APS News

Letters to the Editor

January 1851: First Reference to Photography in Literature

In connection with the article January 2, 1839: First Daguerreotype** of the Moon [This Month in Physics History: APS News January 2013], the following note may be of some interest.

The first reference, of which I am aware, to photography in literature, both as a science and as a profession, occurs in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romance The House of the Seven Gables, which was completed for publication in Lenox, Massachusetts, in January, 1851. In chapter 6 of this work, the author, who does not dwell on technical details, develops the notion that the daguerreotype is capable of drawing out and revealing intrinsic human characteristics normally not visible–in this case the true nature of Judge Pyncheon. A man of “exceedingly pleasant countenance, indicative of benevolence ...” is revealed as “sly, subtle, hard, ....., cold as ice.” Oscar Wilde was later to develop a similar theme in more extreme form in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).

**Hawthorne’s spelling follows that of the surname Daguerre, without abbreviation.

John Douglas Hey
Calgary, Alberta

Anxiety Over Peer Review Somewhat Exaggerated

On the basis of my own recent experience of submitting, as a joint author, a paper which challenged accepted dogma, to a well-regarded journal, I wonder if Arthur Cohn’s letter in the January APS News is not expressing a bit too much anxiety about peer review.

Our paper, as submitted, naturally had a pretty hard time from the referees and had to be extensively revised. But after a couple of passes one referee agreed, regretfully, that we had a point and that the paper should be published. Another referee felt that our conclusions were so misleading as to be damaging and so the paper should not be published. The Editor then stepped in and said he had decided that the paper should be accepted, as it was important that it should be realised more generally, that there were problems with the accepted dogma.

Since publication we have received a number of emails commenting on the paper. They range from one saying that the paper was “crazy nonsense” to another saying that our article was “a rehash of old stuff that has been known for a long time.” But all were courteously expressed.

Our experience was not what your correspondent seems to fear and, as expected, the reactions to our dogma-questioning were varied. But even those who felt that we were wrong, expressed themselves in measured terms.

As an aside, I do not quite follow the analogy with the Lysenko affair, made in the letter. It was the intervention of the state authorities and not peer review that got Lysenko’s views to become dogma, as I understand it.

Brian Sutcliffe
Brussels, Belgium

Interview left questions unanswered

Regarding the interview with new APS President Michael S. Turner (APS News, January 2013) in view of the needs of the nation and the role that should be expected of our physics community, I would have specifically liked to hear his opinions on the following topics:

  1. What should be the role of APS in preparing its physics trained constituents (e. g. graduate students) for permanent employment?
  2. Since most physicists in this country do not work in academia, what should be the relation between APS and its industrial colleagues?
  3. When the money runs out in Washington (the current Congress, no matter what we try to ask of them, has no intention of increasing funding for science), how will our APS academic colleagues receive the funds they need? Who will provide the money that Congress does not intend to provide?
  4. What role should physicists play in restoring the nation’s manufacturing base?
  5. Once its publications’generated income dries up (with the inevitability of open source publishing), how does APS intend to support itself? (Fewer than a couple of hundred APS members donate annually to the APS general fund.)
  6. Should the APS restructure its meetings formats to bring them into a more efficient and realistic structure such as has been implemented by our older sister organization, the American Chemical Society? (Among the absurdities is splitting the national meeting into two somewhat arbitrary, though closely related, groups. The enormous energies and costs devoted with “sorting sessions” should certainly be reduced; probably by asking each abstract author to sort his/her own.)

Philip J. Wyatt,
Santa Barbara, CA

Planck is a European Mission

The article on “April Meeting features latest research and more” in the January issue of APS News speaks about “NASA’s Planck satellite.” The Planck satellite is an ESA mission, which has been launched by ESA, with mission teams led by European Institutes. The contribution of NASA to Planck is important, but to speak about “NASA’s Planck satellite” would be like talking about ESA's Hubble mission–an unnecessary case of mis-information...

Tanja Rindler-Daller
Austin, TX

Beltway Column Reflects Bias

I look forward to reading Michael Lubell’s Inside the Beltway columns. They are so “over the top” and humorous, they make me laugh. In his column in the January APS News, New Directions or More of the Same, he manages to insert inflammatory expressions and partisan bias into 8 of the 32 sentences he wrote, e.g., “overt or threatened obstructionism,” “peddles our nation’s future prospects for a fire sale price,” “tea party ideologues” (as contrasted with “determined democrats”), “push our nation into default,” “opposition to compromise,” “far right ideologues,” “rebellious rabble,” and “hold the nation’s credit worthiness hostage.” It would be funny except that the column comes under the banner of the APS Director of Public Affairs where one might expect real professionalism and insightful analysis.

William R. Ott,
Gaithersburg, MD

The article ‘New directions or more of the same’ by Michael Lubell that appeared in the January APS News is another example of biased journalism. I will give Lubell credit for managing to get through four paragraphs before veering sharply to the left. His characterization of the Tea Party as “rebellious rabble,” ‘ideologues” dedicated to “obstructionism” and responsible for the “downgrading of US Treasury bonds” is absurd, pure leftist propaganda.

I think the idea of a column such as ‘Inside the beltway’ is a good one, but we need an unbiased journalist to write it.

Thomas Wolfram
San Clemente, CA

Michael Lubell replies:

To readers who found some of the rhetorical flourishes in my January column to be over the top, I apologize for the offense. But in my defense, I note that although I often take credit for smart turns of phrase, in my last piece I cribbed many of the objectionable terms from non-partisan Washington publications such as National Journal, CQ, Roll Call, Politico and the Hill.

One note I struck that some readers found objectionably discordant was my assertion that Republican strategy had coalesced around obstructionism. Anyone who doubts the truth of my claim I direct to the PBS Frontline program, “Inside Obama’s Presidency,” which aired on Jan. 15. The narrative included on-camera statements from top political strategist Frank Luntz, who took credit for organizing a meeting of Republican luminaries the night of the 2009 inaugural to discuss how the GOP could “obstruct” the new president’s policies. And in their thoughtful Jan. 26 National Journal piece on how to reboot the Republican Party, Tim Alberta and Jim O’Sullivan noted that “Republicans on Capitol Hill have been rebranded since 2008 as the reliable obstructionists, a group known more for its reflexive opposition … than its proactive problem solving.”

Finally, on my observation that the Tea Party wing of the House Republicans–often called “raucous,” “rebellious” and “ideological” by the Washington media–had threatened to hold the credit of the United States hostage to their demand spending cuts, I note that former House Speaker Republican Newt Gingrich used a similar turn of phrase in urging them to abandon that strategy.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella