APS News

Letters to the Editor

Jack Marburger Remembered

Dear Friends and Colleagues,
You may have seen the very sad news from the APS homepage noting the passing of John H. Marburger, or “Jack,” as we all called him. Jack had many important positions and occasions in which he served the physics community. Perhaps some of you may remember him best as Director of Brookhaven Laboratory, or others may have known him more recently as President Bush’s Science Advisor and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  Many of us have worked with him, and some of us have worked for him, and all of us must admire his dedication to science and his sense of duty and commitment.   

While Jack’s many professional accomplishments are highlighted on our webpage, I want to take this opportunity to talk about Jack on a more personal level, as his contributions transcend any job title or accolade–and his loss will be intimately felt by many of us. I had quite a few meetings with Jack over the years. I was always particularly impressed with his dedication and deep interest in science, and even more by his sensitivity to the human aspects of doing science.

Jack had been battling cancer for some time–defeating the pervasive drain on vigor and spirit that overwhelm many with such a disease, he was still able to carry out his high level responsibilities. He was a beloved husband, father, friend and mentor. While Jack was tall and robust, it was his enthusiasm, his dedication to service, and his open and affable nature, that made him a giant in the eyes of many who knew him.

Sometimes, there are simply no words to adequately acknowledge the loss of a truly good and honorable man. This is one of those times. And for that reason, I must conclude here, perhaps ineloquently, yet ever sincerely, expressing my deep sadness for his passing, and my utmost respect for his life.

Barry Barish
President, APS

Top 20 American Physicists of 1903

In connection with the inquiry of Henry R. Lewis in the May issue, it seems inconsistent with the character and tone of APS journals that a listing of physicists in order of (presumed) merit would have appeared in one of its publications.

There was one such listing, of “leading men of science in the United States in 1903 arranged in order of distinction in each science,” made in 1903 by J. McKeen Cattell, professor of psychology at Columbia, publishing entrepreneur, and leader in the movement for faculty free speech and participation in governance. It was published in the fifth edition of American Men of Science (1933). It might have been recalled to people’s attention in the late 1940s by the appearance of  Stephen S. Visher’s Scientists Starred, 1903-1943, in American Men of Science; a study of collegiate and doctoral training, birthplace, distribution, backgrounds, and developmental influences (1947), which did publish the lists. The Visher book was reviewed in Science and Nature, though without mention of the lists, and there were perhaps reviews in  other places.      

Cattell recruited ten leading and representative physicists to make rank-ordered lists of twenty or more researchers, and then compiled the results. There are 154 names in all. The first twenty are (we give the names as Cattell gave them, but add institutional affiliation):

(1) Albert Abraham Michelson, Chicago;
(2) Carl Barus, Brown;
(3) Edward L. Nichols, Cornell;
(4) Arthur Gordon Webster, Clark;
(5) John Trowbridge, Harvard;
(6) M. I. Pupin, Columbia;
(Edward Williams Morley, Case–ranked second in chemistry, but would have been seventh in physics);
(7) Ernest Fox Nichols, Columbia;
(8) Samuel Pierpont Langley, Smithsonian;
(9) DeWitt Bristol Brace, Nebraska;
(10) Elihu Thomson, General Electric-Lynn;
(11) Robert Simpson Woodward, Columbia;
(12) Charles Proteus Steinmetz, General Electric-Schenectedy;
(13) Henry Smith Carhart, Michigan;
(14) Edwin H. Hall, Harvard;
(15) J. S. Ames, Johns Hopkins;
(16) Henry Crew, Northwestern;
(17) R. W. Wood, Johns Hopkins;
(18) F. L. O. Wadsworth, Allegheny Observatory;
(19) Benjamin Osgood Peirce, Harvard;
(20) Ernest Merritt, Cornell.  

J. Willard Gibbs and Henry A. Rowland would surely have been at the top of the list with Michelson, but Rowland had died in 1901, and Gibbs in April of 1903.  Cattell includes some cautions about taking the fine details too seriously, especially as one gets deeper into the list.

There are some electrical engineers on the list, and some inventors were also included, for example (23) Alexander Graham Bell, (28) Thomas Alva Edison, (65) Nikola Tesla. In both categories, Cattell says, they were included because of their contributions to physics.

One can find in the Cattell Papers in the Library of Congress strong evidence that the ten physics rankers were: Michelson, E. L. Nichols, Webster, E. F. Nichols, Thomson, Carhart, Ames, Wadsworth, William S. Franklin (24 on the list), and Wallace C. Sabine (27 on the list).

Cattell implies, in American Men of Science, fifth edition, that he has made, or was making, a similar list for 1932, but that it wouldn’t be published for at least twenty years. That list, if it did get made, is not known to us.

Guy Emery and Alfred Fuchs
Brunswick, ME

Reducing Coal Use an Important Topic of Study

A great deal of the effort being spent on an endless debate about global warming could be better used. Many of the things proposed to deal with global warming would be desirable in any case.

One of the most important is reduced use of coal. In March, while the world was focused on the nuclear crisis in Japan, the US  EPA released proposed new emission standards for toxic materials, including mercury, in coal emissions. The EPA estimated this change would prevent 15,000 deaths per year. Yet the proposed rules came under attack in a Congressional hearing this week.

With increasing use of coal power worldwide, in China and other countries without even the current US standards, the release of toxic materials into the environment should be a major concern. Even if emissions are controlled, one still has the problem of disposing of toxic coal ash.

I would hope that the new topical group on the physics of climate will enlarge its focus to study the broader issues involved in any energy policy.  

Mary Beth Ruskai
Arlington, MA

Back Page Authors Respond to Comments on Women in Physics

Ed. Note: In the July Letters column, there were a number of replies to the Back Page article by Marie-Claire Shanahan and Zahra Hazari on women in physics. Below, Shanahan and Hazari respond.

Investigations into gender in science, and in physics in particular, are complex and often elicit differences of opinion. Our Back Page article in the June APS News brought several interesting responses from readers. One Physics PhD student expressed disappointment that this study did not address the voices of women on the physics faculty career path and the challenges they face. We were specifically interested, however, in an earlier stage of the physics career path: the transition between high school and undergraduate physics and trends that could be identified in students’ high school experiences. The reader is correct in the assertion that female physicists do not necessarily pursue physics because they want to help others. However, for general populations of students at the primary, secondary, and undergraduate levels, the evidence overwhelmingly points to the fact that women (to a greater extent than men and more than other motivations) report wanting careers in which they can help others. We recognize, though, that overall trends do not capture every individual voice. 

Another reader, Alvin M. Saperstein, asks about the possibility that this study addressed students too late and that differences in mathematics interest may be more important. In the full paper, on which this Back Page was based, we note the importance of confidence in mathematics and include it in our measure but also recognize that studies among younger students suggest that other factors are more predictive (e.g., Tai, Liu, Maltese & Fan, 2006). Our data also indicate that among students who reported wanting to be a physicist, females became interested during high school while many males became interested prior to high school. The dearth of early interest in physics supports the reader’s concern that we need to reach more girls prior to high school, particularly since girls report fewer physics-related experiences, but at the same time disconfirms the supposition that high school is too late. High school physics teachers still have the opportunity to make a difference, even if they are in some ways working against the odds.  

Finally, Karl D. Stephan suggests that our essay approached underrepresentation as a moral wrong, a position belying a radical individualist philosophy which would see exact proportional representation as the only option. While this may be his interpretation of our position, it was not the argument that we made. Our findings that science classroom practices impact identity in both male and female students and that simple discussion of representation seems to have particular influence on female students suggests that we are not yet in a position where all the women who would want to enter physics have necessarily had the opportunity to do so. The contemporary research indicates that young women’s interest is mediated by external factors not related to physics itself, stemming instead from social ontologies (e.g. archetypes regarding what it means to be a physicist). Exact proportional representation is not necessarily the goal, but having girls turn away from physics studies because of social ontologies is a loss to physics and to girls themselves as they lose the opportunity to participate in a subject they may love.      

We are grateful to the APS and its members for the opportunity to engage in these important discussions through an essay in the Back Page.

Fewer PhDs, Better Trained

“Women Face Slim Odds for Academic Careers” (July APS News) is one of the most honest letters I have ever read in this APS publication. It focuses on the sad stand of women in physics but it really brings to mind the sad situation of all PhD students. I agree with the author that most PhD students do want to stay in academia. The point that everybody agrees on is that there are no positions. That the odds are indeed “one-in-a-million” is a fact. This is an issue that is always overlooked.

I propose:
(1) The physics community should lobby for a reduction of the number of PhD students accepted by physics departments. Take the money saved with fewer PhD students and compensate the remaining number of PhDs better (pay and other educational benefits).

(2) Create an office within each PhD department that is responsible for career counseling. This should help students to plan the future.

It would be especially helpful for industry-bound students, suggesting classes in management and other industry-relevant topics. We should prepare entrepreneurs and not only good employees.

A. Christian Silva
Houston, TX

Individual Physicists Deserve Credit

I was disconcerted by the July “This Month in Physics History” column. Most of us at Fermilab were pleased at this recognition of an important piece of neutrino physics. The article was well written and in many ways  comprehensive. The historical lead-in citing a number of important individual contributions to neutrino physics was accurate, interesting, and useful.

What was discouraging was the sense that the “Laboratory” had done the experiment. While laboratories facilitate experiments, they do not do them. People do experiments. Perhaps the problem here was that so many people from so many places contributed. Specifically the work  of Japanese institutions working on emulsions was pivotal to the experiment. Six US and several other foreign universities made important contributions. Finally, real people from Fermilab such as Byron Lundberg and Regina Rameika were deeply involved for years on this experiment.

Generally, scientists working on an experiment deserve nearly as much citation as their predecessors.

Dick Carrigan
Batavia, IL

Lubell Column Brings Out Partisan Divide

Michael Lubell in his July Inside the Beltway column quotes some impressive statistics from the Pew Foundation that only 6% of the scientists they polled self-identify as Republican and 55% as Democrat. This correlates strongly with identification as conservative or liberal. He deplores this “instinctive distaste for Republicans,” seeing it as an unreasonable and baseless prejudice.

The notable imbalance he reports may be based on an inescapable reality. Professionally and personally scientists need to be more dedicated and more sensitive to the pursuit of truth and the correction of error than would be to the self-interest of either the power and money hungry or the politician. That scientists tend to be more idealistic–and perhaps more public-spirited–than the general population is no surprise, nor is the correlation of those ideals with liberalism. The chain of correlations is tight, and it makes sense. Nobody doubts that the Republicans claim the banner of “conservative”, nor that some Democrats claim that of “liberal”. What Lubell deplores follows as a necessary part of what we are and what we do. We are a minority, and we contribute something special to society. We can be proud of our standards.

As scientists it is our business as it is our natural inclination to look toward facts and to question common perceptions and sloganeering. When Lubell tells us that the public “wants the federal government to begin to balance its books” it is worth remembering that Clinton and the Democrats left the treasury with a healthy surplus. What party was it that squandered it, and wants to insure that it will not be rebuilt?

Felix Smith
San Francisco, CA


At Livermore Lab in the Fifties, Bill Newcomb and I shared an office. We would joke about the blind overwhelming distaste for Republicans that most physicists had, and ascribed it to their naive prejudices and their willful ignorance about politics. Michael Lubell’s excellent column described just one instance of this.

It is the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan, that can and will really help American science and technology, once the big government controlling Barack Obama is defeated in 2012. It is the Republican Party that can and will enact badly needed reforms in public high school mathematics and science education.
Howard D. Greyber                           
San Jose, CA                  

Song of the Tau Neutrino

I was reading the July “This Month in Physics History” (Fermilab Announces First Direct Evidence for Tau Neutrino) to my wife Alice, a sociologist and folk singer. When I got to “... particles passing through..” she burst into song:

Passing through, passing through,
Sometimes happy, sometimes blue,
Glad that I collided with you,
Tell the people that you saw
A muon neutrino change into a tau.

H. Richard Leuchtag
Bandera, TX

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos