APS News


Neon Lights and the National Bureau of Standards

In the December 2015 APS News, “This Month in Physics History” has the headline “December 1910: Neon lights debut at Paris Motor Show.” What took the French so long? Neon light signs debuted in 1904.

The National Bureau of Standards [now the National Institute for Standards and Technology] displayed a neon light sign spelling out “NBS,” and a helium light sign spelling out “Helium,” in 1904. These were placed in the NBS pavilion at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition held in St. Louis in the summer of 1904. The Bureau’s enclosed electrical exhibit was cooled by a 10-ton air conditioner. Besides being a great exhibit, the electrical judges spent considerable time enjoying “the cool.” NBS was awarded a grand prize.

A photograph of the signs and some history appear at OPEN: The History of Neon Signs

Stanley D. Rasberry
Lottsburg, Virginia

Physics in the City

In a recent American Institute of Physics report it was stated that African Americans are underrepresented in the physical sciences, and that the number of degrees in physics remained flat between 2003 and 2013. As a retired high school inner city physics teacher I can positively state that there is a great deal of physics potential in the inner city. What turns on most students to become physics majors is a positive high school physics experience. Many students in the inner city are weak in their math skills in my experience and they need reviews of their basic math and algebra and repeated help in problem solving until they become proficient at it.

Some physics teachers simply give the students physics problems to solve without much guidance and help and let the students try to solve the problems mostly on their own or together, resulting in turning off most students and making the high school experience in physics a negative one for most students. Some teachers give a physics course with little problem solving, and the result is an incompetent student in a college physics course.

I have found that many high school students do well in problem solving if the students are given drills and practices on the various types of physics problems in the high school texts, with examples on how to solve the given problems, with the physics teacher going around the classroom helping the students with the problem solving. This type of high school course will turn on most students, of any color, to physics.

Stewart Brekke
Downers Grove, Illinois

Civility and Science

In the November 2015 issue of APS News, Michael Lubell wrote an article questioning whether science bears any responsibility for today’s political discontent. Although his article emphasized the gains in productivity without corresponding gains in living standard, I believe that there is another important example in the climate change dilemma. The statements on both sides are getting meaner and meaner. Members of Congress who believe in man-made climate change are threatening RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) prosecutions of scientists who are skeptics, and congressmen on the other side are threatening to look into the government funding of the scientists who are believers in human-induced climate change. Perhaps we can expect no better of our politicians, but when prestigious scientists sink to the same level, they do real harm to the credibility of the entire scientific enterprise. I hope that in the scientific world, scientists on both sides of the issue treat opponents with more respect and avoid statements like “The science is settled”; it almost certainly is not. Earth’s atmosphere is extremely complicated and we do not understand it that well.

Wallace Manheimer
Allendale, New Jersey

Science and Politics

Michael Lubell’s “Inside the Beltway” column (APS News, November 2015) asks whether science bears responsibility for today’s political discontent. My view differs in that it is [scientists’] failure at the  task of advocating understanding of science that may be most responsible. I find it alarming when two of the three leading presidential candidates question matters such as evolution and global warming. Are they wiser than the many more who offer strong evidence favoring these? Much of the media also shares the responsibility for publicizing showmanship rather than logical thinking. Mr. Lubell criticizes Mr. Sanders for his “Brooklyn accent” and for “being just a plain old socialist,” while many do not understand that his socialism comes closer to the beliefs of many respected politicians than to those of despised communists. Perhaps we need to achieve responsibility by fostering better interaction of scientists with the media in an effort to clear up some of these misconceptions.

Richard S. Stein
Amherst, Massachusetts

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