Volume 25, Number 1 January 1996
The letters pages 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.
Response to Vaclav Havel
Vaclav Havel is distressed by the idea that we are "an unhappy bit of mildew on a heavenly body whirling in space among many that have no mildew on them at all.'' To avoid this, he overturns the Copernican Revolution, restoring humanity to the center of the universe.
However comforting this restoration, there are problems in the specific arguments presented by Havel. The Anthropic Principle (AP) and the Gaia Hypothesis to which he refers are not widely accepted by scientists. The idea that the universe exists (or was created) solely to ensure the existence of Homo sapiens is a valid idea that has been explored for millennia. It is, however, not science but religion. Within the realm of science there are several problems with the AP and the Gaia Hypothesis:
The anthropic principle states that we are here, therefore the laws of nature must be such as to allow our existence. This is a fascinating way of looking at the allowed values of physical laws and constants that would permit us to evolve. However, since the starting point of the AP is our existence, it cannot make predictions about the probability thereof.
This is shown by, for example, choosing the eight of clubs from a deck of cards. Then one could say "Wow, that deck of cards must have been structured in a very special way so that we ended up with the eight of clubs." However, no matter what card one draws, it always has an a priori probability of only 2%, it is always a coincidence, and it always requires the deck to be structured in a very special way.
Advocates of the AP would argue that the constants of nature must be very close to their observed values for carbon-based life-forms to arise. For example, the strong, weak, and electromagnetic couplings must be within about 1% of their known values for life to evolve. This implies that the probability that the universe would permit life to evolve is (0.01)3 = 1/million which, a priori, is quite improbable. However, in many Grand Unified Theories, these constants are all related so that the probability is not very small. In fact, in Superstring Theories, the hope is to relate all physical constants to either one or zero free parameters. In this case, the universe is even less improbable.
It is also unclear why the AP applies now rather than 65 million years ago or 65 million years from now. In the first case you would have triceratops wondering why the universe was just so; in the second case you would have the Mac 4000000 (or whatever) wondering why the universe was just so. In neither case are we present.
The Gaia hypothesis does not imply that Earth is a mega-organism. We know that Earth's ecosystem is locally stable. This implies the existence of negative feedback mechanisms. These mechanisms are very interesting, especially since we may be overstressing some of them. However, anthropomorphizing a feedback loop does not make it an organism.
No matter what diverse views are held on the Anthropic Principle and Gaia, Vaclav Havel's manifesto is a call for constructive reflection.
Two vectors are presently contributing to the mounting problem of the social image of science. One is a global geopolitical transformation, including loss of industrial and high-tech monopoly of the first world, shrinking jobs in manufacturing and the explosive growth of relatively cheap and mass-affordable information and communication technology. Contrary to earlier optimistic forecasts, the net effect of the transition from the industrial to the information age results in a decreased demand for physicists in many sectors of the economy.
The second vector is more "intellectual" and more specifically related to physics. It is uncontrolled, avalanche-like fractalization of physics into numerous micro-disciplines. This results in a weakening of the common base of the physics community. Recent skirmishes within the physics community over the Superconducting Supercollider exposed these signs of internal weakness to the general public.
What can we do to offset these trends ? Of course, no-one can or should be active simultaneously in all subdisciplines. And yet, reflecting on Havel's words, we physicists can perhaps identify at least one good approach. This is the restoration of the respectability of philosophical thinking in physics. This should not be limited to a relatively small community of the philosophers of physics in a narrow sense.
Let us recall, that common academic title "PhD" means "Doctor [Teacher] of Philosophy". We are amazingly shy and often perhaps even somewhat ashamed to admit this higher calling as inherent to our chosen vacation. Some lip service notwithstanding, any philosophical tilt is for the most part actively discouraged in most subdisciplines of physics. Anyone even remotely familiar with the major physical periodicals will laugh at the idea of somebody submitting a paper on philosophy to the "Philosophical Magazine." The response is, in effect: "No, you knock on the wrong door. We are not talking any philosophy here. The journal title is just a joke. Philosophy is a soft science, for soft brains. And ours is a hard science, probably hardest of all."
Recently Henry Stapp reported in Physics Today (July 1995, p. 78) that he was forced to remove an important philosophical discussion from his paper in The Physical Review because his ideas on backward causation in quantum theory appeared too radical for the reviewers. This is a blunt example of ideological censorship and intolerance to what even remotely can smell like "metaphysics". Undoubtedly, many of us don't even reach that far because in submitting papers the instinct of political correctness (satisfy the reviewer) leads to an automatic self-censorship of the potentially radical conclusions and inferences.
To conclude, showing more tolerance towards open-ended generalizations and interpretations will likely help to compensate for the effects of the continuing disciplinary fragmentation of physics and restore an almost lost sense of the unity of physics.
Alexander A. Berezin
The blame lies with all of us and in the societies we have constructed to serve us. Technology and science are easy targets, but the answers to the problems of today can never reside in turning away from knowledge. We cannot dumb ourselves down to a premodern state, however fashionable such a postmodern impulse seems to be. One reason why the abyss between "the technical and the moral" has grown deeper is that we have not become demonstrably more or less moral or spiritual than in earlier times, the rise in current religious activity notwithstanding; but we have learned more about the natural world and how to wrest from it a great array of seemingly attractive, occasionally awful, things.
Let me be more specific. Since the turn of the century medicine has advanced from (mostly) handholding to remarkable progress in public health. How many of us would like to return to the days of the plague, or smallpox, of polio, of high infant mortality and mother's death in childbirth? There certainly remain deeply troubling issues in modern medicine, but these problems are not solved by a return to a non-scientific time.
The anthropic principle does bring us back to very old ideas of community and purpose joined in the evolution of the cosmos. But it is a wish that is neither true nor false; it is earnest philosophy dressed in (some) physics. As Havel notes with this principle "science has found itself on the border between formula and story, between science and myth."
The Gaia hypothesis is a charming idea about the "mega-organism" called Earth. But while it may lead us to reconsider Earth more thoughtfully, by itself it is just the expression of a wish for wholeness and unity. Certainly with our Earth as a delicately formed life system, we should proceed most carefully, or lovingly, in our transactions. But again this idea is not true or false. This is not a scientific issue although perhaps technology can help us along the way.
Finally, the thought that the development of nuclear weapons would ruin people's taste for war by raising the stakes has proven not to prevail. As humans we continue to maul and ravage our fellows in ways that are modern only in the tools we use. It would be a remarkable leap of historical foolishness to imagine that science, through its by- products or its methods, makes us do this--as if it were the fault of Maxwell's equations, or perhaps television. A foolishness that abandons human responsibility for human behavior is almost certainly preparing itself for more of the same.
Simon C. Moss
Karl H. Puechl
In response to Dr. Cranberg's letter (July 1995): At this writing, OTA is probably about to expire, despite strong efforts by many sympathizers including respected conservatives such as Representatives Weldon and Hyde, and Senators Hatch, Grassley, and Stevens.
OTA did not prevent Cranberg from testifying before Congress. It has no power to do so. Congressional staffers just do not take their orders from OTA. Dr. Cranberg is an acknowledged expert in neutron scattering and in home energy systems, but his credentials regarding polygraph effectiveness are less well established, perhaps accounting for the lack of an invitation to testify.
Dr. Cranberg's undocumented allegations of bias regarding a 12-year-old OTA study on polygraphs are off base. OTA found that polygraphs function well when there exists a restricted group of individuals suspected of a given crime. On the other hand, it found that if polygraphs are used to randomly test a large number of people, false positives can approach 20%. Further, retesting cannot be counted upon to reduce this rate because, if an individual falsely tests positive once, the same thing may occur upon retest.
As a result of this OTA study, the use of polygraphs as a dragnet in the Department of Defense was, fortunately, restricted. Moreover, Senator Hatch used the OTA report extensively during the writing and enactment of the Employee Polygraph Protection Act in 1988, which President Reagan signed into law. This history hardly implies conservative hostility towards OTA, as Dr. Cranberg suggests exists.
In fact, this OTA study didn't offend many people, except of course the more extreme polygraph practitioners, who feared a reduction of their lucrative market. Dr. Cranberg omits mentioning the name of his OTA Advisory Panel source who allegedly trashed OTA's work and procedures. May we be forgiven for thinking it might be someone with a pecuniary interest in the matter?
Actually, Dr, Cranberg may not fully understand that the purpose of OTA Advisory Panels is precisely to assure that major stakeholders have input to a study, but not a right to dictate the study's outcome. Their voices are listened to and their positions reported and analyzed. Occasionally, a stakeholder may be unhappy at the outcome of a report. This may apply to Dr. Cranberg's friend. Sorry, but that's life: A report designed to be impartial will not please everyone.
In spite of the allegations that OTA is criticized by conservative observers, a review of testimony given by the conservative Heritage Foundation reveals the contrary. David Mason, testifying for this group before Congress, stated that "OTA's work appears to be generally respected in the scientific and technical community...I find the OTA's congressional oversight mechanism, leadership appointment and personnel practices to be potential models for other support agencies."
In fact, OTA's accuracy, credibility, and impartiality may have led to its demise. It was reported to me that a staffer for one of the members of Congress most involved in trying to kill OTA defended his boss by saying, in effect, that OTA was being eliminated because it couldn't be bought, that is, the Congressional requesters of a report could not determine its outcome. If true, this is a sad commentary on today's political process.
Anthony Fainberg, former Senior Associate, OTA
First let's understand Levine's graph (1). The increase in number of physics PhDs from 1962 to 1970 was a continuation of the post-Sputnik boom. After a few men had landed on the moon, the sparkle faded from the ultra-expensive NASA projects, and the threat of nuclear weapons in space had been equalized. In 1969 NASA laid off about 3000 physicists and engineers. Some physicists wound up selling hamburgers and driving taxis. In 1971 the number of PhDs in Physics declined. The decline continued for several years, and many physics profs worried about the empty seats in lecture rooms. How to save professors' jobs?
There was talk about recruiting "the other half of humanity" to study physics. No need to worry about the lack of jobs, because the women would ultimately get married and have kids, so wouldn't affect the job market. It wasn't anticipated that many women would, after all that manly training, become unwomanly enough to abandon their children to babysitters, and leave their teenagers without the nurture and guidance they so badly need.
In 1978 the APS Council supported the Equal Rights Amendment, and mounted a campaign to recruit women into physics (2), which grew in intensity (3). The self- serving proselytizing of physicists has produced an increasing number of PhDs since 1982 (1). The increase in number is not entirely due to women, and now the feminist propaganda machine (3) has taken over to increase the number of women in physics in spite of the poor job market and the growth in youth crime.
This political activity of physicists demonstrates that they are as susceptible as anyone else to irrationality and fads, even the psychological abuse of children and youths. Physicists, through irrational presentation of their self-interests to the public-at-large, have lost the respect of the public. Hobson's statement that "we ignore the anti- rationalism that is all around us" ignores the irrationality of scientists who refuse to acknowledge that much of the increase in societal problems has been generated by mothers who have been persuaded to earn money and thereby neglect their children.
The APS should take pro-society action, and recommend that there be only one income per family. The APS should advertise the fact that two-parent, single-income families are the most stable and beneficial type of family for society. They minimize child abuse, and maximize the probability that children will grow into personally- responsible, productive adults. A society will die unless it propagates in a healthy way.
A growth in two-parent, one-income families will decrease unemployment, and decrease youth crime and civil strife.
1. Levine, Zachary, Physics & Society, July 1994, p. 7, Figure 1. 2. Physics Today, July 1979, pp. 11, 13. 3. Lederman, Leon, Physics Today, May 1992, pp. 9, 11.
In a radical move, a group called Family Friendly Libraries is recommending that parents be allowed to restrict reading material accessible to their children on any subject. It was noted at their inaugural meeting that such a restriction could preclude a child's access to mainstream science like the theory of evolution and the big bang. Works by or about Bertrand Russell, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and Mohammed would also be jeopardized. FFL President, Karen Jo Gounaud, responded that these things are best left to the discretion of parents. She emphasized at the end of this meeting that "...anything goes..." when it comes to restrictions.
This group is ostensibly motivated by concerns over the sexual content of material available to minors. They have concluded that all materials which portray homosexuals positively are "radical." Moreover, many want to extend the radical label to science. This was confirmed during a discussion with an attendee at the end of the day. We discussed evolution and the big bang and he said, "I just don't think kids can handle some things." Evidently the solution is to make the library a police agency for the religious right.
In a country which is well known to be anti-intellectual, such movements are perhaps to be expected. This one is supported by the American Family Association and so will have very large resources available for its purpose. Physicists and other scientists should do something to stop this. Be concerned for the integrity of scientific inquiry. See to it that all citizens, including children, have access to the knowledge and insight that physics has to offer.
The Forum on Physics and Society can be proud of its friends who won three Physics and Chemistry Nobel Prizes last fall. Martin Perl was one of the founding fathers of the Forum, serving as the second chair of the Forum in the early 1970s, as a former editor of Physics and Society, and as organizer of two conferences at Penn State in the 1970s to explore graduate physics education in a time of declining options for PhDs (deja vu, in 1995). Despite his ongoing editorship of the newsletter and his other contributions to our Forum, he continued to do "real physics" and he broke the bank with the discovery of the tau lepton, demonstrating the existence of a postulated third family of fundamental particles. Deepest congratulations to Martin on sharing (with Frederick Reines) the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1995. We are proud of you.
In 1979, Professor Sherwood Rowland won the Szilard Award for his pioneering work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly for his work on the formation and decomposition of the ozone layer. In 1985, Paul Crutzen shared in the Szilard Award for investigations of "nuclear winter." Now in 1995, Rowland and Crutzen share (with Mario Molina) in the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences wrote that the three have "contributed to our salvation from a global environmental problem that could have catastrophic consequences." Heart-felt congratulations to Sherwood and Paul.