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Letters to the Editor

More on Physicists and Their Shirts

The letter by Tor Laankan in the June APS News on how physicists lose their shirts reminds me of a time when they didn't.It was at the 1986 March APS Meeting in Las Vegas. The casinos and locals were not happy about our lack of participation in the many activities that are offered to visitors. It was reported that one pit boss said, “They came with a single twenty dollar bill and one shirt, and they changed neither.”

Marvin L. Cohen
Berkeley, CA

Sir Christopher Wren and His Prize

“This Month in Physics History” for July, 2013 discusses scientific wagers, specifically those made by Stephen Hawking. The column discusses the reward of a book worth 40 shillings that Sir Christopher Wren offered in January, 1684 to “the first person able to demonstrate that Kepler’s laws could be derived from the inverse-square law.”

However, in The Life of Sir Isaac Newton by David Brewster (J. & J. Harper, New York 1833), pp. 145-146, the author writes that Sir Christopher, at a January, 1684 meeting with Halley and Hooke, offered that book to “either of the two philosophers who should, in the space of two months, bring him a convincing demonstration of it.” I think this qualifies more as a prize than as a wager, as both Halley (who was able to demonstrate it for circular orbits) and Hooke (who claimed he had a general proof) believed it was true. Moreover, the prize was not generally announced: it was a private competition between Halley and Hooke.

Only seven months later, in August, 1684, did Halley go to Cambridge to present the question to Newton, after the term of the promise that Sir Christopher made already had expired. Newton of course had the solution. Halley announced on December 10, 1684 to the Royal Society that he saw Newton’s solution in his treatise “De Motu Corporum in gyrum,” and the rest is history.

Incidentally, Mordechai Feingold in The Newtonian Moment (Oxford University Press, Oxford 2004), pp. 29-30 writes that it was “probably” Hooke’s suggestion to Halley to go to Cambridge to ask Newton, as Newton had already told Hooke some three years earlier that he knew that the shape of the orbit in an inverse-square force field was an ellipse. It appears that Newton could have won Sir Christopher’s prize already over three years before it was proposed!

Lior Burko
Huntsville, AL

Physics History and the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism

I was pleased to see the headline "APS Honors Vera Rubin and Kent Ford at Carnegie Institution" in the July APS News. On more than one occasion, I have had the pleasure of meeting Vera Rubin, who represents astrophysics in a fashion all can aspire to. Michael Turner's presence at a place where the existence of dark matter got an early nod makes perfect sense both in his role as APS President and as a distinguished astrophysicist and cosmologist.

Turner contributed some remarks on pp. 8-9 of the September 2008 issue of Physics Today about the work of my father, Ralph A. Alpher, together with Robert C. Herman, and George A. Gamow in the 1940s. The article bore the catch title "From abg to Precision Cosmology: The Amazing Legacy of a Wrong Paper," but in fact it recognized the beginning of modern precision cosmology on April 1, 1948 with the first publication emerging from Alpher's dissertation on nucleosynthesis. Few citing the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow letter to Physical Review recognize just what it is, or where it came from. The addition of Hans Bethe's name, in homage to the Greek alphabet, and the submission itself, were purely Gamowian. Alpher's first dissertation, involving theoretical work on galaxy formation, was "scooped" by E. Lifshitz in 1946 in the Journal of Physics USSR (E. Lifshitz, 10, 116-129). Gamow likely wanted this not to happen again–hence the publication even before Alpher's dissertation defense. This second dissertation on nucleosynthesis work emerged from the "hot big bang" proposed by Gamow in 1946 (G. Gamow, Physical Review, 1946, 70, 373-375). It took Alpher's mathematical genius to bring the idea to fruition as a precise theory of nucleosynthesis. This is noted by prominent historians of physics including Helge Kragh and Stephen G. Brush, among others.  

I urge anyone interested in this history to read Turner's short article, Alpher and Herman's accounts, or one of my recent publications (e.g., V.S. Alpher, "Ralph A. Alpher, Robert C. Herman, and the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation," Physics in Perspective, 2012, 14, 300-334.) Ralph Alpher published, along with colleagues at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), the first estimates of the temperature of the Cosmic Microwave Blackbody Radiation (Nature, 1948, 162, 774; Physical Review, 1949, 75, 1089). This work was done independently of Gamow, who opposed the concept theoretically but did publish an estimate himself in 1953. JHUAPL had been the administrative arm of DTM from 1942 through 1945. DTM helped Alpher get his start in applied physics. Herman joined JHUAPL in 1942. Gamow, a consultant to the Navy's Bureau of Ordnance during the war, as was Alpher, passed through the doors at DTM and JHUAPL many a time.

The Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM) deserves much broader recognition. In 1940 President Roosevelt authorized the establishment of the National Defense Research Council (NDRC), headed by Vannevar Bush. Ralph A. Alpher was at the time working at the Carnegie Institution of Washington (CIW) and assigned to the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism under Scott Forbush. They were analyzing geomagnetic data gathered from around the globe. Suddenly, everyone was working for the NDRC under the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which had the task of bringing applied technology up to the level of eventual adversaries Germany and Japan.

There was not a moment to lose in this effort, and DTM, with its wartime development efforts headed by Merle Tuve, was the epicenter not only of recruiting and hiring the best scientific and technological minds from across the country under the cloak of secrecy, but also of the early development of new methods in naval degaussing and the first "smart bomb" known as the proximity fuze, which made its debut in January, 1943 in the USS Helena's anti-aircraft guns. After deployment, it neutralized most kamikaze attack on naval vessels.  Deployed finally by the Army in the Ardennes, the proximity fuze helped turn back Hitler's last, desperate offensive. The work at DTM made a decisive difference in the outcome of the war as recognized by the plaudits given the work done there by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, General George S. Patton, Admiral George Hussey, Jr. and others.

The DTM has often been at the forefront of scientific work, whether it be pure science, science in the public interest, or science applied to national defense. The Department itself maintains a finding aid of more than a century of magnificent achievements that would rival any academic research university (Department of Terrestrial Magnetism General Files, 1904-Present, carnegiescience.edu/legacy/findingaids/DTM-2005-07-General.html). I suggest we take note again of the singular role of the DTM in service to the nation, as well as a place where the existence of dark matter received a valuable lift.

Victor S. Alpher
Austin, TX

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella