APS News

Letters to the Editor

Memory of Feynman

I was a postdoc at Caltech from 1970-1972 (Chemistry) trying to explore my non-chemistry “side” so I signed up for an art class run by the artist in residence Lukas van Vuuren. It was several weeks into the class before I realized that this “guy” sketching next to me was Richard Feynman. I recall that he was working on a lithograph at the time and even with that more difficult medium he was creating a better image than some of us who were using charcoal and paper.

Alvin Manalaysay
Fenton, MO

No Limit to Age of a Graduate Student

The letter from Edgardo Browne in the July 2010 issue of the APS News had the headline “World's Oldest Graduate Student?” and contained the statement that “he (Feynman) was over 60 years old, and definitely NOT a graduate student at Princeton, nor anywhere else.” This comment, in conjunction with the title, implies that it is not feasible (or perhaps possible) to find a 60 year old graduate student. This is not true. Just to provide a data point contradicting the statement, I was a 60 year old graduate student, as well as a 61 year old graduate student when I received my PhD in Mathematics on May 18, 2008. Furthermore, I expect that there are, or were, graduate students in many institutions older than myself. Perhaps even at Princeton!

John A. Dudek
Milwaukee, WI

What Fizeau Thought He Was Doing

The discussion of Fizeau’s experiment on the speed of light in moving water (APS News, July 2010) requires some elaboration.

In 1851, when Fizeau performed his experiment, the ether theory held full sway. The experiment was in fact designed to measure the value of the so-called “ether drag” coefficient, the extent to which a moving body drags along the ether within it. The speed of light in a moving medium should be c´ = (c/n) ± fV, where c is the velocity of light relative to the ether, V the velocity of the medium relative to the ether, n the index of refraction of the medium, and f the ether drag coefficient (f = 1 for complete drag and f = 0 for no drag.) A theory due to Fresnel predicted the value f=1–1/n2.1 Fizeau’s experimental result, f =0.48, was consistent (within the experimental error) with Fresnel’s predicted value f=0.43. Therefore Fizeau believed that he had confirmed Fresnel’s theory.

By a remarkable coincidence, the same result c´ = (c/n) ± V(1 –1/n2) is obtained (to lowest order in V/c) from special relativity.  Notice that, unlike the predicted result of the Michelson-Morley experiment, this effect is of first order in V/c. Einstein cited Fizeau’s result and the data on stellar aberration (and not the null result of Michelson-Morley) as the experimental data that had most influenced him in his development of relativity.2 But Fizeau believed he had confirmed an entirely different theory.

Leo Sartori
Granby, MA

1.Fresnel postulated that the density of ether within a material substance is proportional to the square of its dielectric constant. Only the “extra” ether is dragged along when the medium is in motion. Fresnel’s theory suffers from a serious defect: the dielectric constant of most substances varies with the frequency of the light.  This was apparently not pointed out at the time. For additional discussion, see L. Sartori, Understanding Relativity (Univ. of California Press, 1996), pp 111-114.
2.R.S. Shankland, “Conversations with Albert Einstein”, Am J Phys 31 (1963), pp 47-57.

Empedocles Had the Right Idea

In July’s “This Month in Physics History,” that recounts the fascinating story of Armand Fizeau and his terrestial determination of the speed of light, it is pointed out that before the 17th century most scientists believed the speed of light to be infinite. An interesting, but obviously fallacious, argument in support of this view can be found in Aristotle who remarked that dawn takes place in the west at the same time as it does in the east, and this can only reasonably interpreted to mean light propagates instantaneously. In contrast, about a century before Aristotle, Empedocles (c493-c433) of Acragas (now Agrigento), a Greek colony in Sicily, maintained that the speed of light was finite. His argument was that everything takes time to travel, and hence light must take time to travel, say,  from the sun to the earth. To the best of my knowledge, no one in ancient times actually tried to construct an apparatus to measure the speed of light, although I have often wondered whether a version of Fizeau’s (or indeed Foucault’s) experiment could have been carried out in Graeco-Roman antiquity, upon recalling the remarkable gearwork of the Antikythera mechanism (c150-100 BC), an astronomical computer that was about 1400 years ahead of its time, as well as the enormous analytical skill and mechanical ingenuity of extraordinary mathematicians such as Archimedes (c287-c212 BC) of Syracuse, another Greek colony in Sicily. Even if no such determination were possible for them, a lower limit to the speed of light might have been obtained, although I know of no historical evidence for this.
Frank R. Tangherlini
San Diego, CA

Only Males Respond

When I wrote my letter suggesting that we perhaps seek substitutes for the word “seminal” (May 2010 issue) in describing important work, I was making a sincere suggestion but at the same time was curious if the response to this issue in the physics community would be similar to that in the education listserv where this topic originated, in which the split was largely (though not exclusively) along gender lines. I could not help but notice that all five letters that APS News published (July 2010) that disagreed with me and said the word should be retained had male signatures. Of course, this sample is too small to draw any conclusions but it was interesting nonetheless.

Mano Singham
Cleveland, OH

Ed. Note: See the accompanying letter by Tarynn M. Witten.

New Word Solves the Problem

In response to the discussion on whether the word “seminal” is sexist as well as sexual, there are two points to be made, and I would also like to offer a potential solution. First, seminal carries forward the homocentric view of scientific research from a time when males were predominant and considered more important researchers in science. Consequently, it is a sexist term unless one is talking about physiological or related dynamics.

As for seminal being seen as a sexual term, I am not sure that we should necessarily eliminate all such terminology from the dialog in science just because it refers to “sexuality.” One need only look at the extensive literature that conflates birth sex with gender. The question “What is your gender?”is incorrect unless you are doing research on gender identity. The correct question is “What is your sex?”

Many individuals incorrectly conflate the word “sex” with sexuality. Consequently, numerous scientific papers, research surveys and discussions misuse gender as an equivalent to birth sex or natal sex in response to the aforementioned difficulty.

I propose the following solution, that I have used for years. When suggesting that a particular piece of research is “seminal” simply replace the word “seminal” with the word “seminovarian.” Everyone gets equal play. Of course, we could take up the question of which should go first, but that's another letter to the editor altogether.

Tarynn M. Witten
Richmond, VA

Economics Underlies Lab Problems

I was pleased to see the June, 2010 article on Los Alamos and Livermore regarding for-fee management and the declining role of science at these institutions. I would like to add economics to your identification of risk aversion as an element undermining excellence and innovation. LANL and LLNL senior managers are motivated to protect the fee and their compensation by first ensuring total compliance with regulations.  Compliance is an easier, lower risk job than taking on hard problems.

Combining the aspects of maximizing the fee with a focus on risk aversion and compliance, the tone at the laboratories has definitely changed, and there is less incentive to solve the national security problems of today.

The nation is in effect losing the full engagement of two distinguished FFRDCs. The management structure DOE put into place is wrong for science laboratories and needs to be changed.

Stephen Knox
Fairfax, VA

Academy Study Prelude to Congressional Action

I would like to add just one important detail not mentioned in the otherwise excellent piece of investigative journalism by Michael Lucibella and Alaina G. Levine that appeared in the June issue of APS News (“It’s a Bumpy Ride to Private Management for Los Alamos, Livermore”).

The article does not mention that concerns over the Labs’ privatization have also captured the attention of the US Congress. The FY 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law last Fall, includes language that mandates a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study of the effects of the contract transition on the Labs’ science and national security missions. Congress is unlikely to make any changes without a comprehensive and authoritative investigation of the facts by the NAS. I have no doubt that, assuming the NAS asks the right questions, with diligent pursuit of supportable, documented answers, they will conclude, as many of us at the Labs have already concluded, that Congress must act to de-privatize.

Even with an NAS study, though, change is going to be extremely difficult to achieve.  This is because of a broader trend that has been underway in this country for many years now: the corporatization of university science and the de-funding of public education. While state legislatures everywhere are cutting education budgets, public universities are taking more and more money from corporations, much of it directed to individual researchers to do research in support of product development. It has become cheaper for corporations to put their research dollars into university labs than to fund and maintain their own corporate research labs.  

This change in the business and funding model for public universities has the longer-term consequence of making undergraduate education more expensive and less accessible, not to mention the adverse effect on basic science. The recent 32% rise in student fees at the University of California–manager of the Labs before the privatization–is just the latest manifestation of this trend. The problem is not unique to California. Almost all states are experiencing the same problem, to greater or lesser degree, but in California there is a growing realization that change is needed, and that change has to be de-privatization and the return of public universities to their original mission of public education and public service.

For this to happen, however, the entire scientific community must take the lead on building public support for change. Nothing less than the integrity of our science–and the future of our nation’s economy–is at stake.

Jeff Colvin
Livermore, CA

“Best and Brightest” are not Deceived

Re:  The story headlined “It’s a bumpy ride to private management for Los Alamos and Livermore” in the June APS News: As much as many of us would have far more to say on this subject, I shall restrict myself to one subject only.

One can wrap all kinds of reasonable sounding talk around “the transition” to private management –the plain reality is that Washington simply wants no further innovation or advances in nuclear weapons, while at the same time keeping some fig leaf capability, “just in case.” A few thousand top physicists, chemists, computer science people and engineers managed by the top university system in the world just wasn’t the right recipe for that. Period. All else is rationalization, as much as the personal repercussions for any of us are brutal.

What astounds me is the continued drivel regarding “the best and the brightest”, from personal comments all the way to the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. Be assured, those “best and brightest” have long figured out what the labs have turned into: That people not qualified to be technicians shut you down if they “feel” what you do is “not safe”-your PhD level training and professionalism count for nothing whatsoever. Or that salary and benefits are now “industry average” (ingenious incentive, isn’t it?). Or imagine the professional pride of being managed by a concrete outfit, with the latest Associate Director holding no more than a bachelor’s degree. And for all that you get to scratch the rust off of some 40 year old warhead once in a while? How can “the best and the brightest” possibly not be attracted by this?

Of course, any director/spokesperson who gets paid well to not have to admit to any problems in public will always assure you just how magnificent it all is. Indeed, to hire new, young people is one solution, because they don’t know any better. But “the best and the brightest?” They’re not that dumb. In fact if you do manage to deceive one, experience shows they’ll leave again quickly enough.

Name Withheld by Request
Livermore, CA

Group Disapproves of Iranian Exception

In an interview with The New York Times on April 5, President Obama discussed The Nuclear Posture Review and indicated, “The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their non-proliferation obligations,” and renounced the development of new nuclear warheads. The Iranian-American Physicists Network Group (IrAP), of which I am president, welcomes President Obama’s commitment not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. However, considering Iran as one of the “outliers”, Obama made an exception regarding Iran.  

The IrAP Board of Directors has issued a statement, which says, in part: As physicists, we realize the devastating power of nuclear weapons and believe no human society should face such a horrible punishment. Through their numerous political parties and NGOs, peace movement, woman’s organizations, student movements, labor unions and human rights organizations, the Iranian people have condemned the current escalation of hostilities and have strived for Iranian government’s compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. We believe all issues should be resolved by non-violent means and negotiations. We strongly disapprove the notable exception regarding Iran in The Nuclear Posture Review and believe it should be reconsidered. The Iranian people should not endure the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, but deserve a peaceful and secure future.

Mostafa Hemmati
Russellville, AR

Fraud Could Be More Common than Thought

With the appearance of David Goodstein’s Back Page [APS News, June 2010], as well as his recently published book, it is a good time to revisit the subject of scientific fraud. Hendrik Schön is possibly the greatest fraudster in the history of physics, and it is all the more remarkable that this fraud took place only ten years ago and at Bell Telephone Laboratories

This scandal has raised a number of very troubling issues, and it is about time that the physics community started to seriously and openly discuss them.

To start, the physics community needs to deal with possibility that fraud is far more common than most of us would like to admit. We need to add to our graduate curriculum a discussion of fraud and ethics in the scientific enterprise. We need to explain to students that science is a human endeavor with both human strengths and human weaknesses. We need to protect and reward whistle blowers and severely punish wrongdoers.

Second, the Schön affair raised the issue of the responsibility of supervisors for the work done by the underlings. I believe we need to hold supervisors to a higher standard of supervision and ethical training that we presently do.

Third, one of the most fundamental tenets of science is the idea that scientific work is reproducible. This tenet was violated numerous times during the Schön affair. The scientific community needs to view nonreproducibility the same way it views the statistically insignificant–namely, a result is only suggestive, until that result is both reproduced by other groups and statistically significant.

Finally, we need to get over our embarrassment of the Schön affair and stop trying to sweep it under the rug. It is by openly and frequently discussing this fraud that we make future frauds less likely.

Bernard J. Feldman
St. Louis, MO

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Editor: Alan Chodos