the flow of talents does not seize up. Alfred Tang Hong Kong