Volume 24, Number 3 July 1995
Physicists are frequently asked to comment on the potential dangers of cancer from electromagnetic fields that emanate from common power lines and electrical appliances. While recognizing that the connection between power line fields and cancer is an area of continuing study by research workers in many disciplines in the United States and abroad, we believe that it is possible to make several observations based on the scientific evidence at this time. We also believe that, in the interest of making the best use of the finite resources available for environmental research and mitigation, it is important for professional organizations to comment on this issue.
The scientific literature and the reports of reviews by other panels show no consistent, significant link between cancer and power line fields. This literature includes epidemiological studies, research on biological systems, and analyses of theoretical interaction mechanisms. No plausible biophysical mechanisms for the systematic initiation or promotion of cancer by these power line fields have been identified. Furthermore, the preponderance of the epidemiological and biophysical/biological research findings have failed to substantiate those studies which have reported specific adverse health effects from exposure to such fields. While it is impossible to prove that no deleterious health effects occur from exposure to any environmental factor, it is necessary to demonstrate a consistent, significant, and causal relationship before one can conclude that such effects do occur. From this standpoint, the conjectures relating cancer to power line fields have not been scientifically substantiated.
These unsubstantiated claims, however, have generated fears of power lines in some communities, leading to expensive mitigation efforts, and, in some cases, to lengthy and divisive court proceedings. The costs of mitigation and litigation relating to the power line-cancer connection have risen into the billions of dollars and threaten to go much higher. The diversion of these resources to eliminate a threat which has no persuasive scientific basis is disturbing to us. More serious environmental problems are neglected for lack of funding and public attention, and the burden of cost placed on the American public is incommensurate with the risk, if any.
Back to the Future of Physics
This year has been active and successful for FPS, although the activity has been accompanied by issues that are unsettling for FPS and for APS. These issues make it important to look to the future, and that is what this year's high activity level has been about.
The successes are the usual ones: a substantial array of invited symposia at the March and April meetings, most finding large audiences. However, with a few exceptions, the largest audiences were for topics of the broadest interest to the APS's membership, rather than areas of specific FPS interest such as energy, arms control, or environment. A notable exception was the Forum Awards session in April, which drew a large audience to mark the arms control role that Roald Sagdeev and Evgeny Velikhov played in Moscow during the Gorbachev era, and to listen to last year's Forum Award recipient Gary Taubes talk about cold fusion, bad science and bad science reporting.
Success with symposia had its parallel in the continuing success of Physics and Society in bringing written versions of many FPS-sponsored symposia to the larger FPS membership that doesn't attend the sessions. This publication owes much to its long-time editor, Art Hobson, and one of the issues for the future will be how to continue that success in view of the fact that he has chosen to step down next year!
Another issue that has affected Physics and Society and other activities has been substantial budget deficits over the last three years, caused largely by the loss of revenue that used to arise from the April meeting. This has necessitated much discussion and hard choices. Since Physics and Society publishing costs now dominate our budget, careful attention has been given during the last year to maintaining a lower and more predictable cost. With attention to these and other costs, we believe we will reach a balanced budget for this coming fiscal year, as well as nearly balancing the budget for the year just ending.
Partly to increase efficiency, FPS has been moving rapidly into cyperspace. Committee interactions now take place mostly via email and distribution lists; FPS has a new home page (see April 1995, p. 11) which includes back issues of Physics and Society; the five APS forums have started internet open forums; and APS is planning for more of its interactions to take place via internet. This can decreases costs and increase effectiveness, though it can leave out those who are not well connected. As for Physics and Society, it may be possible in a year or so for people to choose to receive it only via the "web," saving printing and mailing, the costs of which now consume 60-80% of our budget.
This brings me to another success having future implications: open forums for member participation in the big APS issues. Ruth Howes, present Chair of the Forum on Education, and I initiated these in conversations early last year. We both felt that the forums were becoming more fragmented at the very time they were especially needed to bring out the large APS issues, from physics funding to employment. We therefore decided to stimulate open forum sessions, initiated by brief invited panels, on the most interesting issues suggested for the March and April meeting. The March session on Jobs and Education, the March and April sessions on Site Visits to Physics Departments to Improve the Status of Women, and the April session on What is the Value of Science?, all resulted from this initiative.
It seems to me that such issues, on what physicists will do with their degrees, on how physics departments treat women, and on what is the value and validity of science, are central to the future of physics. Furthermore, every forum has a similar contribution to make in behalf of the APS. We were therefore pleased that each of these sessions attracted a substantial, often overflowing, audience, that the brief panels were exemplary, and that the ensuing discussions were lively, substantive, and lengthy. We hope such panel-and-open-forum sessions will continue!
Furthermore, internet distribution lists have been established for each of these topics (named "jobs-ed," "clim-fys" and "val-sci"), so that individuals can obtain reports from the sessions and participate in a continuing discussion, regardless of whether they attended the session. Although it remains to be seen how these lists will proceed, I encourage FPS members to sign up and see what happens! An email message with text "subscribe jobs-ed" can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, and similarly for the others. Finally, the FPS executive committee has discussed establishing a general electronic open forum for discussing anything relevant to APS, including communicating suggestions to FPS officers. If you think this is a good idea, let me know at email@example.com; we can establish an automated discussion forum and announce it via email and the FPS home page.
The five forums were established to act as literal forums, both narrowly on their own interests and to serve as "glue" for an APS that is becoming increasingly fragmented. Ironically, whereas once there was only one forum (this one), now there are five. So the proliferation of forums themselves makes it difficult to address the broad APS issues. The open forums organized this year have been an effort to counteract that tendency. And specific efforts taken among the officers of the five forums (cf. the report of the meeting of the forums' officers, above) will serve to alleviate some of the difficulties of fragmentation.
But a larger vision is needed, one that bears on the broad issues of the future of physics. The question for the forums is not only how we can cooperate on our particular forum interests such as, say, radiation protection, which relate to the specific interests of two or more forums. The bigger question is how we can assist the APS membership in understanding the broadest and most difficult issues facing physics:
-- What is the purpose of graduate education? -- Do different work modes and personal interaction modes need to be accommodated more fully in physics departments and elsewhere? -- How will physics fare in a steady state, where funding is no longer increasing? -- Why do increasing numbers of academics and the public view science and its results negatively? -- And how do these broad questions interact?
The APS has worked best at focusing on the content of physics, not the context. Yet the societal context determines how the content will develop and be supported both culturally and financially. The content can be dealt with relatively well at APS meetings and in other activities, but where is the opportunity to study the context -- issues relating to the society as a whole and the public at large? The five forums are the APS entities that are organized to serve as forums for these, as well as narrower issues. And they can serve both as inward and outward forums; inward in encouraging members to discuss things within the APS, and outward in reaching out to nonphysicists and thus serving as an open forum in the fullest sense.
Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the forums to serve this broader role for the APS, at the same time as it is becoming increasingly important. The forums themselves are becoming increasingly fragmented, and the time of forum officers is as overwhelmed as anyone else's. Yet this consciousness of the broadest issues facing the physics community as the APS's and joint forums' most fundamental responsibility needs to be raised, examined, and, I believe, taken on as the most compelling mission of the forums. Making progress on this scale, though important to the entire APS and to society, will not be easy, given the narrower interests of the individual forums, the pressures of time, and the organizational difficulty of acting in concert. Yet if we don't act together, we make noise instead of music.