Physics and Society Jan '97--Letters

Volume 26, Number 1 January 1997


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.

Teaching vs Research

In your editorial in the Oct. 1996 issue of P&S, you state "We all are beginning to understand that the taxpayer will soon tire of funding educational institutions which fail to educate well...There is an implicit understanding, both among ourselves and in the general public, that there may be a contradiction between research and effective teaching..."

First, the sad truth is that the taxpayer has already tired of funding educational institutions regardless of the quality of education. The taxpayer (and tuition payer) looks upon education as a commodity, no different than milk or eggs. Those who pay for education want results; those results are employable people who can do as they are expected. We can say "well-rounded individual" until we're blue in the face, but the reality is that people seek education in order to find gainful employment. Let's be pragmatic; why did many of us go to college? I was good in and enjoyed science, but I also didn't want to work in my uncle's kosher butcher shop; an education was very attractive to me.

Second, there IS a contradiction between research and teaching, because many in higher education forget what higher education is for. Many physics (and other science) departments forget what their primary purpose is at a college or university. Why are we professors of physics? What is our value to the academic community? If we think our existence is for the sake of reproducing ourselves for the next generation, we are terribly mistaken. One of the themes I walked away from the ICUPE (Int. Conf. on Undergraduate Physics Education) at the University of Maryland (UMD) this summer was that we need to be better aware of the fact that the vast majority of our introductory physics students will not pursue a career in physics; we are primarily educating future nonphysicists -- just as chemistry and biology departments are primarily educating nonchemists and nonbiologists. A physics department that considers its ultimate purpose to be generating future physicists is failing to meet the needs of approximately 95% of its academic community.

If we do research in physics, who are we doing it for? Other physicists, right? Do we ever think how a future historian can appreciate what we do? Do we ever wonder what a future kindergarten teacher gains from sitting in a lecture hall listening to some theoretician? What about a future CPA? What are our general education courses like? Are they wonderfully and thoughtfully designed like Art Hobson's at the University of Arkansas, or are they watered-down versions of Halliday and Resnick?

Perhaps if we spent more time thinking about how our research could complement, or even enhance, our teaching and students' learning, we might not need to wonder about potential contradictions between research and teaching. I myself, being an science education researcher, cannot separate my teaching and research; my lecture hall is a second laboratory, where I and my students are mutual research subjects.

Do I think all physicists should become science education researchers to justify their salaries and grants? No, of course not; we all know that there are some scientists who have no business teaching students, just as we know there are some science educators who have no business being in a research lab. But we do need to create more awareness among our current and future generations of science faculty as to what their purpose should be in an educational institution.

...Maybe if we had wondered more about what we teach, why we teach it, how we teach it, and whom we teach it to, years ago when we should have, we wouldn't be staring at these difficult issues today. I agree that we no longer have the luxury of avoiding these issues, and I'm glad to see such thoughts from the editor shared in our forum.

I do not have easy answers either. However, I do have focused questions we should all examine for answers: Why are we professors? What do professors do? Who should benefit most from professors? It's never too late for us to look in the mirror!

David B. Pushkin
Dept. of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Montclair State University
Upper Montclair, NJ 07043 (email)

Scientific Adversary Procedures

David Hafemeister's article in Physics & Society, Oct. 1996 mentions the 1985 Scientific Adversary Procedures which were conducted at Dartmouth on SDI As he points out it was startling that almost complete agreement was easily achieved when the discussion was confined to the unclassified scientific facts. This has happened every time I have tried this procedure. He did not however give a reference where these agreements could be found. They are given in Kraft & Vig, Technology and Politics, DukeUniv. Press p 303 - 305.

Incidently Hafemeister is wrong in describing the Case-Managers. He writes "These individuals were to be unconnected with the dispute with the hope of removing hard driving advocacy." As a matter of fact I invited the most competent among the committed advocates for and against SDI(e.g. Ed Gerry and Dick Garwin). It was to be an adversary proceeding.

Arthur Kantrowitz
Dartmouth College

Physicists Helping Russia

It was reported in today's newspaper that most Russian legislators are unwilling to sign on to the START II treaty. I think we have to ask ourselves: What happens if Yeltsin goes and is supplanted by a hard-liner? Is it possible that we'll be right back in a state of nuclear confrontation? We've enjoyed almost 5 years of reliable peace; but it would be foolish to presume that is the permanent state of things. Yuri Orlov's talk of 3 May 1996 (see P&S, Oct. '96) reminds us that there are a lot of very unpleasant people near the peak of power in Russia.

Just over 5 years ago, I returned from a trip to the Soviet Union...which was before the attempted coup that vaulted Boris Yeltsin to prominence. I then urged that we help Russia in several ways. In the intervening years, the western powers have done relatively little, while the Russian situation has deteriorated more and more into a Mafia-like system. This is tragic for all the Russian people, including our fellow scientists. Conditions remain conducive to a return to totalitarianism.

It seems to me that we (i.e., physicists in America) ought to make our voices heard to get our government to realize how much is at stake here, and to help preserve some semblance of democracy in Russia. We have considerable experience in dealing with Russian scientists, and we have influenced American policy in the past. It's time for the American Physical Society to step in and do so again.

Thomas P. Sheahen
Science Applications International Corp.
555 Quince Orchard Road, Suite 500
Gaithersburg, MD 20878