Message from the Chair
Jack M. Wilson
Physics forms the foundation for modern society. It has made possible
the world's largest industry, Information Technology and it created
the tools, techniques, and concepts that have made biotechnology an
exciting intellectual adventure. So why do I feel like society undervalues
physics? Is it because the funding level for the physical sciences
has gone from parity with the life sciences in 1970 to about a third
of that today? Is it because I think the best and brightest students
today elect computer science or the life sciences instead of physics
as my generation did? Is it because several writers have decreed "the
end of physics?"
I am not alone in having these thoughts. In this past year the National
Research Council finished the most recent decadal survey of physics,
led by the committee chair Thomas Appelquist of Yale. (Physics in a
New Era: An Overview; Physics Survey Overview Committee, Board on Physics
and Astronomy, National Research Council; 208 pages, 7 x 10, 2001. http://www.nap.edu/catalog/10118.html ).
I was a participant on this study. These questions were often discussed
during the multi-year process of studying physics and making recommendations
for the investment of resources in both physics research and education.
It is a vexing issue. As we examined various fields in turn, we were
all excited by the tremendous progress, the promising prospects, and
the intellectual excitement. We wanted to prioritize but that proved
very hard to do. The opportunities are so enormous, and it was very
difficult to compare opportunities in unlike fields. Rather than a
strict prioritization, the committee endeavored to identify some of
the very exciting prospects.
For the first time, education was a large part of the discussion in
the committee. In the beginning, there were hopes for a separate NRC
volume on Physics Education, but after two turndowns from NSF, it did
not materialize. There was the usual jockeying between the research
side of the house (MPS) and the education side (EHR) in which each
wanted the other to take a bigger part. There were additional concerns
raised over how this study might fit with the many other activities
sponsored by AAPT, APS, and AIP. In the end we had to reconcile ourselves
to having coverage in the main volume. The committee was broadly constituted
with only one person (your Chair) primarily identified with physics
education, but with several others who had strong secondary interests
The report ranged across the levels of physics education from K-12
through the graduate level. As the committee began its work, a fairly
large group of physics educators was convened by Leon Lederman to discuss
the issues. In such groups there is always a lot of support for addressing "the
K-12 problem." Sometimes I worry that large groups of (primarily) higher
education faculty discussing the "K-12 problem" sound a bit like passing
the buck. Given the composition of the group, it was both surprising
and pleasing that they also focused very strongly on undergraduate
reform efforts and made that the leading, but not sole, priority for
the committee. Once the committee was constituted, and then re-constituted
after the unfortunate death of the first chair, David Schramm, this
issue was debated once again. Among some in the research community,
there was a feeling that undergraduate physics was in pretty good shape
and that we should instead focus on K-12. This gave us the opportunity
to present the work of Hestenes, Halloun, McDermott, Hake, Redish,
Mazur, Thornton, Laws, and others. We also identified (with the help
of Edward F. "Joe" Redish) a number of promising approaches to undergraduate
physics education. Many of these issues were not familiar to the other
committee members. In the end, the report does put a lot of weight
behind the undergraduate reform efforts. Of course the committee process
and the NRC review procedures do "reduce the amplitude" of coverage
of any issue, and I think that is especially true of the educational
issues. Still the report does give strong encouragement to reform at
undergraduate and at the K-12 level.
At the advanced undergraduate level, the report provides the usual
strong support for undergraduate research involvement and for connecting
physics to the changes in the world.
Nearly every educated American has heard of Moore's Law and knows
that it means that computing power doubles in approximately 18 months,
but how many know that Moore's Law is a direct result of the physics
of creating small structures on silicon? Another doubling law suggests
that the bandwidth deployed is doubling in even shorter time periods
(sometimes called Gilder's Law). Without the advances in the physics
of lasers, optics, detection, and amplification, this could not be
happening. As an aside: the first criticisms leveled at the report
complain that condensed matter is painted too much as the "handmaiden
to technology." The physics community has a hard time taking credit
for their own contributions to society!
At the graduate level, the committee struggled with the issues of
doctoral supply and demand and with the creation of professional masters
degrees. There was also an acknowledgment that PhD's career paths were
changing, and that graduate programs need to change to respond to this.
The committee celebrated the "steady increase of the number of women
involved in physics at all levels," while lamenting that physics continues
to lag chemistry and mathematics in the number of women obtaining PhD's.
For those in APS and AAPT who wrestle with these issues on a day-to-day
basis, there will be nothing new or shocking in the NRC report. Many
will likely wonder why the committee was not bolder! For those of us
who live our daily lives in the research universities, the NRC report
can be seen as a welcome gesture of support from our colleagues who
do not make their living as physics educators. I think the report does
provide both the encouragement toward, and some pointers to, productive
directions for physics departments.
I leave the report to you as a reading assignment due for the next
newsletter. You will find the research sections to be accessible reading
that provides a guide to much of the exciting present and future activity
In the next newsletter, I will try to take this discussion to the
next level. Where will physics education need to go in the next decade?
How does physics education fit with the rapidly changing world of higher
education? Should the physics societies accredit physics departments
the way that Engineering, Chemistry, Business and others accredit their
own? Does physics have a role in eLearning or on-line education, or
is that the purview of the schools of management and computer science?
See you next newsletter.
Jack Wilson is Chair of the Forum on Education. He is the founding
Chief Executive Officer of UMassOnline, the University of Massachusetts
Virtual University. Prior to this he was the J. Erik Jonsson '22
Distinguished Professor of Physics, Engineering Science, Information
Technology, and Management and was the Co-director of the Severino
Center for Technological Entrepreneurship at Rensselaer. At RPI Dr.
Wilson led a campus wide process of interactive learning and restructuring
of the educational program.