APS News

Despite Challenges, New President Sees a Great Time for Physics

Michael Turner

Michael S. Turner


Michael S. Turner, the Bruce V. & Diana M. Rauner Distinguished Service Professor, and Director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago, assumed the APS presidency on January 1st 2013. In the following interview with APS News, he discusses his priorities for the Society during his presidential year.

Congratulations on taking office as APS President!

It’s a great honor to serve as President of APS. The American Physical Society is a fantastic organization: it publishes the best journals, is a strong advocate for physics, serves society by giving science advice, and engages in education and outreach. What really makes APS a great organization is that it has the respect of its members–the members really think very well of APS. And last but not least there are excellent dedicated people working for it. So my goal is not to screw it up, and maybe even make it better.

What do you see as the most pressing issues facing the physics community right now?

The most pressing issues have to do with science budgets. Important decisions will be made in Washington that affect the way that science is funded in the US, and so APS needs to be a strong voice both for science and for basic research and for physics. Not unrelated to that is the public appreciation of science. Science is definitely center stage in this country and around the world. People see science as being the key to innovation. But when you get on center stage, sometimes they throw tomatoes. There are a number of issues, particularly in the US where science is not completely appreciated for what it is and what it isn’t. So I think APS has to be a voice for science. Our nation has big problems, for example energy and climate, and science is the key to solving these problems. APS has played a role in providing the best scientific advice to the public and to the government, and that’s even more important now.

An important challenge to the Society itself has to do with publishing. For almost 120 years we’ve published the Physical Review, which I would call the leading set of journals in physics, accounting for 30% of the citations in physics. We’re at a time where people are looking at new models for publishing, in particular open access. The survival of the Physical Review in this brave new age is very important, and we’re really going to have to stay on top of publishing.

Next on the list is international engagement. When you look at the journals, you see that US authors account for only one third of the papers. There’s nothing wrong with that–science is a global activity. But APS has to make sure that it is engaged globally and internationally, and to figure out what its role is. I don’t think its role is to be the World Physics Organization. We are the American Physical Society, but we have to be globally engaged.

Last but not least on this list is diversity, and that’s been a really stubborn one for physics. When I was a graduate student, if you looked at law, medicine and business, those careers were dominated by white males and law, medicine and business have largely transitioned to being much more diverse occupations, and physics has not. Physics flourishes on a diversity of ideas, and I think our survival depends on physics becoming more diverse. APS has to be an agent for change.

What will be your main focus during your presidential year? What approach will you take towards achieving these goals?

My overarching goal is making sure that physics is as rewarding and exciting for young physicists as it was for myself and others. And I think if that’s our north star, watching out that physics is still that exciting adventure for our younger scientists, we’ll be fine.

Specifically, this next year is going to be important for advocating for basic research, science and physics, and making sure that the public understands the value of science. Science makes so many things happen; people don’t even recognize the invisible hand of science. Making the public realize that science really matters, whether it’s medicine or electronic devices, or jobs–science makes a big difference. I think this year, a continuing focus is to make sure that we transition to this digital publishing age where our journals are still number one, are on a financially strong footing and, as our objective states, are advancing and diffusing the knowledge of physics.

How well do you think the Society is serving its members? Are there any areas where you think APS programs could be enhanced?

I think so. One of the things that strikes me is the good will that our members have towards our Society. There are other societies where their members grumble about the society, or don’t like what their society is doing, and our members feel really really good about the APS and what it does. My two predecessors, Barry Barish and Bob Byer, helped develop a strategic plan for the Society to look forward, to make it better and to better serve the members. The running joke in APS is “Our members love us, and the reason they love us is Physics Today” and of course Physics Today is published by the AIP. But the good news is that our members love us, and we need to better serve them. I’ll just give one example of where I think we can better serve them. We hold big meetings where we bring physicists together, and everybody I know who attends the March Meeting feels that it is a must-attend meeting. The attendance is growing, and probably this year we’ll break 10,000. However, I think at the moment people would not view the April Meeting as a must-attend meeting. So one way that we can better serve our members is to improve our meetings, starting with the April Meeting. The second bullet of the strategic plan is better serving physics, and the meetings come into play there. The third bullet is better serving society, giving advice to the government. I mentioned that the problems facing our nation and the world require solutions that are scientific, and many of them involve physics. The last bullet is one that everyone will benefit from in the end, but in the short term may cause people to doze off–improving the organizational excellence of APS. In 2019, APS will celebrate its 120th birthday, and all organizations have to change with time. I think that it’s incumbent on those who serve as President to ask how the organization can improve so that it serves everyone better.

What do you see as the Society’s role in public policy?

It’s really two-fold. First is looking out for physics and looking out for basic research. Second is giving advice to the government. You couldn’t pick a better example than energy. I think physicists invented the idea of energy, so we know a lot about it. What is this country going to do to satisfy its energy needs? For example, one issue that I think our Panel on Public Affairs will be considering is the lifetime of nuclear power plants. This country has more than 100 nuclear power plants and some of them are reaching their original planned age. Can they be extended, or can they not be extended? That is an area where we can provide advice to the government. I believe we want a country whose decisions are fact-based and science-based and that is where APS can play a role.

What do you see as the Society’s role on international issues?

Increasingly science has become a global activity. Thomas Friedman is famous for saying “the world is flat,” and I think science is pretty much there. There is roughly equal scientific activity in the three geographic regions of Asia, the Americas and Europe. The era of American dominance that we have all been familiar with for the last 50 years is gone, but not the era of American leadership. So an important aspect facing APS is how we operate in this more global science world. I don’t see us becoming the world’s physics society, but I see us becoming an American Physical Society that is globally engaged. There will be lots of areas where we can work more closely together with other physical societies, such as public policy, meetings, and publishing, in service to physics and science.

In recent years, APS has been increasing its focus on education and outreach. What do you think of these efforts and how will you guide them?

I think APS really plays an important role in physics education. Let me just take one example, PhysTEC, where we’re acting as a coordinator and a convener to help solve a national problem, which is the lack of well-trained physics teachers. APS can’t solve this problem alone, APS is not going to train teachers, but we have the power to convene and bring the physics community together, and PhysTEC is really starting to make a dent on this important problem. There are other areas in terms of physics curriculum and physics education, and we have a role in doing this because the physics community needs to shape its own future and make sure it’s a bright one, and we need to do this for the nation.

How will you guide APS through the current difficult economic times?

First of all, in mid-December [then APS President] Bob Byer sent out an action alert asking our membership to contact Congress and urge them not to go over the fiscal cliff and to find a solution. APS is a respected voice in Washington and we have to recognize that the nation does have fiscal problems. We can’t continue with deficits at the level we have now, but if we’re going to move forward and have a bright future we have to keep investing in science. I believe that our Washington office is the best public affairs office of any of the societies, so we’re going to be playing an important role in a rapidly changing and difficult environment.

How did you become interested in physics?

The number one thing had to do with teachers, teachers in high school. I went to public school, so I’m a big advocate for public education. Then, as I went to college, at Caltech, one of my mentors was Barry Barish, who just recently served as APS President, and another was Richard Feynman. It was really teachers and mentors who got me into it. Of course, what keeps you in physics is the big exciting problems that physics addresses. The ones that are of the most interest to me involve cosmology, but if you look across the board in physics, the problems that physicists are addressing, the physics of living systems, energy, new materials and particle physics, among others, it’s even more exciting today. Ultimately that is what gets people really hooked on physics–the kind of questions that we are able to address. 

Why did you choose to run for the APS Presidential Line?

It has to do with the last question–getting into physics and realizing that it involved people and mentors. This is a way to give back and to make sure that physics is as exciting for the next generation as it was for me. I feel that the only way I can pay back my high school teachers and the physicists who mentored me and everyone else is to make sure that a career in physics or in science is as exciting and rewarding as it was for me.

It’s easy to look at the problems that we face, the budgets and some people having negative attitudes towards science and all of that, but this is really a great time for physics. There are opportunities for discovery and contributing to solving the nation’s and the world’s problems, the number of physics majors is growing, the number of PhDs is growing, new scientific facilities are being built, this really is a great time for physics. That’s the number one thing I don’t think we should forget when we look at all the challenges ahead. It’s easy to get bogged down in the weeds when you see that funding may go down a little bit and not everybody appreciates what science is doing, but this is a great time for physics.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella