LETTERSLETTERS The letters are dedicated to free expression on societal topics of interest to the physics community. As a forum for all physicists we welcome all views, but of course the Forum on Physics and Society does not necessarily endorse any particular view found in these pages. Readers are most heartily invited to respond to letters, comments, or others items in Physics & Society. Letters should not be longer than 500 words.
Gordon Freeman (January 1996) suggests that much of the increase in societal problems--unemployment, youth crime, civil strife--is generated by mothers who earn money. He suggests further that the APS is contributing to these problems by encouraging women to pursue careers in physics and that the APS should recommend there be only one income per family.
In response, I would like to reaffirm that the APS is proud of its efforts to increase the participation of women in the physics profession. We believe that our goal of advancing and diffusing the knowledge of physics is best served if the profession draws upon the widest possible spectrum of talented individuals. We are therefore committed to removing barriers that limit the participation of women in physics and to make available to women the same range of career choices traditionally open to men. Women have the right, the need and the talent to compete for these opportunities. The achievements of our female colleagues speak for themselves.
J. Robert Schrieffer, President
As a new member of the FPS I was quite surprised to read Freeman's letter linking child, abuse, crime rates and women physicists. The publication of this letter is evidence of either the editorial board's desire to promote discussion on deeply held political beliefs, or their sense of humor. In either case, the idea that women who practice physics, or any other career, have abandoned their parental duties, abuse their children, and are responsible for the breakdown of society, must be seriously rebutted.
Freeman presents no numbers to support his conclusion that women working outside the home, as scientists or elsewhere, is the cause of ``the growth in youth crime.'' His statistics are limited to the rise and fall of total physics Ph.D.'s awarded to men and women. The causal link to an unsubstantiated rise in child abuse, youth crime, and civil strife, is missing. I could equally well conclude that the percentage of Ph.D.'s awarded to women (approximately 30%) in our department is related to the highly touted recent decrease in urban murder rates (up to 30%). The link in both cases is fictitious.
Furthermore, women do not choose to study physics because "the feminist propaganda machine has taken over to increase the number of women in physics." They choose a career in physics for the same reasons men do: to satisfy a basic need for intellectually stimulating work, and for the joy of understanding the physical world. These are not manly traits, as Freeman suggests, but human traits.
It is a credit to feminist organizations, and the physics community in general, that women have access to classrooms and laboratories where they can reach their full potential. Thirty years ago, when my own mother sought a degree in physics, she was told that the most she could hope for was a place in the library, or perhaps a high school teaching job. Although other women of her generation did go on to full time scientific careers, my mother focused her energy towards raising a family, an occasional part-time university teaching job, and volunteering in the local school system. It is only as I near the completion of my own Ph.D. in physics that I realize both the deep satisfaction she obtained as a mother, and the loss she feels for never becoming a practicing scientist. Today, many women and their partners are successfully combining family life with a career in physics. It will not be easy for both my husband and me to find jobs in physics and some day have a family, but we certainly face no more barriers than my parents did at the end of the sixties.
No one wants women to have "all that manly training, [and] become unwomanly enough to abandon their children." I doubt anyone wants men to have that kind of manly training either. Raising children is both challenging and rewarding in its own right. Let us encourage all members of the physics community to recognize the importance of bringing up the next generation of scientifically literate and socially responsible citizens. The solution is not a return to the days of fiercely maintained separation between the supposedly womanly sphere of the home and manly sphere of science. Instead we must work toward the existence of a full spectrum of opportunities, stretching from full-time homemaker to full-time scientist. Only in this way can all individuals make their greatest contribution to physics and society, while achieving intellectual and emotional satisfaction.
Rhonda Michele Stroud
The letter by Gordon Freeman (January) makes me wonder if he prefers freeman to freewoman. That is, if Mrs. Freeman made more money than Mr. Freeman, would Mr. Freeman stay home while Mrs. Freeman had power lunches and made money? Mr. Freeman, will you kindly check this question with Ms. Freeman and get back to Physics and Society about it?
My reaction is that Freeman intends a "two-parent, one-income family" policy to result in less recruiting of women into physics. Clearly, though, such a policy would not result in fewer women in physics. Many of the women in physics I know do not have children, thus their pursuit must not offend Freeman's intent in social engineering. In fact, of the "two-parent, two-income families" I know, it is the father who is the physicist, and often he has tenure. Clearly, it would open up many more jobs for young physicists if such men (and the few women) were forced to take a sabbatical until their children were at least in middle school. Perhaps faculty with working spouses and school age children could work only part time, teaching morning classes and returning home in the early afternoon. Research could be postponed until the nest had emptied.
Such a policy would both provide more jobs for the current pool of postdocs, and would provide a more welcoming climate for the women and men physicists who feel penalized in the tenure track for wanting to spend time with their kids. Gordon Freeman has proposed something far more modest in solving the problem of unsupervised children than Johnathan Swift ever did.
Judith E. Bush
I was touched by Gordon Freeman's letter urging us to pay more attention to our children, not only in general, but to our own. He raises the question of whether we women physicists (maybe men physicists too?) should spend more time with our children rather than with our work.
I was particularly touched because my son is in prison. He is the one who came to us at 8, having had drug withdrawal symptoms at birth, and been sexually abused when he was young. He was the one we taught to read, to play the piano and trumpet, about clouds and climate and fractions and spelling and people and things. He is the one for whom I and my children and my husband and my parents and many others gave up weekends and summers and evenings and trips, to give him the structure which in the end was not enough. He was the one who tested the limits--of our love, our resolve, our flexibility, and our family.
But my older children seem to be as solid as they come, both my daughter who grew up with me through years of single parenting, and my son who came to us at 13, also from an earlier troubled life. Maybe we can be excused by Freeman, because much of the time we have been a single income family, as my husband--who decided to relocate where we live--looked for a job?
In raising my own children, what I found I wanted was the hours of 3-8pm, to spend with them. Fortunately, by putting back the hours other times, I was able to find that time, when I needed it. I applaud the modern trends that allow many young parents to find that flexibility.
No one can deny that young children need love and attention from those close to them. And parents who work, whether driven by a love of work or by more prosaic concerns like paying for groceries and rent, think hard about how to give that love and that attention.
Women still, even after all these years, are not much more than 10% of physics PhD's. So they are a very small part of the total employment market, and problem.
As a nation, we still need our very best talent if our science, economy and country are to move forward. It is a mistake to exclude any segments from the pool, just as it is a mistake to suppose that every person interested in physics should be a research physicist.
We have made progress in using both the scientific and parental talents of both the men and women in our society. I believe we will continue this successful trend.
In criticising the scientific validity of the Anthropic Principle and the Gaia Hypothesis, respondents Sher and Weinstein (January 1996) miss Havel's (October 1995) point. Havel nowhere claims that these ideas are "facts." He asks, rather, what makes these ideas so inspiring. A politician and scholar with no advanced scientific training, he has nevertheless reached to concepts involving science (rather than the usual supernatural foundations of traditional religions) in attempting to formulate a resolution of the cultural crisis that he identified. For that we should be grateful, and take note that even though the concepts he chooses are "on the border between... science and myth," they are not pseudoscience a la astrology, etc.
I suspect that if a purely "rationalist" view of existence were sufficient to satisfy our natures, it would long ago have attained dominance in the many societies where such views have been available. Those familiar with Joseph Campbell's work will recognize the need for myth in human thought. We will be better off if our myths incorporate concepts from science, however modified, than if they rely on the angels and angry gods of traditional religions. Most people, if suitably educated in basic science, will have no trouble distinguishing between the science and the myth. Earlier societies developed mythologies based on nature, and it is clear from their often-prosperous survival that they knew perfectly well how to distinguish myth from reality. Should we expect less of ourselves?
Many scientists, believing that "rational thought" alone will solve all human problems, may find this idea itself irrelevant or wrong. But surely, if pressed, they will agree that many human decisions and problems involve subjective considerations and hence cannot be addressed by logic alone. Value judgments must be made. Even after a value judgment is made, and logic then leads to a decision, the computation (involving some variant of "the greatest good for the greatest number") is often beyond practicality, and a further subjective decision is required. If these decisions are to be made in a way that leads to a successful society, then we must resolve the spiritual crisis that Havel has described. If the resulting world view incorporates, even in a "fuzzy" way, good science, we will be much better off than if it incorporates bad science (as did, for example, the world view of Nazi Germany).
All this leads me to comment on Karl Puechl's (January) preference that articles such as Havel's not be included in the Forum's newsletter. This letter is such a sick joke that it seems on the one hand that one should not respond to it, and yet its publication invites response. Furthermore I suspect that there are others who hold views that, while less extreme, are still along the lines of: "why do physicists need to be concerned with any ideas other than physics?" I am sure that most readers are clever enough to understand quite well why. I hope that the Forum will bring in more material of this sort.
James R. Sheats
My previous letter (January 1996) was so scathing because I am deeply concerned. There are many Rintellectuals,S such as Vaclav Havel (October 1995), who apparently are for such good things as ecology, feminism, equality, etc., but who are at the same time opposed to rationalism. Two recently published books elaborate on this phenomenon. The first one, Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science (Oxford University Press, New York, 1993) by Alan Cromer, a physics professor at Northeastern University, I put in the RgreatS category. The second, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrel with Science (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1994) by Paul R. Gross, a biologist at the University of Virginia, and Norman Levitt, a mathematician at Rutgers, is the more disturbing of the two.
Cromer believes that the scientific method does not automatically evolve with civilization and culture. He notes that it did not evolve in China or India, both of which had older and at one time more sophisticated cultures than those that had developed in the West. He believes that the scientific method is a unique derivative of Greek civilization with its admiration and near-obsession for open debate; hence, it is something that may be quite fragile. If he is correct, this makes Gross and Levitt's book all the scarier.
Let me cite some of the illogical and scary garbage that forced Gross and Levitt to write their indictment of the academic left:
Andrew Ross, Professor of English at Princeton writes: RAbove all, the old demon, rationalism, must be banished. How can metaphysical life theories and explanations taken seriously by millions be ignored or excluded by a small group of powerful people called TscientistsU?S Apparently, Ross believes that New Age beliefs, astrology, ESP, etc. must be true since so many people believe them. Ergo, since science can't explain them, there must be something wrong with science!
In his book, Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits, Ross further writes: RThis book is dedicated to all of the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them.S Strange it is that a well-known scholar should write a book on a subject about which he knows, evidently, virtually nothing. It is stranger still that the book can rise to almost biblical status within the humanist community.
Evelyn Fox Keller, another English professor and a feminist, writes about the need for a "feminist algebra." Gross and Levitt respond: "This feminism is no different from an imaginary Christian fundamentalist pedagogy requiring that all math problems illustrate biblical episodes and preach evangelical sermons." Keller further decries scientists for "torturing nature" in order to extract its secrets. One of her examples of such "torture" is subjecting matter to high energies in particle accelerators. Material abuse! Have you particle physicists no shame?
Cultural anthropologist Robin Fox has summed this up nicely as follows: "English literature departments are reconstituting themselves as cultural studies departments and are trying to take over the intellectual world. ItUs a heady time for them and a scary time for science."
In his review of Higher Superstition, Arthur R. Kantrowitz wrote in Physics Today (January 1995): "The pigeonholing of science as a white, European, bourgeois, male, etc. view of the world is taken seriously by many members of the humanities and social science faculties of our leading universities and by literary intellectuals generally. To such demystifiers, the knowledge produced by science is no more reliable than that produced by Rother ways of knowing.S
As Gross and Levitt put it, "Once it has been affirmed that one discursive community is as good as another, that the narrative of science holds no privileges over the narratives of superstition, the newly minted cultural critic can actually revel in his ignorance of deep scientific ideas."
IUll end with another excerpt by Gross and Levitt: "The left's flirtation with irrationalism, its reactionary rejection of the scientific worldview, is deplorable and contradicts its own deepest traditions. ...The literary intellectuals control most of the undergraduate years of people who go on to become teachers, lawyers and journalists. To an alarming degree they have broadcast the proposition that science is too dangerous, and they have given prominence to 'other ways of knowing,' which they have put forward as more politically correct."
Karl H. Puechl
I found Art HobsonUs essay RZealots, Rational Decisions, and Science EducationS (January) very enjoyable reading! How true it is that someone can cause a tragedy by going to extremes, be they Yigal Amir, Timothy McVeigh or David Koresh. Extreme actions are definite signs of social disequilibrium, and we all know from Newton and LeChatellier what happens when disequilibrium occurs.
However, I would like to comment on the Rcore of scienceUs method.S Are we referring to the scientific method? If so, I hope we are aware that there are instances where those who deviate from the rigidity of that method have paid a very heavy price (although not to the level of an assassination). We are all aware that there are zealots in science and science education who would think nothing of blackballing scholars who conduct unconventional research or use unconventional methods.
A painful lesson I have learned from this tragedy in Eretz Israel is that we cannot be so Rblack-and-whiteS in our views. There are considerable shades of grey in society, government, religion, science, and education. Whether we agree with othersU policies or not, we must learn how to respect their viewpoints, and appreciate both the strengths and limitations of those views. RToleranceS should also be a significant factor in our decision-making process.
Yes, we do re-evaluate our views as we exchange them with others. Dialog enables thinking people to compare viewpoints, and thus to mature those views. This is a big part of social constructivism, which combines the interpersonal communication aspects of Lev VygotskyUs theories from the early 1900s and William PerryUs 1970 theory of cognitive development in young adults. People who defend their view with violence and social cruelty are at the lowest level of development, known as dualism. As we become more open in our thinking, we evolve to stages of multiplicity, skepticism, and finally relativism, where we can grasp (and respect) the contingency of our (and othersU) views.
Such personal evolutions take many years to occur. Peace is not a concept that came about suddenly; many years of fighting, debate, and anguish was the prelude. We didnUt learn about gravity, electricity, atomic structure, or electrodynamics overnight, either. The universe has patiently waited for humankind to learn things about it; maybe itUs time for humankind to be more patient with itself. The universe has survived a long time while humankind played out its conflicts; how much longer will humankind survive?
David B. Pushkin
The basic physics of the atmospheric greenhouse effect is well understood, but its possible effect on climate is still uncertain and controversial. I suggest another way to look at the problem, based on well-known information, but with an emphasis I have not seen given before.
The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 320 ppm in 1960, and is projected to reach 400 ppm in the year 2000 (1), a change of 25% in less than half a century. This change of concentration may affect our lives more directly, more profoundly, and sooner than we will be affected by climatic change. The reason is that the organic material of all living things derives from atmospheric CO2. Plants incorporate carbon from the atmosphere directly by photosynthesis. Animals derive their organic carbon either from plants or from other animals that consume plants.
Interestingly, the total amount of plant mass in the world (2) is about equal to the total mass of CO2 in the atmosphere. The total mass of animals is small compared with that of plants. Carbon is continually recycled between atmosphere and biosphere, with about equal amounts in each system.
In the dynamic global steady state that controls the biosphere, the concentration of the component crucial to the balance is abruptly changing by 25%. This must eventually have profound consequences, even if the climate never changes at all. I believe physicists could help to solve the problem by thinking about it from this point of view.
1. F.K. Lutgens and E.J. Tarbuck, The Atmosphere (Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs NJ, 3rd edition 1986), 382-3. 2. H. Walter, Vegetation of the Earth (Springer-Verlag, New York, 1977), 226.