APS News

Letters to the Editor

The Bose in Boson

APS News (November 2013) reviewed the awarding of the 2013 Nobel Prize to Francois Englert and Peter Higgs for correctly predicting the existence of the Higgs Boson. Englert is quoted saying “The boson by itself is something that is the experimental test of the whole mechanism and one had to wait.”

This is a very subtle comment. The strange particles found at CERN, their statistical behavior, and their ability to condense have been respectively named bosons, Bose Statistics, and Bose condensation after Satyendra Nath Bose of Calcutta University (1894-1974). Bose developed the concept and published the results in a seminal paper (1924) almost three quarters of a century ago.

During the “wait,” major advances based on the boson have been made. The first experimental validation of the Bose theory [for atomic gases] was made by Wolfgang Ketterle, Eric Cornell, and Carl Wieman. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001. The concept of particles acquiring mass due to interactions with an underlying field was predicted theoretically and independently by Francois Englert and Peter Higgs in 1964.

The prediction was validated through these experiments, and Englert and Higgs were awarded the Nobel Prize. Regrettably, the name of the originator of the boson concept and its properties, S. N. Bose, has rarely been mentioned in the published literature even as a footnote during these eight decades. “Stuff happens,” as they say.

P. Mahadevan
Fullerton, California

A Victory and The One That Got Away

In his commentary “We Need Undirected Research” (The Back Page APS News January 2014), Byron Roe correctly states the need for self-directed research. He mentions Xerox and the personal computer as “A cautionary tale.”

Throughout the history of both the laser xerographic printer and the Palo Alto Research Center’s contributions to the personal computer, I reported either to Jack Goldman or George Pake. I became Director, Forward Technical Planning at Xerox corporate headquarters where I worked closely with George R. White, another physicist who was Vice-President for Corporate Planning.

Goldman, Pake, and White are all deceased, so I may be the best person to comment on Roe’s “cautionary tale.” Roe states that there was a lack of communication between the scientists and middle management. It was much more complicated than that. Goldman was a Senior Vice-President and a Board member of Xerox, while Pake and White were Vice-Presidents. All three were upper management. I was middle management. The conflict was between risk-averse MBA’s and visionary PhD’s at all levels.

We failed to carry the day regarding the personal computer. The ALTO research prototype ($80,000 per copy) was engineered to become the $16,000 Star, which had limited market appeal. Apple introduced the similar Lisa computer at $15,000, but adroitly followed up with the stripped-down Macintosh at just under $10,000. It didn’t even have a modem at that price, but since the price tag was below a common $10K “capital request” threshold, many engineers could purchase one without justifying their decision. (They didn’t know what it was good for yet, but they knew they wanted one.) Xerox didn’t respond adequately to the Macintosh, and lost the moment.

We won regarding laser printers, but only through a ploy developed by White and me. We established four programs: three product programs–one each for high-speed, midrange, and low-end printers–and a fourth program that contained all the R&D spending. Financial analysts sniped at each of the product programs but were never able to suspend all three at the same time, so the R&D spending continued without interruption until the high-end laser printer got to market.

I am proud of my efforts in helping to bring the first laser printers, invented by Gary Starkweather, to market. I was elected a Fellow of the APS partly for that reason. As for the personal computer? You can’t win them all.

Edward C. McIrvine
Asheville, North Carolina

Physicists Need to Engage with Congress and The Public

Having served for just over three decades, first as a research program manager and then as a senior science advisor for a federal agency with a history of providing substantial support to scientific research, I feel Michael Lubell is to be applauded (“Time to Hit the Road,” APS News, December 2013). Lubell highlights issues relevant to understanding how the US Congressional legislative process affects the health of the nation’s science enterprise: “...the prospects for a good science deal are poor unless the public gets behind such [initiatives]…” as “advancing the policies and authorization levels needed to strengthen American’s science and innovation enterprise….” Moreover, he added “The public has little knowledge of the societal benefits of science....”

As cited by Lubell, scientists, with few exceptions, are not generally inclined to devote attention to the matter. From my experience, doing so will tax energy, time, and money from their efforts to conduct research, a talent that required years of training and practice. When asked about having to manage a research program with a relatively limited budget, the only answer I could provide in good conscience was to urge that congressional representatives be consulted. This advice remains appropriate today. In addition, it is clear that scientists would do well to reach out to the general public such as speaking before social clubs in their communities.

By coincidence, nearly 15 years ago, I came across the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, which was designed to have its Fellows translate environmental science findings to inform the public, presented in layperson language. Establishing such a program for the physical sciences is viable and responsive to the advice cited in Lubell’s column.

J. V. Martinez
Silver Spring, Maryland

Industrial Postdocs Offer Long-term Benefits

Brad Conrad, in his article “Renewed Focus on Early Career Physicists” (APS News, December 2013) makes many useful points about how APS can help non-academic-oriented physicists in the early stages of their careers. I believe he omits one such important aid.

Over the last half-century, a standard, well-recognized, route into academic physics was the post-doctoral position–basically short term, semi-independent research at a well established academic research institution. The APS served an important role in connecting new doctorates with available post-doctoral positions: advertising and assisting recruitment for existing positions and advocating for the financing of additional ones.

To the best of my knowledge, APS has not done the same for industrial postdocs. Small industrial firms are not likely to be in the position to offer many such useful temporary positions (useful to both the firm and the candidate post-doc), but the larger firms–GE, IBM, Boeing, etc–may very well be able to do so. I think it would be very useful for the APS (or its Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics) to attempt to proselytize among these larger firms for the creation of “industrial postdocs,” pointing out to them the long-term benefits to them of creating a national cadre of well-versed non-academic physicists as well as the more obvious short-term benefits of augmenting their staffs with “new blood.”

Perhaps a meeting of the senior science executives of these firms, called by the APS, could initiate a series of these well-publicized industrial postdoc positions. This could establish a new career route for newly graduated physicists and those seeking career changes.

Alvin M. Saperstein
Detroit, Michigan


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