Browsing Through the Journals
Thomas D. Rossing
nature of discovery in physics" is the title of an interesting
paper by Nobel Laureate Douglas Osheroff in the January issue of American
Journal of Physics. "It is often said that to make an important
discovery in physics one must either be good or be lucky, but that
good people manufacture their own luck," Osheroff begins. The
paper is partly autobiographical, partly philosophical. "The hardest
thing for an experimentalist to decide," he says, " is when
to leave a study and move on to something new. Being the world's expert
at something may ensure an ability to do good incremental research,
but may make major breakthroughs less likely."
One question which often plagues graduate students is:
How much must he or she know about a subject in order to contribute
to mankind's knowledge of that subject? If one knows too much, one's
mind may become constrained by current wisdom on the subject. Osheroff's
policy is "one should understand the subject well enough to acquire
a good physical intuition on how it should behave." "However," he
continues, "one can never understand one's equipment too well."
Physics at Work exhibitions, designed to show school
students how physics is relevant to them, have been held at Cambridge
University annually since 1985, according to an article in the November
issue of Physics World. The event, which attracts up to 2000
students from 50 or so schools, includes talks about research in industry
as well as at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. Students frequently
ask the physicist-exhibitors "How much do you earn?" As it
happened, one of the companies represented was being floated on the
stock market at the time, so students were surprised by the answer
to that question.
Australian scientists are in uproar over the planned
closure of Quantum, a science show that has run for 16 years
on national television, and the axing of the Science TV Unit at the
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), according to a news note
in the 4 January issue of Nature. The Australian Academy of
Science, which persuaded the ABC to begin science programs in 1964,
branded the removal as "a leap backwards."
A planned program using textual material, exercise workshops
and small-group teaching has replaced lectures in the physics course
at the University of Leicester (UK), according to an article in the
December issue of Physics World. Only relatively recently have
lectures become an important means for communicating information. In
the last century, students were told to expect relatively few lectures,
because most material can be found in standard textbooks. "There
is nothing more tedious than yet another boring lecture," the
A different point of view on lectures is taken in a guest
editorial in the December/January issue of Journal of College Science
Teaching entitled "Creating a Motivational Learning Environment
in Science: Adding a Personal Touch to the Large Lecture." A useful
goal for each class session should be to have students leaving the
class saying, "I never thought about it that way before." Students
should come to class with expectancy and excitement, not with a feeling
of boredom of knowing how each class session will proceed.
An interdisciplinary course "The Atomic Era: European
Refugees, American Science, and the Atomic Bomb" is described
in the February issue of The Physics Teacher. This course, at
Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, is taught by a team of
three faulty members: one in physics, one in sociology, and one in
German studies (who is the author of the TPT paper). A typical final
exam asks the students to discuss the scientific, political, sociological,
historical, and cultural events that culminated in the development
and use of the atomic bomb, and it is graded by all three faculty members.
A centuries-old academic tradition in Germany, the notorious
post-Ph.D. habilitation requirement, may be on the way out, according
to a brief article in the 5 January issue of Science. The DFG,
Germany's central research foundation, announced a new program of "junior
professorships" that will provide independent support for young
researchers. Young scientists will be able to apply for 3-year support
for their own research or group projects they head. Under the present
system, to be eligible for tenure, young scholars are required to work
for 6 years or more as a kind of academic apprentice, dependent on
a senior professor for support.
Asian nations continue to lead in science and math test
scores, according to the results from the Third International Mathematics
and Science Study TIMSS) summarized in an article in the 8 December
issue of Science. Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea
are the star performers, while eighth graders from the United States
are still near the middle of the pack, pretty much as in the first
tests in 1995. The new findings, called TIMSS-R (for repeat) include
longitudinal data that allow countries to measure their progress over
time. The US is the only country to show a significant drop in both
science and math achievement as its students mature.
"Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the
21st Century," a report released by the Carnegie Corporation in
November, is summarized in the December/January issue of NSTA Reports. The
report calls for middle schools that "teach a curriculum grounded
in rigorous, public academic standards for what students should know
and be able to do." The authors suggest that large schools be
divided into "smaller learning communities with teams of teachers
and students." Copies of the report ($18.95) can be ordered from Teachers
In celebration of the joint meeting of the American Association
of Physics Teachers (AAPT) with the American Astronomical Society (AAS),
most of the December issue of Physics Teacher is devoted to
teaching astronomy. On the cover is a photo of Messier 82 (the Cigar
Galaxy in the constellation Ursa Major) from the Suburu Telescope,
and the customary December centerfold is on Women in Astronomy, including
a brief biography of Caroline Herschel, first woman to discover a comet.
Like her brother, astronomer William Herschel, she was trained as a
musician (she a singer, he a conductor and composer).
The "Amateur Scientist" column, which has been
a regular feature in Scientific American since 1928, is going
to be discontinued, according to an interview with Shawn Carlson, the
present columnist, in the January 23 issue of the New York Times.
The column is to be suspended in March to make room for "other
good ideas for columns" according to John Rennie, editor in chief.
Carlson, who has written the column for the past 5= years, is the founder
of the Society for Amateur Scientists. Ironically, his efforts in promoting
amateur science were recently recognized by the John D. And Catherine
T. MacArthur Foundation with a grant of $300,000.
Thomas D. Rossing is
Professor of Physics at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL.
He has been an editor of the Forum Newsletter for six years.