APS News

Letters

Biased Grades

I was pleased to see Emily Conover’s article “Physics Grading Biased Against Women” in the April 2016 APS News. For many years I have used anonymous grading. Many of my colleagues thought it unnecessary, and teaching assistants needed persuading, yet a colleague adopted it for our Ph.D. comprehensive exams. It is a minor bother to set up identification numbers; I used the last 3 or 4 digits of the student ID numbers for all graded work; the numbers are also useful for sorting and returning graded work. When we called the identification numbers “magic numbers,” the students liked the idea more. I found the idea liberating, and students could be more open in class discussion. There are other examples as well — anonymity in auditions, behind a curtain without shoes, has increased the number of women in orchestras [1].

Leonard Finegold
Media, Pennsylvania

[1] L. Finegold, Journal of Science Education and Technology 11, 255 (2002).


Confirming Coulomb

I enjoyed the “This Month in Physics History” article about Coulomb's experiments in the June 2016 issue. When I was a grad student at Columbia in the 1970s, Samuel Devons tried to reproduce the experiments using only technology available to Coulomb. Devons found it very difficult to reproduce the experiments.

John Farley
Las Vegas, Nevada


Basic Research Benefits

Lawrence Krauss makes many good points in his Back Page article (APS News, May 2016) comparing the LIGO discovery to the appreciation of aesthetic things of culture like art, music, and literature. I would add that, in addition to advancing understanding of our universe and ourselves within it, past evidence proves that even seemingly remote and "trivial" events such as this will always eventually lead to profound practical benefits to humankind; it's just a matter of time.

There are many examples in scientific history that prove this point. While the LIGO event is the province of general relativity, another such case is from special relativity concerning correcting the transformation equations between inertial reference frames from the Galilean group to the Lorentz group. The point seems trivial as it has no real practical, everyday consequences except at speeds close to light, so who cares? However, this "trivial" point ultimately led to our ability to unleash the energy of the atomic nucleus (for good or bad) through Einstein's mass-energy equivalence, which has had profound practical effects on humankind from bombs to nuclear energy.

Another example would be the revolution of quantum mechanics. The general public might have asked at the time, "Who cares if I put a free particle, which can have any energy, in a box and the box somehow tells the particle what energies it is now allowed and not allowed to have; while interesting, of what practical benefit is it to humankind?" However, the practical benefits to humankind have once again been profound, with all the applications to semiconductors, lasers, communications, medical imaging technologies, etc. There are many other examples that could be cited also.

It is my belief that the U.S. Congress should be made aware of this and continue to fund this kind of research, and all similar scientific research, even if any immediate practical benefits may not be evident at the time.

Frederick Weist
Clarksburg, Maryland


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