APS News

Letters to the Editors

Peer Review Weeds Out Good Ideas

Having read in the April 2011 APS News the perceptive letter by Alexander Abashian and the reply by APS president Barry Barish, I strongly agree with Abashian that the most pressing issue facing the physics/astrophysics community is not “research funding” but “originality and excellence of ideas.” More contact with members of Congress probably will produce “pork,” “earmarks” and millions of dollars wasted. Barish argues “we certainly don’t lack for good ideas.” But the fact is that our peer review system weeds many of them out, unless the author is at a very top-level university. Europe suffers far less from this disease. Hence the LHC is rightly located at CERN.

Peer review does not serve us well today. Barish’s claim was partially true in the early fifties when program managers had wide discretion, as was then true at ONR, but when I was a visiting NSF program director in the early eighties, the culture had degenerated so that managers were required to get many opinions and had to decide by counting which was greater, the yeses or noes.  

Abashian is correct when he says approaching new members of Congress is counterproductive to getting the best research supported.
Howard David Greyber
San Jose, CA

Clinton Administration Also Responsible for SSC Termination

The Viewpoint in the May APS News, entitled “Another SSC Moment?”, states that Congress terminated the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC). This was under President Bill Clinton’s administration, which did not favor the SSC and which helped in its termination. The termination of the SSC ended the future of experimental high energy physics in the United States.

John Maloney
Olympia, WA

Old Bulls Don’t Deserve Respect

Michael Lubell in his May “Inside the Beltway” column  says that “Republican freshmen ... have shaken the foundations of Congressional decorum.” He adds that “for as long as any of the old bulls can recall ... new members ... are supposed to be seen, not heard, and they are supposed to toe the line, not charge across it.”

That, indeed, is really great news! Given the wretched nature of our political class, I am not keen on deference being shown to the “old bulls” (most of whom are old bulls because they represent non-competitive districts anyway). The last time the Republicans were in control of Congress they ran up, totally unnecessarily, massive deficits, and it was the old bulls who did it. Good on the new people; may they not find a home inside the Beltway and become like “old bulls” themselves.

Ken Bolland
Columbus, OH

Don’t Show Physics in a Negative Light

With reference to the Profiles in Versatility column in the April APS News, entitled “Designing Games in Sin City Pays Off”: Olaf Vancura got his physics training presumably helped by taxpayer's money through NSF, DOE or NASA grants. Now he uses his acquired skills and innate talents to help Joe the Plumber depart from his hard-earned money as fast as possible, while making himself and the casino owners rich as fast as possible. As he explains, “The key...is to design games that are fun for the players and keeps them playing, even when they are losing..”

Vancura is certainly entitled to have fun and make a living with his activity, in a free society where gambling is legal. But is it really something we want to advertise in half a page of APS News? I’d rather have my member's dues used by APS to publish articles that show physicists using their skills to benefit society–if it’s game design, not the kind of games that can lead players to become addicted and lose their livelihood in the process. I don’t believe this article sheds a positive light on the physics profession, and I believe it certainly won’t encourage taxpayers to support increased government spending in training future scientists.

Jorge E. Hirsch
La Jolla, CA

Another Way to Produce Helium?

Regarding the interesting energy critical elements article (APS News, April 2011), another future source of both energy and helium may be their production by Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) in the Pd-D system. I reported the observation of helium production at the China Lake Navy laboratory in 1991 (see J. Electroanal.Chem., Vol. 346, pp.99-117, 1993), and several other laboratories have reproduced this result.

One can also Google “Nickel Hydrogen Cold Fusion” and read up on Rossi’s work focused on the production of commercial reactors. Although Rossi’s nickel-hydrogen system differs from the palladium-deuterium system, it is apparently more reliable in producing large amounts of energy.

Melvin H. Miles
Ridgecrest, CA

Eakins Paints Rowland. Questions Abound.

The “This Month in Physics History” column in the April APS News on Henry Rowland comments that “Rowland’s name became so strongly associated with diffraction gratings that one is featured in his official 1897 portrait by artist Thomas Eakins.” There is a scientific curiosity in this impressive (~7x5 foot) painting, considered by many critics to be “the finest example of Eakins’ later paintings” (Sidney D. Kirkpatrick, The Revenge of Thomas Eakins, Yale University Press, 2006, p. 431)

In the painting, done after about two weeks of sketching Rowland at his summer home on Mount Desert Island in Maine and a brief visit to Rowland’s Johns Hopkins laboratory, Rowland is shown seated in front of his ruling engine and holding “a card [grating?] inscribed with the spectrum lines of solar light cast by his diffraction grating” (Kirkpatrick). The curiosity (I have seen the original painting) is that the sequence of colors in the spectrum is yellow-orange-red-green-blue-indigo-violet!

Questions abound. Did Eakins, who was supposedly committed to a “scientific” form of painting, know that this was an error? If so, did he consciously assume the prerogative of “artistic license”? Why? Did Rowland see the final painting (there is no evidence that he did)? If so, and presumably recognizing the error, did he ask Eakins to change it? and did Eakins refuse? I have not found that art historians are interested in answers to such questions.

Samuel Krimm
Ann Arbor, MI

Willa Cather Mentions Rowland

There’s a nice literary reference to Rowland in Willa Cather’s “The Professor's House.”

After Tom’s graduation, two courses were open to him. He was offered an instructorship, with a small salary, in the Physics department under Dr. Crane, and a graduate scholarship at Johns Hopkins University. St. Peter strongly urged him to accept the latter. One evening when the family were discussing Tom’s prospects, the Professor summed up all the reasons why he ought to go to Baltimore and work in the laboratory made famous by Dr. Rowland. He assured him, moreover, that he would find the atmosphere of an old Southern city delightful.

I have long recommended this book for its insights into academic life, and for the memorable writing about the South-West.

I tried to find out if Cather knew Rowland, but without success.  

Leonard Finegold
Philadelphia, PA

Rowland Grating Played Key Role in Quantum History

I read the article about Henry Rowland in the April APS News with great interest. To this I would like to add the following:

In 1903, Friedrich Paschen at the University of Tuebingen gained access to one of the best Rowland concave diffraction gratings for his research. Paschen had accepted the appointment as Ordinarius of Physics at Tuebingen in 1901. The diffraction grating had been given to him at the factory price for the concave mirror. Subsequently, the diffraction grating in Tuebingen became world famous because of the research results of Paschen and his students.

From 1912 until about 1930, Paschen’s spectroscopy laboratory in Tuebingen obtained important results for the development of atomic and quantum physics: the Paschen series in the hydrogen spectrum, the Paschen-Back effect discovered in 1912 together with Ernst Back, ortho- and para-helium, the fine structure of He+, and the precision measurement of the Rydberg constant. Starting from the experimental data originating from the Rowland grating in Paschen’s laboratory, Arnold Sommerfeld developed his quantum theory of the structure of atoms.

Rudolf Huebener
Tuebingen, Germany

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Editor: Alan Chodos