APS News

Focus on APS Sections

New England Section Played Trailblazing Role

By Eric Betz

Editor's Note:This is the first of an occasional series of columns highlighting the history and achievement of APS Sections. There are currently nine sections, covering most of the United States and parts of Canada.

For many students and researchers working in isolated areas, regional sections define the APS experience, but the idea wasn’t in place from the society’s beginning. It wasn’t until February of 1932 that an APS council approved a constitutional amendment–as proposed by the then 29 year old MIT Faculty member Philip M. Morse–to allow a New England section as the first regional group. Sections were his brainchild from start to finish and he laid out the roles of the officers, drafted the section’s purpose, wrote its first set of bylaws and then lobbied to get it accepted.

“The currents have turned in the American Physical Society,” wrote APS Treasurer George Pegram at the time. “The constitution now provides and the council will encourage the establishment of regional sections.”

As Morse described it in an open letter to APS members that year, the focus of sections should be two-fold: “to provide a point of contact between research workers in physics and workers in fields allied to physics (i.e. teachers); and to relieve the overcrowding of the national meeting programs.”

A distinguished administrator, Morse was a strong first leader of the New England Section and his groundwork was copied by all the sections that would follow. Later in life Morse would also co-found the MIT Acoustics Laboratory, become the first director of Brookhaven and the MIT Computation Center, and eventually serve as President of APS, President of the Acoustical Society of America and board chair of the American Institute of Physics. He had imagined a format that would have two distinct groups of talks at each meeting, one for 10 minute contributed talks and another for invited speakers, and the Physical Review would then print each speaker’s abstract for the society as a whole to read.

“The meeting was a very successful one,” Morse wrote to a colleague the week of the section’s first meeting in Amherst, Mass., “the day was fine and the trees had a grand colouring. People came from all over, several from Maine, a number from Troy and several from New York City. There was considerable discussion of most of the ten minute papers, and a lot of discussion of all the invited papers.”

Among those ten minute talks was one given by Karl Compton and another by Percy Williams Bridgman on the effects of pressure on the electrical resistance of various metals. Nearly 15 years later Bridgman would win the Nobel Prize in physics for related work. Other Nobel Prize winners like Nicolaas Bloembergen and Edward Purcell have also called the section home. 

While the dues have increased substantially from the initial 75 cents and membership has grown from 79 to well over two thousand, Morse’s original vision of lively discussion and promoting “the diffusion of the knowledge of physics” continues to guide the New England section–and indeed every other APS section–to this day. As current New England Chair and Yale Professor Peter Parker describes it, the twice-yearly meetings are of course the group’s main purpose, but physics education is also still a priority.

“People come to see their colleagues, hear plenary talks, and give their students the chance to present,” said Parker, “but a side purpose is to support the development of teachers, and we frequently meet jointly with AAPT.”

The section now includes members at more than 40 universities in six states including storied institutions like Yale, Harvard and MIT, as well as a number of smaller distinguished schools like Middlebury and Wesleyan. “It’s an interesting section in that it covers a diverse area and a diverse range of schools,” said Parker.

This year’s October meeting will be at Brown University in Rhode Island and will focus on issues in Nanobiophysics. According to the program “plenary sessions will highlight leading research in the manipulation, imaging, and study of biological systems at the nanoscale. Recent insights into the teaching of physics, as well as teaching workshops, will also be showcased. “Another New England Nobel Laureate, Leon Cooper, will be the banquet speaker.

Gray arrow  New England Section (NES)

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Editor: Alan Chodos