APS News

Letters to the Editor

Lost in Translation

The sole purpose of my letter published in the July APS News was to clarify the fact that Richard Feynman was over 60 years old and NOT a graduate student in the “mid-eighties,” with no other implication regarding the likelihood of the existence of a graduate student of such an age. John A. Dudek concluded that my comment, in conjunction with the title “World's Oldest Graduate Student?,” suggests “that it is not feasible (or perhaps possible) to find a 60 year old graduate student.” This interpretation would seem correct, were it not for the fact that APS News wrote the headline of my letter, and not I, as he and most readers likely assumed. I have included my own title this time and will do so in the future to avoid potential misunderstandings. Nevertheless, Dudek should be commended for (unlike Richard Feynman) receiving his PhD in Mathematics at an age so distant from the mean of that demographic.

An interesting side note: A woman by the name of Nola Ochs in 2007 became the oldest person ever to receive a bachelor's degree at age 95. This year, at age 98, she has received a master’s degree in liberal studies with a history concentration. If Ms. Ochs continues her education, she may well become the first centenarian graduate student.

Edgardo Browne
El Cerrito, California

Just Too Silly

One reason that I did not respond earlier to Mano Singham's letter about the word “seminal” is that I thought that it was really too silly to bother with. As a female physicist who suffered some discrimination at the beginning of my career, I find it ridiculous to nitpick about words that really have nothing to do with gender discrimination, on the chance that someone might think they do. Years back I laughed at the Zero Gravity piece about fusion in nail polish remover and could not understand the fuss about possible gender discrimination. This is really ridiculous. As is the fuss over the word “seminal.” The letter about a new word was equally silly.

Edith Borie
Karlsruhe, Germany

Ed. Note: the Zero Gravity in question appeared in the May, 2002 issue of APS News (available online).

The Charm of History

For this regular reader of APS News, its greatest charm is the depth of its historical perspective. It is refreshing not only to be reminded in the August/September number of Empedocles’ contribution to our insight into the speed of light, but to be reminded of our roots in ancient Greece and the quest of its greatest minds into what for millennia was called “Natural Philosophy”–a term which is still preserved in Scottish universities and which recalls and preserves our precious intellectual heritage.

Lawrence Cranberg
Austin, TX

SPIN-UP Report Tells How It’s Done

We were pleased to read Sacha Kopps’s The Back Page article (APS News, August/September 2010) about the success of the University of Texas at Austin’s efforts to enhance its undergraduate physics program.  Almost all of the elements of the Austin activities are in alignment with the common features of thriving undergraduate physics programs described in the Strategic Programs in Undergraduate Physics (SPIN-UP) report published in 2003. (The report is available online at http://www.aapt.org/Programs/projects/ntfup.cfm.) Those common features include (1) recognizing that the department “owns” the problem of recruiting and retaining students in physics (we can’t just blame the admissions office), (2) understanding why our students choose or don’t choose physics as a major, (3) getting our best educators to teach the introductory physics courses (which are the interface between the department and the largest number of students), and (4) building a sense of community among our students and faculty members. As editors of the SPIN-UP report, we encourage other physics departments to follow UT Austin’s lead to find ways to enhance their undergraduate physics program. The SPIN-UP report provides 21 case studies that can help you get started. If you would like to know what is going on currently in undergraduate physics education in a number of large departments, we suggest reading the report from a SPIN-UP workshop held this summer at Rutgers University that outlines those 17 departments’ activities. The report is available at http://aapt.org/Programs/projects/spinup/upload/rutgers_final_report.pdf .

Robert C. Hilborn,
Richardson, TX

Ruth H. Howes,
Santa Fe, NM

Kenneth S. Krane,
Corvallis, OR

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Editor: Alan Chodos