APS News

Letters to the Editor

Physicists Vie for Darwin Award

Who is this guy in the picture in the lower right-hand corner of page 1 in the May 2010 issue of APS News? I don’t see any safety glasses, knee pads, or elbow pads for safety. At least he has a helmet. No safety glasses on the people in the picture on page 6 either. From the pictures and text, I suppose there is a secondary lesson here on the Darwin’s Theory of Evolution: survival of the fittest...

Richard W. Kadel
Berkeley, CA



World’s Oldest Graduate Student?

In your article “Feynman Drew More than Diagrams,” published in the May APS News, you stated that “The works were acquired by Princeton, where Feynman had been a graduate student, in the mid-eighties, and were kept …” Feynman was born in 1918, thus in the “mid-eighties” he was over 60 years old, and definitely NOT a graduate student at Princeton, nor anywhere else.

Edgardo Browne
El Cerrito, CA

Ed. Note: What we MEANT to say was that the pictures were acquired by Princeton in the mid-eighties. Feynman was a graduate student at Princeton between 1939 and 1942.

That Way Lies Madness

A May Letter in APS News made much ado about “seminal” and perhaps sexism. “Seminal” and “seminar” derive from a root that appropriately means “seed”. Would objectors mind using “germinal” which refers to the earliest stage of an organism or an endeavor, or would it be confused with a daring novel by Zola?

David Markowitz
Storrs, CT

In the May 2010 issue of APS News, Mano Singham suggests to avoid the word “seminal” due to its alleged obscene connotation. Please notice that the chief meaning of the Latin word “semen,” from which “seminal” is derived, is “seed.” The word “seminarium,” which in English became “seminary” and “seminar,” originally denoted a plant nursery. Not that obscene, I think! Should these words be banned, as well?

Kai Neergård
Næstved, Denmark

Mano Singham raises the question “Is ‘Seminal’ Sexist?” in a letter in the May 2010 issue. Alas there are many English words derived from pre-scientific beliefs or superstitions. “Testify” is another, arising from the early practice of swearing oaths while grasping one’s (male) sexual organs–see, e.g, Joseph T. Shipley, The origins of English words, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1984, pg. 416. Doubtless a lexicographer could cite many more instances. While there are words and phrases patently derived from truly offensive racial and ethnic slurs, which should indeed be avoided, banishing neutral words that happen to have origins associated with a particular sex would impoverish the language. That way lies madness.

Robert Michaelson
Evanston, IL

It is doubtful whether “seminal” is a sexist term. There is no reason why the innovative work of a physicist who is a woman cannot be called “seminal”. But if “seminal” is sexist, then so are the words “matter” and “material”, as they derive from the Latin word mater (mother); and it is high time to start using non-sexist terms such as “condensed substance physics” and “antisubstance”.

Daniel Rohrlich
Jerusalem, Israel

In May, 2010 issue of APS News, Mano Singham suggests that the word “seminal” should be retired, “except for use in its narrow, technical sense.” I am at a loss to understand why anyone with access to a dictionary (and perhaps a little knowledge of Latin) would consider this a sexist word. Its “narrow, technical sense” (I assume he is referring to the medical term) is completely independent of its meaning as applied to research and writings. The two meanings are related only by having a common Latin root, which means “seed,” but also “cause,” or “origin.” English has many examples of such words with two or more dissimilar and independent meanings. As for replacing it with other words, none of the words that Singham lists have the meaning that my dictionary gives of “containing the seeds for later developments.” We should not impoverish the English language by removing words whose only offense is similarity to other words from a different context.

Robert K. Moniot
New York, NY

Comparison to Biological Sciences Can Be Misleading

David Goodstein, in his article on scientific fraud, references a study by Patricia Woolf from the 1980s. Woolf showed that 21 out of 26 fraud cases involved biomedical science, but Goodstein simplifies this to say that they occurred in biology, a very different fish indeed, especially given that the large majority of those involved in biomedical science are physicians, and that the number of research physicists is very small compared to the number of biomedical scientists. This omission, when taken into account, significantly weakens Goodstein's argument, and indeed is mystifying, because he specifically refers to biomedical sciences rather than biology in a 2002 article for Academe Online (http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2002/JF/Feat/good.htm)

It is somewhat glib to claim, as Goodstein does, that biology/biomedical science is characterized by a lack of reproducibility and then go on to generalize this as engendering fraud without considering the relative number of researchers and the diligence with which research fraud is pursued in different fields.

Joshua Halpern
Washington, DC

Student Cheating Can Lead to Fraud

In the June APS News, David Goodstein’s Back Page article on scientific fraud did not mention the type of misconduct most familiar to physicists: student cheating.

As an undergraduate, I was a below-average physics student, but refused to cheat. In later years I felt justified by such press as the New York Times article in 2001 that reported “Louis A. Bloomfield, a physics professor at the University of Virginia, using a computer program, found 60 term papers were nearly identical.” [http://www.csie.ntu.edu.tw/~lyuu/virginia.html.]

The same article stated further that “in 1993, 53 percent of students at schools without honor systems admitted to cheating once or more on a test in the previous year, while 29 percent of students at schools with honor codes admitted cheating. Two out of three students surveyed at colleges and universities without an honor code admitted to copying another student’s papers, while 42 percent of students on honor codes said they had done so.” The malfeasance that had been tolerated at university was gradually becoming exposed and addressed.

It is disheartening when one honors academic rules while privileges are bestowed upon the unprincipled. If dishonesty were confronted more seriously in college, most of the fraudulent actions which David Goodstein referred to might never have occurred.

Loren Booda
Arlington, VA

No Fraud in Cold Fusion

David Goodstein is to be commended for writing a very thoughtful and well-written article (“Scientific Fraud (or scientific misconduct if you dislike using the term fraud),” The Back Page, APS News, June 2010) about an extremely important but frequently neglected topic. He mentioned that although he has been frequently asked if scientific fraud occurred during the “Cold Fusion” episode, in fact, he believes that this did not take place, and although most of the scientific community has concluded that cold fusion is not possible, in his view, “the final verdict [about this] is not yet in.”

It is worthwhile noting that the failure of mainstream scientific journals to report positive findings about the field has become a topic in the mainstream ethics in science literature. In particular, a special two-issue edition of the Taylor & Francis Ethics in Science journal, Accountability in Research (http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/08989621.asp ), dealing with questions related to why information about the field had not been widely disseminated, appeared in 20001.

Twenty-one years after cold fusion was first announced, a more “normal” dialog about the subject is badly needed.

Scott R. Chubb
Burke, VA

1S.R. Chubb, M. Fleischmann, S.E. Jones, D.L. Goodstein, F. Scaramuzzi, G.H. Miley, J.O. Bockris, D.J. Nagel, Accountability in Research, 8, 1-162 (2000). All of the papers in this collection are available on-line at www.lenr-canr.org. See: http://www.lenr-canr.org/LibFrame4.html

Moderation Urged on Climate Change, Energy

Burton Richter’s thoughts on climate change and energy (Richter Takes Readers Beyond Smoke and Mirrors, APS News, June 2010) contribute much needed moderation and common sense to this normally contentious arena.  Having spent a good part of my career sorting out the economic benefits, costs, and risks of technology policies and specific technologies, I would like to point out that his general approach is consistent with economic analyses of optimum policies for dealing with climate risk. 

Richter calls for deployment of available, economically justifiable options for reducing CO2 emissions, while avoiding costly, government-imposed technology prescriptions. Economic analyses agree. Assuming that the IPCC’s central projection of future global warming is correct (3 °C for doubling of CO2), environmental economist William Nordhaus of Yale University finds that an optimum policy would be based on a slowly increasing carbon tax, not technology prescriptions or wasteful and corruption-prone cap-and-trade schemes (see W. D. Nordhaus, A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies (Yale University Press, 2008)). Indeed, a near maximum ratio of avoided climate damage to economic costs of implementation is achieved for a 50-year delay before implementing any mitigation policies. The optimum policy itself calls for a broad-based carbon tax this year of the equivalent of $0.10 per gallon of gasoline, rising to $0.30 per gallon in 2050. Such a “tilting of the playing field” would naturally favor “winners” identified by Richter, such as natural gas and nuclear energy. This is in stark contrast to the draconian, growth-arresting solutions promoted by states such as California and by the Federal government. This is not just theoretical; the Spanish experience with subsidized renewable energy is largely responsible for Spain’s current financial difficulty (see <http://www.juandemariana.org/pdf/090327-employment-public-aid-renewable.pdf).

Roger W. Cohen
Durango, CO

Burton Richter’s interview in the June issue of APS News offers encouragingly moderate recommendations for mitigation of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), while calling attention to the important issues of technological realism and economic feasibility. However, the current IPCC consensus projections and associated estimate of equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) act to discourage attention to Richter’s issues of practicality and acceptance of his moderate proposals, by presenting a probability distribution of projected warming having a sharp lower cutoff and an alarmingly long upper tail, and by assigning high confidence to this distribution. Those inclined towards moderation should consider the detailed depiction and derivation of this distribution (Reference 1, Pages 720 and 798-799), wherein visibly divergent model-based probability distribution function (PDF) estimates are treated as a composite, thereby disregarding the negative model validity implications of conflicting projections and creating a picture skewed towards alarm. A careful reading of Reference 1 discloses several caveats that should imply lessened confidence in current climate models, such as this statement on Page 608: “Consequently, for models to predict future climatic conditions reliably, they must simulate the current climatic state with some as yet unknown degree of fidelity.” Recently published work suggest the need to modify IPCC projections towards support of greater moderation by reporting low measurement-based ECS values 2, a significant decadal period climate forcing that is not included in current IPCC models3,  and evidence of a celestial origin for many important climate oscillations 4.

Robert E. Levine,
Sierra Vista, AZ

1 S. Solomon et al. Eds, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK (2007).
2 R. Lindzen and Y. Choi, Geophysical Research Letters 36, L16705,
doi:10.1029/2009GL039628 (2009).
3 S. Solomon et al, Science 337, 1219 (2010).
4 N. Scafetta, Empirical evidence for a celestial origin of the climate oscillations and its implications, Jour. Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Phys (2010), in press.

As one who objected to aspects of the 2007 APS “National Policy” climate-change declaration, its recent so-called “Commentary” is welcome.

Your headlined news coverage emphasizes the procedural and rescripting process, but it glosses over substance, particularly POPA’s concessions and clarifications. For those who wade through and compare the original APS policy with its “Addendum,” please note two notable and critical modifiers, not previously stated, but now exhibited more than once:

The Commentary directly makes note of “uncertainties,” “uncertainty in the estimates,” “uncertainty in net effect,” “probability distributions,” and other qualifying terms that physicists experienced in scientific methodology find to be de rigueur, yet entirely omitted from the original APS statement.

The addendum stipulates that data found in the (IPCC) climate-change formulation is “relative to its pre-industrial value” and “relative to their pre-industrial values.” This is an indirect, albeit belated admission that radiative-forcing data in the 2007 IPCC report were normalized to the year 1750. Lacking definitive measurements prior to the industrial revolution, the IPCC did as well as it could in normalizing data. One problem is that IPCC data adjustment was understated. Another problem is that global temperatures in 1750 were comparatively low, thus rendering subsequent values markedly higher.

While there is considerable and demonstrable statistical confidence that aggregate contemporary global warming has occurred (at least before the 21st century), there is much less proven causative connection with historic human activity and even less demonstration of statistically confident cost-effective remedial action. In light of worldwide economic demands, societal needs should be addressed, in my opinion, on the basis of more substantive science.

It's not a matter of whether climate change is occurring, or whether humans are responsible: It’s a matter of providing a scientifically justifiable current assessment couched in probabilistic terms.

Alexander DeVolpi,
Oceanside, CA

Long History of Galactic Magnetic Fields

The quoted remark by Ruth Durrer in “Members in the Media,” APS News, May 2010, “These magnetic fields could not have formed recently, and would have to have formed in the primordial universe,” expresses something long known, at least by Albert Einstein in 1934, and by Russell Kulsrud (Princeton), some British physicists, and myself, since the nineteen fifties or sixties.

A detailed article by me exists in the CD of the Proceedings of the 22nd Texas Relativistic Astrophysics Symposium held in December 2004 at Stanford University, which derives the origin of magnetic fields at Recombination Time (about 370,000 years in our Big Bang universe), with its important consequences for galactic astrophysics. My research approach since 1961 uses some thoughts from the pioneering Swedish astrophysicist, Hannes Alfvén, and agrees with an approach urged in 1983 by an outstanding brilliant Russian physicist, Ya. B. Zel’dovich, who was a good friend of Andrei Sakharov.

Howard D. Greyber
San Jose, CA

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Editor: Alan Chodos