APS News


Don’t Forget the Giants of Physics

The June 2016 issue of APS News gives a good description of the remarkable achievements of many of the physicists involved in obtaining a concordance of experiment with theory for the neutrino problem. However, a mention of Pauli, who first conjectured their existence, and of Fermi, who first offered a theory giving a fit to existing experimental results, would have been in order. It is true that these giants of physics go back a bit, but so do many others, and we are not averse to citing their names in connection with important discoveries in our field. Finally, Queen’s is a university and has been so for many years (not that there is anything wrong with colleges).

Jacques Destry
Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Encouraging Public Engagement

Thank you for the well written and thoughtful piece by Spencer Weart on the politicization of science in matters of nuclear energy and global warming (APS News, June 2016).

My less scientific friends are often surprised that I can not only vigorously support nuclear energy but also see it as an essential tool in the fight against the existential threat posed by anthropogenic global warming. It is in my view a sad commentary on the triumph of ignorance over reason that pro-nuke environmentalists have so little pull in the political sphere, but the answer cannot be that we retreat into our ivory towers.

I do not see, however, how we as scientists can make the leap to matters of policy without it impacting our credibility, both within the scientific community and in the eyes of the public as well. Any number of extremely brilliant scientists over the years have been naïve on this point. We need more scientists to bring their training and knowledge to the public and to speak out and even advocate, but at a certain point you have to choose. Take a big and bold enough step into politics and you cannot, anymore, keep the other foot grounded in the world of pure science.

To encourage scientists to speak out, therefore, it seems to me that we in the community need to give more respect to those who make that choice — the political path — than we currently do. I have heard far more than enough of my colleagues' complaints about the state of political affairs. We sit back and kibitz as if politicians inhabited an intellectual sphere far below ours.

Appearances to the contrary, by and large that is quite simply not true, and until we give advocacy and the public life the respect it deserves, we can not expect respect in turn.

Peter Todd Williams
San Carlos, CA

The Tide Goes In, The Tide Goes Out

In 2011, a prominent television personality on a national network proclaimed, "Tide goes in, tide goes out. You can't explain that" [1]. He repeated the statement more than once, and to my knowledge never retracted it. In 2012, NSF reported that 26 percent of 2200 people questioned responded that the sun goes around the earth, not the earth around the sun [2]. The general public's ignorance of science and scientific concepts is indeed abysmal.

In a Back Page article (APS News, July 2016), Joel Primack urges scientists and scientific societies to engage our knowledge and efforts to address the situation. I have no quarrel with that. He argues that our efforts will "help the public make better decisions about science and technology." Perhaps. But it is not the public that is making poor decisions.

In essence, this is the model of decision-making in a democracy: we, the people, make decisions. We elect representatives to determine ways to implement these decisions. The better informed we are, the better our decisions, and therefore those of our representatives. But that model no longer applies. Our representatives, in large part are selected by and are beholden to those that fund their campaigns, not to the rest of us.

I believe that, as scientists, and citizens, we must direct our efforts both at educating the public about the science we know and love, and also at exposing the realities of the political processes that no longer represent us. Given a choice, creating equitable political processes, I suggest, is far more important — and urgent — than educating the public about science. And indeed a democratic political process is a prerequisite without which advances in public knowledge will have little impact.

Eustace Mendis
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wb3AFMe2OQY
[2] http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/02/14/277058739/1-in-4-americans-think-the-sun-goes-around-the-earth-survey-says

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