APS News


Back and Forth on Faith and Physics

What was APS News thinking in preparing its February issue?  Almost an entire page is boldly devoted to “Faith and Physics” by Alaina Levine, highlighting particular religious views of physicists Rabbi Kopelman and Reverend Heller. Why should their views on faith trump news of other things physical, as in American Physical Society News?  

One could expect to read views like these in religious-tract magazines and perhaps even in many Sunday newspapers, but  they do not belong in APS News unless there are plans to replace the “P” in APS with an “F.”
Harry A. Schafft
Silver Spring, MD


I read with interest the article on Finding Sanctuary in Faith and Physics, by Alaina Levine. Chief among the points made in the article is that there is no conflict between science and religion, as shown by Kopelman and Heller active engagement in both, and that there is no contradiction between them, in fact they can be considered as two sides of the same coin. I agree with the author on the conflict issue. There can be no intellectual conflict between two very different things, one giving limited but certain knowledge, shared by all human beings, the other providing opinions and moral rules, changing in time, changing for different ethnic groups, and all based on faith. I understand that religion and spiritual beliefs can motivate some scientists in their search to explore the beauty of the universe. At the individual level religion can be a strong, and sometime positive, force to motivate a human being, as can be other philosophical beliefs. Epicurus encouraged his followers to study natural philosophy to escape superstition and live with peace of mind. However at the social level–and we should not forget that all that we do has a social dimension–science and religion are very different. In our societies religions are powerful and rich organizations, and their representatives have different motivations in their actions from those of scientists. At the social level religion and science are often in conflict, as shown through past and very recent history. Compare the power and social impact of churches of any denomination with that of the American Physical Society. The bloodiest war in Europe, in terms of devastation and percentage of people killed, was the war of religions between Protestants and Catholics in the 17th century. Which is exactly why I am very happy to be a member of APS, while I am not a member of any church. Near the end of the paper Ms. Levine gives a quote from a 1940 Einstein paper: “ ... science without religion is lame, religion  without science is blind.” But in a letter to Eric Gutkind in 1945 Einstein  wrote: “... The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”

Claudio Pellegrini
Los Angeles, CA


With all due respect to Reverend Heller and Rabbi Kopelman (APS News, February 2009), it’s a waste of time (mine, other readers), and space (yours), to try one more time to rationalize science and religion. It’s really very simple logically: if “A” is contained within a circular boundary, then “NOT A” is outside of it! There is physics, and NOT physics, i.e. metaphysics. The former is independent of language, culture, religion–and usually politics! (The Bible falls with the same acceleration as anything else if released in the gravitational field.) The latter clearly is not. Anything contrived by man's primal imagination and fear, those metaphysical “things” outside of the circle, are all logically equivalent: if you accept at all, anything to do with those anthropomorphic male characters up there somewhere, then you might as well accept witches, demons, trolls, fairies (the one for the teeth comes to mind), etc. not to mention Santa Claus among other “things” (the list is endless as I’m sure you can appreciate). And as for the gobbledygook about “how” vs. “why,” well–mathematics satisfies the first, again it’s just pure logic, and the conservation laws answer the second. PLEASE, no more holy rationalizations, just “shut up and calculate” (so to speak).

Peter Hansen
Torrance, CA

Profiles in Versatility, Finding Sanctuary in Faith and Physics by Alaina G. Levine was very interesting. But I am surprised that neither Rabbi Kopelman nor Reverend Heller touched upon some of the bridges between physics and religion which add strength to their convictions. For instance, if one was to assume that the theory of the Big Bang is correct, then one only has to look at the typical answer that physicists give to the question: “What caused the Big Bang?” The standard answer is that a physicist cannot answer that question. As it is the nature of physics to study only what can be measured and since one cannot measure what caused the Big Bang, that is out of the realm of physics. Hence we have come to a bridge between physics and religion or between physics and philosophy if you will. In this case one completes the other. Religion can go where science cannot dwell and the picture is complete.

Joseph R. Tatarczuk
Poestenkill, NY

Very glad to read the article “Finding Sanctuary in Faith and Physics” by Alaina Levine in the February APS News.

The rational views of both Rabbi-Physicist Kopelman and Priest-Physicist Heller are similar and can be summarized as “they do NOT see a conflict between religion and physics.”

As an atheist since my first day of Sunday school at age 6, my conclusion is similar. For a long time, there have been conflicts between religion and science. But I do not see them as necessary. Science and religion can remain true to their own separate domains without conflict.   

The essence of religion is to establish a code for human behavior. Examples are the Ten Commandments and philosophical phrases such “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is essentially philosophy which does not have to be based upon anything but acceptance, belief or faith. No data or evidence is necessary. Dinosaurs are not relevant. Flat vs round Earth is not relevant. The motion of the Solar System is not relevant. Religious philosophy should be based on faith and belief, independent of extraneous factors.   
The essence of science is to compile data about natural phenomena and try to describe them systematically and self-consistently. The ultimate goal is the universal description of all phenomena in this fashion, but that lofty goal is a long way off.

Any data and/or theory is under constant scrutiny and reassessment to be altered, changed, expanded, discarded or replaced in response to new and better input or insight.   

There are no absolute truths in science, only an approach constantly seeking more accurate truths.

The two disciplines are in totally separate domains which do not overlap. Conflicts should be avoided by each discipline by remaining confined to its own separate domain. The World would be a much better place.

Chuck Gallo  
Lake Elmo, MN 


Katrina Disaster at Least Partly Manmade

In the December edition of APS News, H. Eugene Stanley wrote an insightful article analyzing our present “financial fluctuation.” Overall I enjoyed the article. But I must object to his description of Hurricane Katrina as a “completely natural” disaster.  It is clear to those of us who lived through Katrina that a century of misguided, politically driven Army Corps of Engineers policies led to manmade protection systems that, even when they held, produced unintended consequences. One of these consequences was higher flood levels in unplanned places, such as the North Shore along Lake Pontchartrain and the South Coast of Mississippi and even Alabama.

I must also remind him that Katrina was not a direct hit to New Orleans, but only a glancing blow on the mild side of the storm. Further, as a resident of coastal Mississippi, I know of no citizen down here who does not prepare for the “unlikely event of a direct hit”, because we all know that it will happen several times a century. Everyone along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts will suffer from a hurricane eventually. 

Improved flood models are required to assist our disaster planning. I know I speak for more than myself when I say that we welcome anyone with expertise in this area who is willing to do forensic studies on Katrina to determine which portion was natural and how much was manmade.

A. Louise Perkins
Long Beach, MS

Achievement not so New After All

One of the “Top Ten Physics News Stories of 2008” reported in the February APS News was the fascinating achievement of light passage through opaque matter. With my colleague Wayne Strange, I accomplished this feat over ten years ago through the use of polarization-selective optical phase modulation and synchronous detection. By scanning a helium-neon laser beam across the front surface of a cuvette containing a liquid of the opacity of whole milk under ambient illumination, we were able to map out the topographic features of various kinds of objects entirely hidden from view in the milky suspension [Optics Communications 144, 7 (1997)]. A detailed account of the experiment is given in my book Waves and Grains:  Reflections on Light and Learning (Princeton University Press, 1998).

The same experimental technique enabled me and my colleague Jacques Badoz to detect and quantitatively measure for the first time the minute difference between the reflection of a left-and right-circularly polarized light beam by a naturally chiral medium [Optics Letters 17, 886(1992)] A personal account of this experiment is also included in Waves and Grains.

Mark P Silverman
Hartford, CT

Crucial to Help Pakistan with Science Education

The recent “Back Page” article by Wasif Syed called attention to the important challenge for Pakistan to expand and improve its science and engineering education and research programs. In an age when technology has come to dominate many important aspects of society, it is imperative for all nations and especially those in the developing world to place greater emphasis on advanced science and engineering education. For starters, there is an urgent need to develop homegrown solutions for critical problems in areas such as energy, agriculture, public health, and telecommunications. Unfortunately, there is often no infrastructure in these countries equal to the task. Perhaps partnerships with educational institutions in the developed world, together with funding from those countries, can jump start the growth of homegrown capacity. We are now participating in such an effort in Pakistan. Led by a group of young engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs, the highly regarded Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) has launched a new School of Science and Engineering (SSE). The SSE adds undergraduate, and eventually graduate, programs in basic science and engineering to existing programs in business, management, humanities, mathematics, and computer science at LUMS. The aim is nothing short of creating a world class research university with a rigorous science-based education program enhanced by an interdisciplinary research agenda. Dedicated to inclusiveness, the SSE maintains need-blind admissions and substantial financial aid, and is open to all, independent of gender, religion, or social status. The first class of 150 undergraduates entered in the fall of 2008, selected from a pool of about 7000 applicants. Clearly there is a deep hunger for high quality technical and scientific training, and the talent is certainly abundant. We, and about a dozen of our colleagues from U.S., European, and Asian universities and businesses, serve on an external Advisory Board for the SSE. It may be constructive for US agencies and Pakistan ministries to consider support for projects like this in Pakistan for higher education in general and science and engineering in particular.
Robert Jaffe
Cambridge MA

Alvin L. Kwiram
Seattle WA

Kirshner’s Account of Cosmic Acceleration History Challenged

As one of the five people who participated in the January 8, 1998 AAS press release session described by Robert Kirshner in his letter that appeared in the February 2009 APS News, I must disagree with the notion that cosmic acceleration was not suggested during that session. My press release for that session states “Astrophysicists announced today new predictions of the ultimate fate of the universe obtained by calculating the characteristic or maximum size of very distant radio galaxies. Reports being presented by Dr. Ruth A. Daly, and Dr. Erick Guerra, both of Princeton University, in Princeton, New Jersey, to the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, DC, suggest that the expanding universe will continue to expand forever, and will expand more and more rapidly as time goes by.” The press release goes on to say “The apparent size, or distance from hotspot to hotspot, of a high redshift radio galaxy is a clue to which of the competing models of the nature of the universe is most likely. A relatively small size at great distance from Earth would suggest a universe that will halt its current expansion and recollapse; a larger size suggests a universe that will continue to expand forever, but at an ever decreasing rate; an even larger size suggests the universe will continue to expand, and will expand at a faster and faster rate. The current work finds that at high redshift the galaxies are very large, with widely separated radio hotspots. Thus, the universe will continue to expand forever and will expand at a faster and faster rate as time goes by.” Clearly, the acceleration of the rate of expansion of the universe was indeed suggested at the January 8, 1998 AAS meeting press release session.

The press release is available at http://www.princeton.edu/pr/news/98/index1.html under “The Ultimate Fate of the Universe” (1/8/1998) and at http://www.bk.psu.edu/faculty/daly.

Ruth A. Daly
Reading, PA
Your January column “This Month in Physics History” gave what I thought a fair and balanced account of the discovery of the accelerating universe, including the contributions of both research groups, so I was surprised at Robert Kirshner’s letter responding to it in the February issue. Having reviewed his fine book, The Extravagant Universe, in the New York Times Book Review and edited a SLAC Beam Line article on the research written by Gerson Goldhaber of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, I feel in a good position to comment further.

The column might indeed have delved more deeply into the experimental techniques involved—and Kirshner cited a few of the specific contributions of his High-Z Supernova Search team. Omitted from both accounts, however, was the central role of Saul Perlmutter of the LBL Supernova Cosmology Project in pioneering the core technique used by the two groups. This method involves taking successive photographs with a CCD camera of the same patches of night sky about four weeks apart during the new moon; by comparing individual pixels in this wide field of view, researchers can identify candidate supernovae for further observation during the next few months on dedicated telescopes. By following a supernova’s light output over this period, they can obtain the correction factor Kirshner mentions and thereby establish the supernova as a valid “standard candle.”

The LBL team, composed mostly of experimental particle physicists familiar with manipulating vast quantities of data, felt equal to this daunting task. But many astronomers and astrophysicists figured that the technique would never work. Thus the High-Z group found itself playing catch-up in the mid-1990s after the LBL team showed that it did work.

I vividly recall sitting in the front row at a UC Santa Cruz physics colloquium on 8 December 1997, when Perlmutter gave the first public (beyond Berkeley) presentation of the results that attracted so much attention a month later. Having just edited Goldhaber’s article and been primed on the significance of this research by my UCSC colleague Joel Primack, I was sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting for the numbers, which came only in the last few minutes of the talk. Based on 38 Type Ia supernovae analyzed until then, Perlmutter said, they could conclude that the universe was open: it had only about 30 percent of the critical mass density needed to slow the Hubble expansion to zero. I don’t recall him making any further conclusions, but Primack was not so reluctant. In the ensuing discussion period, he stood up and pointed out that these results implied the previously unthinkable: the need for a cosmological constant.

To be fair to Kirshner and the High-Z team, these preliminary LBL data could not yet rule out dimming of the supernovae light due to absorption by intervening dust—which his group could eliminate by making observations at three different wavelengths. But in early 1998, when these astonishing results began to surface in press accounts, the High-Z team had a statistically weak sample of only about 10 supernovae, while the LBL group by then had accumulated over 40. Nobody—at least not in the particle physics community—would have accepted the momentous conclusion of an accelerating universe as valid based on such a single small sample had there not been another, independent result with significantly better statistics. In the final historical analysis, it was the joint results of both teams, each covering weaknesses in the other’s analysis, that convinced the wider scientific community so rapidly about such an unexpected, revolutionary result.

Historians of science find these priority disputes rather tiresome, but then we don’t have any Nobel prizes at stake! The current dispute about the discovery of the accelerating universe reminds me of my favorite adage: “One of the most difficult things to divide is success.”

Michael Riordan
Santa Cruz, CA

APS Copyright Policy Still No Good

When I saw that a new APS copyright policy was announced, I was happy for a moment ... until I discovered the “new” policy continues to be that APS takes your copyright and keeps it (although now giving back some limited rights.)

The commercial publishers in the world–by which I mean the ones that actually pay their authors–do not take an author’s copyright. It is odd that the APS, which doesn’t pay, demands transfer of copyright on the grounds that “we must have this to continue to provide quality publications.” Must? Commercial publishers do not require transfer of copyright, but APS does?

And I’m left the same question: Since APS inherently can’t defend the intellectual property rights of physicists in this case, because of their conflict of interest: who will?

Geoffrey A. Landis
Cleveland OH

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Editor: Alan Chodos