Volume 25, Number 4 October 1996
Rethinking Science as a Career: Perceptions and Realities in the Physical
There is an automobile ad on TV that asks the question, "If we violate the laws of physics will we be punished?" It seems that in physics we have been asking a similar question of economists, "If we violate the laws of supply and demand, will we be punished?" This book implies that "not necessarily" is an appropriate answer to the second question. All we have to do is change the laws.
Using non-random sampling from author-composed questionairres (pp. 130-138), some statistical analysis and anecdotal evidence (some from the Young Scientists Network), the authors present answers to questions of how to balance supply of and demand for scientifically trained professionals. The scientists surveyed are physical scientists, mainly physicists and chemists, who have completed an undergraduate degree and are in various stages of pursuing a career in physical science. The apparent goal of the book is to "put a human face on the (employment) situation as it currently exists, to map out problems along with possibilities, and to suggest ways in which higher education, the federal government, and the science community itself can develop different strategies for projecting and preparing human resources in science the 21st century" (p.12). The book addresses these issues in an engaging and relatively comprehensive way. One notable omission is the preparation and supply of scientist- teachers for a career in elementary and high schools; a topic of utmost importance if we hope to promote, as the authors suggest, the general view that "human resources in science are a national treasure that add value to the world."
To get a handle on the current employment situation and perception of it, the first two chapters are devoted to reviewing the traditional perceptions of the scientist, the scientists' job and the overall place of science in the U.S. economy. One of the most important questions posed in the first chapter is whether the shifts in employment of scientists is cyclical (i.e., closely tied to economic trends) or structural (i.e., closely tied to educational programs and government support of them) (p. 25). Assuming a structural cause, the rest of the book is devoted to supporting this hypothesis and suggesting changes in educational programs and in government and university support.
Suggestions include offering [graduate] degrees that include coursework and experiences with business to prepare graduates for the working world. These might include business and political science courses and summer work.
The next two chapters summarize responses to the questionnaires in an effort to identify the current set of skills required by a working scientist. This skill set is discussed in comparison with what is traditionally taught to students preparing for a career in science. A question this section raises is whether professors, mentors and teachers should prepare students for a job or "give students an education." Undergraduate education at liberal arts universities require programs of general studies to give breadth of experience to all students, including science majors. There is no mention of the role these general studies courses play or should play in preparing students for the workforce. Another issue raised in these chapters is the role business should play in shaping education. The face of academia may change if universities are forced to look more toward business to fund their programs, rather than looking toward state and federal agencies. Such a scenario begs the question, "Who will define the primary responsibilities of science?"
The last two chapters focus on how a degree in science might lead to a science career, not necessarily one in academic/research science. Educating students in science so that they possess "commercially oriented" scientific skills is proposed by the authors as a way to "restructure supply" (e.g., business driving academia). Certainly most Ph.D.s with dissertation work in string theory possess analytical, computational, and communication skills equal to those of a Ph.D. in theoretical condensed matter physics. But business may not be so ready to fund the former line of research. It is conceivable that such close ties with business may not be good for science.
Other suggestions, prompted by answers to the questionairres indicating too-narrow training, include offering M.S. and Ph.D. degrees that include coursework and/or co-op experiences with business to better prepare graduates for the non-academic, non-research- oriented working world. Such courses and co-ops might include business and political science courses and summer work during a graduate degree program. The authors anticipate resistance from faculty expected to institute such changes due to traditional faculty attitudes about what a successful scientist does (p. 86). Another reason for this resistance, not given by the authors, may be that it is hard to imagine these sorts of programs without sacrificing the depth of knowledge necessary to produce a dissertation, or without increasing the already lengthy time to finish a Ph.D. The book provides little evidence to support such radical changes in advanced degree programs, but such changes may be warrented with more study of these issues.
The questionnaires are given in the appendices with results of the multiple choice questions. They provide some interesting insight into opinions about employment problems facing scientifically trained professionals. For example, in response to the question "Do you believe there is a coming shortage of scientists and engineers in the U.S.?" 38 of 71 respondents answered "no" and 33 answered "yes" (p. 138). This result hints at a lack of consensus concerning the perception of the employment situation faced by physical scientists.
Recognizing the employment situation for what it is is important for anyone who has the responsibility of advising students planning on a career in physical science. This book provides a very useful introduction to employment issues in physical science and provides many provocative ideas for addressing these issues if the cause is structural.
Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics
University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996, ISBN 0-520-08906-5
Do women make good scientists? As Ruth Sime informs us in the introduction of her biography of Lise Meitner, a determined oversight in the hands of historians has ensured that numerous women scientists have been undervalued and fallen into obscurity. This trend apparently perpetuates the belief that women are usually less able than their male colleagues. Evidence to the contrary, claims Sime, rarely makes it into print.
In addition to documenting Meitner's scientific achievements, Sime's detailed telling of Meitner's personal struggles and convictions ensures that Meitner's life will stand as a testimony to the equal capacity of women as scientists.
From childhood Lise was curious about mathematics and science and photos of her show her to be a pensive young woman. Reform in women's education and support from her parents allowed Lise to enter the University of Vienna in 1901 and set her on her life-long commitment to physics. One of her teachers was Ludwig Boltzmann, an inspiring and brilliant scientist who was extremely open minded concerning women's education and made a lasting impression on Lise. Having obtained her doctorate (one of only two women that year to do so) and proving to herself that she was capable of independent research, she arrived in Berlin in 1907 with a small allowance from her parents to study for a few terms at the university. She stayed for more than thirty years.
In Berlin, Max Planck allowed her to attend his lectures. Emil Fischer, director at the institute for Chemistry, agreed to let her collaborate with a young German chemist, Otto Hahn, who shared a common interest with Lise in the new field of radioactivity. However, because women were still barred professionally, Fischer would only let Lise work in the old wood shop in the basement of his building, which had a separate entrance. Nevertheless Hahn and Meitner, of similar age, instantaneously became friends.
In 1912, when Hahn was offered a junior position at the new Kaiser-Wilhelm- Institute fur Chemie (KWI) in Dahlem to run a modest radioactivity section, Lise Meitner was welcome too--as unpaid "guest" despite her twenty or so excellent join publications with Hahn. She was rewarded for her persistence when later in 1912 Max Planck appointed her as his assistant--the first woman assistant in Prussia. Fischer took note and within a year she became a scientific associate in the KWI. When Lise was asked in 1917 to establish a physics department at the institute, she believed this to be a sign of recognition, trust and professional "coming of age," and struck out on her own in the new field of nuclear physics. In 1919 she became a full professor. Using the Wilson bubble chamber which she built in 1924, Meitner made thorough investigations of the emission and scattering of alpha particles. Otto Hahn, now WKI director, noted that it was her work, more than his own, that contributed to the growing international reputation of their institute.
In 1933 Adolf Hitler was appointed German chancellor. Shortly after, the National Socialists effected the "Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service." All non-Aryans and political undesirables were to be purged from all government agencies. Over a very short time Jews were systematically dismissed from all civil service positions. Meitner did not know whether to follow Einstein and many other friends, and to resign and leave the country or whether to ride out the troubles. She could not believe that the situation could be sustained for long. Moreover the institute was her haven, her home, her reference point.
Meitner responded to the National Socialist threat by proposing that Hahn and she renew their collaboration. In 1934, Meitner, Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, an outspoken anti-Nazi who was almost destitute as a result of the political unrest, teamed up to investigate the elements beyond Uranium. This project eventually culminated in the discovery of fission at the end of 1938.
Although immediately after the war Lise Meitner was a celebrity in the United States, after her death in 1968 she seemed like so many other women scientists to be disappearing into obscurity. In 1944 Hahn received the Nobel prize for physics in recognition of the discovery of Nuclear fission. Meitner and Strassmann did not. Ultimately, Hahn and fellow German scientists even hinted that had Meitner stayed in Berlin, she would have probably hindered Hahn from making his discovery. In this case "the systematic repression and forgetting of post-war Germany," as Sime describes it, made it all the more convenient to diminish Meitner's contributions. Sime sets herself the task of uncovering the facts around the discovery of nuclear fission and placing Meitner as the intellectual leader of the Berlin team.
Realization of nuclear fission was reached by common effort through secret communication between Hahn in Berlin and Mietner in Stockholm. Hahn never acknowledged this later. Resident in different countries, both Meitner and Hahn needed the acclaim to provide them with professional and financial security. Hahn, to his credit, was not a Nazi party member, and communicating the results in secret only to Meitner without telling physicists at his own institution caused him untold friction at the WKI. His position there was for a time quite unstable. However, when the enormity of their discovery was realized, this became a turning point in their relationship. Hahn distanced himself from Meitner initially for political reasons, and it became his self-interest to discredit any contribution she had made as a physicist.
Lise Meitner was a brilliant and capable woman who, so familiarly for her gender, lacked confidence in her ability. Her response was always muted in public. In 1938 when she fled to Stockholm, she was mislead to believe that in Manne Siegbahm's Nobel Institute for Experimental Physics she could really contribute to setting up useful research programmes. In fact she was despised and not welcomed. Siegbahm allowed her the most basic of facilities and no staff. Combined with the fact that she had left all of her personal and scientific possessions in Berlin, she was reduced to living in a small hotel room with insufficient changes of clothes. Added to this were her own worries for members of her family still stranded in Germany.
This book is an extraordinary and rewarding read and I can not sing its praises too strongly. I have dipped into it over and again and each time it stimulates anew. It is balanced and fair. It presents the complete personal and scientific relationship between Hahn and Meitner. Many correspondences are included which add considerable weight and authenticity to Sime's line of argument. The photographs and text document the development of nuclear physics just prior to its loss of innocence--one of the most fertile periods of scientific progress.
Sime has written the definitive biography of Lise Meitner and much more. In all respects this book deserves to be read.
Dr L.F. Cohen
Article Reviews: Four Articles On Climate Change.
With this issue, we begin publishing brief reviews of journal and magazine articles. If you come across significant articles that other FPS members could benefit from, please write your own brief (200 words maximum) review and send it to me (my addresses are on the Forum home page). - Art Hobson, reviews editor
Consequences is a serious new journal devoted to "the nature and implications of environmental change." It is produced as a public service to provide reliable assessments of practical concerns related to national and international consequences of global environmental changes. It is published quarterly and distributed free through funding by NOAA, NASA and NSF. Articles are commissioned from working scientists with professional expertise. Manuscripts are critically reviewed by independent experts, representing a spectrum of opinion, whose names and credentials appear with each article. Articles are written for the informed public reader, kept to a length that can be read in about half an hour, and preceded by a short summation. Articles are also accessible at http://www.gcrio.org/CONSEQUENCES/introCON.html
Trends in U.S. Climate during the Twentieth Century
Thomas Karl, Richard Knight, David Easterling, Robert Quayle
Consequences Vol. 1, No. 1, 1995, pp. 2-12.
Karl's group has developed a Greenhouse Climate Response Index (GCRI) that is the annual arithmetic average of four U.S. climate indicators related to temperature, preciptiation, drought, and extreme one-day precipation. Theoretical understanding of global warming predicts that these indicators should be especially sensitive to greenhouse-induced climate change. This article describes the observed behavior of the GCRI since 1910, and the implications for climate change. According to the article, "it can be concluded that the late-century changes recorded in U.S. climate are consistent with the general trends anticipated from a greenhouse-enhanced atmosphere. --The tendency toward increased values of the U.S. GCRI over the past two decades is suggestive of a climate driven by greenhouse warming. At the same time--one cannot unequivocally reject the possbility (about a 5 to 10% chance) that the increase is still a feature of a stable climate." A brief report on Karl's work appears in the journal Science, 21 April 1995, pp. 363-4.
Potential Impacts of Climate Change on Agriculture and Food Supply
Cynthia Rosenzweig and Daniel Hillel
Consequences Vol. 1, No. 2, 1995, pp. 22-32.
Possible benefits include enhanced CO2 assimilation, longer growing seasons, and increased preciptation. Possible drawbacks include more frequent and severe droughts, heat stress, faster growth, shorter growing periods, shortened lifecycle, sea-level rise, increased flooding and increased salinization. The article discusses the effects of higher CO2, higher temperature, water availability, climate variability, soil fertility, erosion, pests, diseases, sea-level rise, and agricultural adaptation. It also discusses uncertainties in predictions about these changes, thresholds at which new effects might occur, and the possibilities for surprise. In closing, the authors offer two opinions. First, "the term 'threshold' is misleading whenever artificially contrived levels are specified rather than natural thresholds." That is, we should not set "acceptable" levels for human-produced emission rates of CO2 and other substances. "The eventual consequences of ANY significant human alteration of the Earth's energy balance is potentially serious." And, "The second notion, which can be equally misleading, is a blind faith in agriculture as a self-correcting process. --The efforts of farmers may well be constrained or even thwarted by factors beyond their control."
Climate Models: How Reliable are their Predictions?
Consequences Vol. 1, No. 3, 1995, pp. 16-27.
How certain or how controversial are the largely theoretical predictions of global warming, and on what assumptions are they based? Given the potential importance of regional climate changes, and the impacts of extreme, climate-related weather events such as droughts, floods, and hurricanes on agriculture and human safety, how reliable are the projections? Are the uncertainties in present models so great that we can ignore their predictions? What elements are the most robust? Are there prospects for substantial near-term improvements in climate models? These questions were put to a group of scientists, chaired by Barron, in late l994 in response to requests from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Government Accounting Office. The result, summarized in this article, is a ranked list of 16 climate model predictions ranging from "virtually certain" (there is only one, namely that the stratosphere will be significantly cooled) through "very probable" (continued temperature rise, increased precipitation, diminished sea ice, rising sea levels, warmer wintertime arctic land areas, greenhouse effects will be much larger than the climatic effects of any changes in the sun's radiated energy), down to "probable" (four more effects) and "uncertain" (five effects). This is followed by a list of seven steps that could be taken to reduce the uncertainties in present models.
Remembrance of Things Past: Greenhouse Lessons from the Geologic Record
Consequences Vol. 2, No. 1, 1996, 2-12.
One hundred million years of climate change, placed within the perspective of several different time-frames: the past 1000 years, the past 18,000 years, the past 160,000 years, the past 800,000 years, and the past 100 million years. The final sentance of the article states "The net impression of this evaluation is that the future climate promises to look very different than the present and, perhaps more disconcertingly, possibly unlike anything known before."