Physicists, Philharmonics, and Youth Symphonies
Many metropolitan philharmonic orchestras maintain a Youth Orchestra. There may be a variety of attitudes with which the professional members of a Philharmonic regard the members of its Youth Orchestra. Two extremes are (1) with condescension, and (2) as colleagues. The difference is substantial for all parties, and for the state of music itself. When Youth Orchestra members are treated as colleagues by the Philharmonic members, that does not mean the differences in experience and musical maturity are irrelevant. To become Philharmonic members, the Youth Orchestra members will have to audition and earn their chairs. However, genuine expressions of collegiality nurture mutual respect. The youth respect their elders for the latter's experience, aspiring to learn from them and take their place among them. The elders respect the youth for their enthusiasm and passion. They are in this together, the art of making music. Their love of music, and their desire to excel at it, makes them colleagues. The music itself is better because of the mutual respect.
Likewise, the physics community has its professional physicists, with their PhDs, research programs, and publications. The physics community also has the Society of Physics Students (SPS), supported by the American Institute of Physics, a consortium of ten physics societies, including APS. At any moment, the SPS has between four and five thousand members, most of whom are undergraduates. How established professional physicists regard SPS members says much about who we are as a community. I would argue that the larger physics community should acknowledge the SPS members as colleagues. Both groups share a love of physics, which draws them together in shared interest and make colleagues of them already. The young are inspired and challenged by their seniors, and the seniors and challenged and invigorated by the young. Physics is the better for it.
One does not have to major in physics to belong to SPS, although most SPS members are physics majors. The physics and non-physics majors who identify with SPS deserve the respect of societies such as APS, but for different reasons. The physics majors are not merely undergraduates who happen to be taking physics courses; rather, with the proper encouragement, they quickly come to see themselves as physicists who happen to be undergraduates. The difference in emphasis is transformative. I could tell you some stories here, such as about a young man named Mike whose homework habits were originally rather haphazard. But after presenting at a regional meeting some experimental results that sampled his spectrum of skills better than homework problems, an experience which included a conversation with a distinguished leader of the topic in which he was interested, he became a serious physics major. Today he manages an industrial laboratory.
Some of the non-physics major SPS members will decide to convert to physics, but those who have committed to other majors also deserve the respect of the physics community. They are as important as the physics majors, for another reason. Just as it takes not only musicians, but also an appreciative audience for music to be meaningful, likewise the health of physics in general depends on the larger society having a substantial number of physics appreciators. Here I could tell you about a young lady named Joy who, as an undergraduate, published a paper in a physics journal and then after graduation became an insurance actuary. As an actuary she has given numerous talks at local colloquia and at national physics meetings, describing how a physics degree prepares one well, with highly transferable skills, for any career that requires evidence-based reasoning and mathematical modeling.
The education of a physicist resembles a Gothic arch with two sides. One side is the physics curriculum. The other side is extracurricular professional development. Without both sides, the arch will not stand. The professional development side of the arch, in the development of professional physicists and physics appreciators alike, is found in the Society of Physics Students. The SPS has a crucial role for the well-being of physics.
Dwight Neuenschwander has played many roles in SPS: chapter advisor, zone councilor, director from within AIP, editor of publications, and member of the executive committee. He also edits the APS Forum on History of Physics Newsletter.
Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.