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Where are the “Science Candidates?

Jim Nelson (reprinted from AAPT Announcer with permission)

A national election is fast approaching and I notice a lack of candidates speaking to issues on interest to the scientific community let alone the physics community. During the recent AAPT meeting in Sacramento, I was waiting at the airport to pick up participants for the AAPT/PTRA Summer Institute, when I struck up a conversion with a local police officer. Eventually he asked why I was visiting Sacramento, and I indicted that I was attending a meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers. The next words out of his month were, “I hated physics! I hated it the first day!!” I wondered, how could that happen on the first day? Perhaps it was not the first day, but that was the officer’s impression. I asked him if he disliked school in general or just physics, and the answer was, “I was not very good at mathematics and they are the same.” I could tell immediately the officer was able to speak articulately, so I spend a few minutes trying to make an argument that physics is not the same as mathematics. Physics is the innate human need to make sense of the natural world, and that a great deal of understanding about the natural world can be expressed using verbal descriptions as well as mathematical descriptions. Alas, I made no headway in this brief exchange.

I have not done a survey, but I fear there are far more people than necessary with this officer’s attitude about the subject we love. I wonder aloud what is the source of such attitudes? Then the difficult realization sets in - as Pogo suggests, “We have met the enemy and it is us.” Or as Randall Knight points out in his recent book, Five Easy Lessons1, “ Physics! that was my worst subject. You must be so smart to understand it! Perhaps an ego booster the first couple of dozen times you hear this, but it slowly dawned on me that this remark was saying something significant – and disagreeable! – about the subject I love.”

No wonder there is little discussion of the issues important to the Physics Community – there is really no political capital in this. At a time when we need the support and understanding of political decision makers, we are not getting much attention. To often we convince others that physics is only for the special few and we do not need them. Perhaps it is naive on my part to believe that having more citizens understanding physics will turn more attention to the physics communities needs when they are most pressing, but I suggest we give it a try. When teaching our students we need to remember that we will likely need these student's understanding and support in the future. We ignore this to not only our peril, but also the peril of our nation.

We need more policy makers in Washington who understand the long-term consequences of our present energy policy, more policy makers in Washington who understand the contribution of emigrants to our scientific knowledge and thus our national defense. At present university physics departments in the United States are having a very difficulty time attracting foreign students and even professional from other counties in part due to the impact of homeland security infrastructure. I predict that this present difficulty of admitting students from other nations and cultures to our universities and the present attitude toward emigrants will have disastrous impact on not only our national defense but also on our “good guy” on the block image. An image that is reinforced every time we tell a potential student he or she is welcome at our universities and in our nation.

I am only one teacher, but I have recently set a goal for myself when working with high school students and with fellow teachers during AAPT/PTRA workshops, “ … to do no Harm.” Much like a doctor’s patients, my students should leave my classroom better than when they entered, with an improved understanding of science, with a belief that they can do and understand physics if they chose to do so, and a realization of the importance of science to our nation’s economy and defense. It is the most patriotic thing I can think to do daily. I know that I have failed in this regard in the past, but I am determined not to do so again. I am not suggesting that Physics is easy or that grades should be inflated. To master any topic requires dedicated effort, but I am suggesting that we can do better job of making physics interesting and exciting for both the future physicist and the future citizen regardless of the nation that student calls home.

Perhaps our efforts will produce a more scientific literate public and more citizens who understand that our national economy and defense are tightly tied to the strength of our scientific community. I hope we will all meet fewer police officers who believe that physics and physicists are unpleasant.

Jim Nelson is President of AAPT. He has been a physics teacher in Florida and Pennsylvania since 1961. He received the AAPT Award for Excellence in Pre-College Physics Teaching in 2000, and Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching in 1985. He served as director of the PTRA program.

1 Five Easy Lessons by Randall Knight, Addison Wesley, ISBN 0-8053-8702-1