Volume 23, Number 2 April 1995
Ethical Issues in Physics: Workshop Proceedings
On July 17-18, 1993 an interdisciplinary group of physicists, sociologists, and philosophers met to discuss a variety of ethical issues physicists face and whether these issues can and should be addressed in physics curricula. Six presentations were accompanied by lively discussion, all of this now being documented in the Proceedings of the Workshop.
David Resnik's paper on the philosophical foundations of scientific ethics opens the Proceedings. He argues that there are two universal ethical principles of scientific research: honesty and carefulness. Practitioners who sacrifice these principles are no longer performing scientific research. In addition, there are four other ethical principles which apply to academic scientific research in western society: intellectual freedom, openness, giving proper credit, and public responsibility (reporting publicly on research which may have a significant social impact). From these principles, numerous subsidiary principles may be derived. Often a scientist is faced with a situation in which ethical principles conflict, for example the above principles may conflict with the scientist's role as a citizen, a parent, an employee, etc. The resolution of these conflicts would be easier if a scientist has had some introduction to scientific ethics in a classroom setting.
Marshall Thomsen describes his experiences teaching about ethical issues in physics at Eastern Michigan University. Issues addressed include those internal to the physics community (e.g. research ethics) as well as those involving physicists' interaction with the rest of society (e.g. the physicists' role as science advisor). Experiences with adding ethics-based material to an existing course as well as with teaching a stand-alone course are described. Currently, there does not appear to be a text or other course material which addresses the needs of the physics community. It is argued that producing a series of course modules on a variety of ethical issues faced by physicists would have the advantage of allowing an instructor to incorporate a little material into an existing course or put together an entire course out of several modules. While there has been some movement towards requiring an ethics component in some physics programs, physicists with concerns in this area will need to generate more interest if such training is to become prevalent.
Ullica Segerstrale examines Millikan's oil-drop experiment on several levels, describing the discrepancies between his published results and his laboratory notebooks. Specifically, Millikan took data on more oil-drops than he actually reported, even though his paper state that all oil-drops were included in his data analysis. Segerstrale also discusses the treatment of the Millikan story by various authors, and raises concern about the dangers of basing an ethical analysis on brief "canned" versions of a complex situation. Lastly, Segerstrale addresses the ethical implications of Millikan's data analysis, the extent to which such procedures are accepted in the scientific community, and their impact upon the scientific community. She asks, "Is the ethical accountability now increasingly required from science in principle attainable in a system which is so constructed that one gets rewarded for being a quick-and-dirty first rather than a conscientious second?"
J. P. Sheerin discusses conflicts that arise in government sponsorship of large-scale or industrial research. In particular, given that there are several government-run national labs competing for some of the same funds industry does, conflicts arise. National labs may have the inside track in lobbying for funding, being better able to use the system for their own ends. The difficulty of creating an unbiased peer review process is discussed with reference to large scale projects. With such projects it becomes difficult to find a knowledgeable expert who will not be directly impacted one way or another by the funding decision on a given project. The fact that some information in a project may be classified for national security reasons, opens the door to further abuse in the peer review process: Controlling information flow can determine the outcome of the review process. These points are illustrated with a case history of KMS Fusion, Inc., once active in fusion research but which has since lost its funding.
Ruth Howes talks about conflicts arising from physicists working in the classified community. In particular, the principle of openness which seems to be so necessary in the academic community, to progress in science and to judge the quality of science, must be sacrificed in the classified community. This has an impact not only upon the ability of the physicist to perform research but also upon the way research results and related advice are conveyed to higher levels of government. The process is described by which a technical paper produced by a physicist working in the federal government gets modified, reduced, and combined with other such papers resulting ultimately in a policy directive to be signed by the President. Many relevant issue are illustrated in the history of the conflict between Edward Teller and Roy Woodruff in the x-ray laser component of the Strategic Defense Initiative as documented by William J. Broad in Teller's War.
Francis Slakey concludes with an examination into physicists' responsibilities when attempting to secure federal research funding. There is increased pressure from Congress to see a demonstrable return for research money. At the same time there is increased competition for federal dollar, with scientists competing directly with diverse agencies such as Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development. It is argued that scientists have an obligation to ensure federal research dollars are used to support research which addresses the goals for science generally agreed to by society. However, scientists need to be actively involved in helping society formulate a realistic set of goals.
A limited number of copies of these Proceedings are available at no charge, by writing directly to the editor, Marshall Thomsen, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Michigan 48197 (e-mail: PHY_THOMSEN @em;uvax.emich.edu). The workshop and its Proceedings have been supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. SBR-9223819. Statements in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
A special issue of Science, 11 March 1994
Every Spring Science publishes a section on "Women in Science;" this year the topic is "Comparisons Across Cultures." This short review is written to encourage you to look at the "Women in Science" issue, and to describe some of its salient points.
Let us take a first-principles view of the assumptions that justify devoting so many pages to "Women in Science," and explain them to a putative visiting Martian. The Martian finds only a few understandable species on Earth, such as the sea-horse, where the male cares for the young, and finds it curious that the human sex that produces offspring is also the one that gives so much time and effort to them. Our Martian initially finds an idea like "equality" somewhat abstruse, but understands that symmetry and the ergodic hypothesis provide a rationale for equality. The Martian warms up to the idea that physicists want to improve physics, and that physics ability seems distributed uniformly among humans, so that physics will be improved by an increase in the pool of people who might do physics.
To get the flavor of the Science issue, it is best to browse through it personally. One should not miss the advertisements placed near the articles. For some unaccountable reason, these latter seem to have many more pictures of women than do advertisements elsewhere in the issue. About 83% of the articles in "Comparisons" are by women. They start on p. 1467 with an overview "Surprises across the cultural divide." The first point is that there is so little experimental data about women and science worldwide; the best collection is by a physicist, no less, albeit a male one. A dramatic histogram, with countries ranked in order on the y-axis, and percentage of women faculty on the x-axis, shows that some of the least-industrialized countries have the largest percentages of women faculty. The three countries in North America are in the nine with the lowest percentage of women faculty.
Four articles are European: "The back-breaking work of scientist homemakers" from Germany, "Warm climate..." from Italy, "Leveling the playing field" from Sweden, and "A Stage Set by History" from Turkey. "Overcoming diffidence..." is from India, and "Fighting the Patriarchy ..." is from the Philippines. In the histogram referred to above, the Philippines is one of the three countries with the highest percentage of women faculty. In one of Turkey's best universities, a third of the physicists and mathematicians are women. However, only a small fraction of people attend a university--1% of women, and 2% of men. I was somewhat hurt by the idea that in India and Turkey science is a second- best choice by students, and that the best go into engineering. There are indications that girls do better in science in single-sex schools, where there is no attribution of certain subjects being undesirable because they are "masculine" or "feminine." As a sample of n = 1, I who went to a single-sex school can confirm that subjects were viewed fairly equally.
That social class is such an important determinant in the representation of women in science would be of no surprise to that Victorian gentleman K. Marx. It was no surprise to this reviewer, for the United States. Decades ago indications were that many US women scientists were upper class, and foreign born.
It is difficult to extract underlying principles from the incomplete data. One wonders if a nation's number of woman scientists increases with inequality of wealth distribution. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to see which other groups (e.g. rural) are not fairly represented in physics, and also to consider if groups should be represented in science (or Congress?) proportionally to their number in the population at large.
What is to be done? In brief, hope and act. Two "Policy Forums" are written in a perforce more deliberative style: "Status and prospects of women in science in Europe" lists possible initiatives and detailed objective recommendations. Our own APS sponsors direct "Interventions to increase the participation of women in physics," describing a team of women physicists who make site visits to physics departments; I like this. Naturally, at present only confident departments initiate such visits. A letter (p. 1357) encourages women in biomedicine; it is signed by some sixty women from first rate institutions. For the latest word, Wiphys (Women in physics, of the APS Committee on the Status of Women) is an excellent electronic bulletin board carrying lively and sensible discussions by diverse writers from undergraduates to established people (1).
Acknowledgment: I am grateful to people who critiqued this review (BC, ID, GF, MJ, MS, ST), and especially thank those male colleagues whom I'd asked lest I be too hard on them.
1. To subscribe, just electronically mail the message "subscribe wiphys your name" to this address: email@example.com.
Nuclear Reactions: Science and Trans-science
Alvin M. Weinberg
This is a collection of 22 essays written from 1966 to 1991. Weinberg groups them under five topics: science and trans-science; scientific administration; strategic defense; time, energy and resources; and nuclear energy. He starts each section with a brief preface indicating how his views have changed or remained the same since each essay was written. I will focus on the first and last of these topics.
Weinberg defines a "trans-scientific" (the term does not appear in dictionaries) question as one that appears to be an ordinary scientific question, but in fact cannot be answered by current scientific techniques. Weinberg gives two examples: What is the probability of harmful effects from exposure to only 0.1 rem (or 1 rem) of nuclear radiation? And what is the probability of catastrophic failure of a specified type of nuclear power plant? Other trans-scientific questions involve predictions of human behavior; and axiology (discussed below). Since the remarkable behavior of the operators at Chernobyl was the main cause of that catastrophe, three different trans-scientific questions must be answered so we can make rational decisions on nuclear energy.
I feel that we should be able to determine the harmful effects of small amounts of nuclear radiation by standard scientific procedures: observation and experiment, and the use of Occam's razor. The razor is needed to interpolate between zero effect for no radiation and a measurable effect for a relatively large exposure. In the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, Occam tells us to use the simplest interpretation, i.e. linear interpolation.
In my opinion we should attempt to solve separate smaller questions: e.g. what is the effect on the thyroid of a specified amount of I-131? How does this effect depend on age? On previous diet (low or high in ordinary non-radioactive iodine)? We're concerned with controversies where "experts" disagree by two or three orders of magnitude. Did Chernobyl cause less than 100 deaths? Or more than 10,000? We must answer these questions!
"Axiology" is the theory of value; and this unfamiliar word is in dictionaries. Axiology is usually applied to questions of ethics or aesthetics. Weinberg in his first book, Reflections on Big Science (MIT Press, 1967), was a pioneer in applying axiology to decision-making in "Big Science." Of course since values are involved, so are subjective judgments. Still, we can follow Weinberg in trying to agree on criteria to use in evaluating the scientific value of a superconducting supercollider, a space station, or a human genome project. The criteria could then be applied to provide a more or less rational discourse on the value of the SSC, etc. Despite Weinberg's pioneering and subsequent efforts, we are still along way from rational discourse on axiology. Of course the discourse becomes still less rational when Congress makes political decisions; but we can pray for dispassionate discussion among scientists.
Nuclear energy is a main theme of Weinberg's book. How can we live with nuclear power plants? How can we live without them? Do we need breeders? Weinberg argues that we have plenty of all the resources needed for our industrial civilization, with one exception: energy. His choice to push nuclear energy (rather than fossil fuels, or renewable sources) involves trans-scientific questions. The choice also involves public perception, and related political decisions. Weinberg's book makes a major contribution to this debate.
A collection of many essays has much repetition. Nevertheless I found the essays stimulating and provocative. The references following each essay are very helpful.
A minor criticism of Weinberg's (and most other) discussions of energy: the author uses many different units, so the reader who wants to follow the quantitative argument has to find conversion factors, and spend time and energy using them. I think it's highly desirable to use only two units, at most. I favor giving power in the familiar unit of kW per capita, and energy in exojoules (10^18 J).
A Mind Always in Motion: The Autobiography of Emilio Segre
The evening of one's life is a period for reminiscing. Some thoughtful people do so in writing. At the very least, such writing could be of interest to the immediate family. And when one's life has crisscrossed the paths of famous people, the narration becomes interesting to a larger public.
This is the case with the book under review: Emilio Segre's autobiography. As a youth, he was present at the famous Como conference of 1927, and here he saw a galaxy of physicists which included Planck, Rutherford, Bohr, Millikan, Pauli, Fermi, and Heisenberg. This inspired him to take up physics rather than engineering as his field of study. And at the university he had the good fortune of being tutored by Fermi. His love of physics became very intense.
Enrico Fermi's first graduate student, E.O. Lawrence's assistant at the cyclotron, Robert Oppenheimer's colleague at the Manhattan Project, co-recipient of the Nobel Prize with Owen Chamberlain: such were Segre's associations. Many more names of distinction are strewn throughout its pages.
The book begins with Segre's boyhood days, just prior to the outbreak of the First World War, in Tivoli when he used to read with great concentration popular, but difficult, science articles, and also grow vegetables and play in a tree house with the gardener's son. While remembering those distant scenes Segre summarizes and explains in a short and simple sentence some of the negative changes that have been occurring in during our century: "Today the landscape has been devastated. The destruction is appalling: carelessness, speculative greed, and plain incompetence have destroyed most of the beauty of the place."
The events-filled story culminates in a recall of his trip to the Canyon de Chelly in Arizona with his wife Rose on his seventy-seventh birthday, revealing his love of nature and his admiration for the wonders of the world. In this Segre was certainly not atypical, but many non-physicists tend to picture us as cold and logical beings with little sensitivity for the aesthetic and awe-inspiring dimensions of the world of plants and creatures. At the end of the book, his wife gives a brief account of his last years.
In the course of his rich and productive career, Segre ran into a great many people. He talked to the painter Salvatore Dali about the latter's painting of the anti-protonic woman, with its sexist undertone. He visited Nigeria on the occasion of its independence and explained to the Iba why the earth is believed to be round and not flat. But most of all, he closely collaborated with a great many contemporary physicists. The book is filled with fascinating episodes and reflections involving eminent names.
But the references are by no means greatly respectful or humbly laudatory. Indeed, it turns out that although America opened its doors to Segre when he was persecuted in his native Italy, he had unpleasant interactions with, and formed unfavorable impressions of, a good many American physicists. This again is not an entirely unusual phenomenon. Many immigrant scholars and scientists, while benefiting from the favorable infrastructure provided by America, have been generous and enthusiastic in their negative comments on what is wrong and deplorable here. Segre, too, is free and unflinching in his caustic comments on quite a few American scientists.
It is no secret that experts have only the lowliest opinions of some of their colleagues and competitors. Indeed, this is almost a necessary condition for being an expert in any field The mutually deprecating views of physicists are usually aired in private conversations and correspondences while eloquent praises are bestowed in public writings and utterances. It is not often that we get to read unsavory appraisals of famous scientists by their colleagues in print. This book provides a rich opportunity for that. We learn from its pages that Latimer "was well known for his xenophobia," Lawrence was "no more than a mediocre scientist," Fermi "doubted Lawrence knew or understood much physics," Seaborg was "not an exceptional scientist, (but) had unbridled ambitions and was determined to go ahead by any means," Oppenheimer's "celebrated general culture was not superior to that expected in a boy who had attended a good European high school."
The book also reveals Emilio Segre as a man of keen intelligence and insight who probed with ingenuity into the physical world, and experienced with sensitivity the beauty of flowers. He was also a loving husband and caring father.