When a great tree falls in the forest, a great void is created, a space which will eventually be filled by new trees, nurtured by the remnants of the life processes of the departed giant. It will be a long time, if ever, before one of the successor trees reach the stature of the departed giant. A giant of physics and society has just fallen, one who shaped physics and its societal implications from the mid-twentieth century and was still productively active in the twenty first. We shall not see another Hans Bethe for a long time.
Trees, non-sentient beings, passively benefit from their heritage via the nutrients sucked up by their roots. We sentient beings must actively examine our roots in order to benefit from the past and grow into the future. The worlds of theoretical physics and astrophysics carry on the examination of the scientific contributions of Hans Bethe via their continued active research. Physics and Society hopes to further the non-scientific contributions of physics to society by examining Bethe's contributions to furthering the productive interaction between physics and society. At the suggestion of W.K.H. Panofsky, we intend to publish a series of reminisces of interactions between society and the world of physics in which Hans Bethe played a major role. The first three contributions, by Profs. Panofsky, Drell, and Salpeter, are featured in this issue. We hope that those of our readers who have had some experience or knowledge of Bethe's efforts and contributions to science and society will submit their considered thought on the topic to this journal for publication - as letter, commentary, or article - in future issues.
Turning to another, related news item of importance, we note that our society's commitment - as manifested by our Congress - to a growing support for science seems to be diminishing, as is illustrated in the recent report, FYI #27, of the American Institute of Physics, written by Richard M. Jones. FYI #27 covers remarks by two senators with jurisdiction over the NSF in which they voice their support for the NSF, as well as their disappointment at the current funding levels for the agency. Senator Christopher Bond (R-MO) mentioned the disparity between the funding levels for biological sciences vs. physical sciences, and added, “…we are jeopardizing the work of the National Institutes of Health because we are undermining the physical sciences [via inadequate funding of the physical sciences], which provide the underpinning for medical technological advances.” In response to the Bush Administration’s request for a 2.4% increase for NSF in FY 2006 over the current year, Bond said, "Sadly, the budget request for NSF does not provide it with adequate resources to meet its mission….We have fallen off the path for doubling NSF’s budget….” Senator Barbara Mikulski was equally disapproving,
“This barely keeps pace with inflation. Most disturbing is the cut to education programs…Senator Bond and I are committed to doubling the NSF budget over five years. We have increased NSF’s budget by an average of 10% over the President’s budget for the last several years. But this Administration has broken its promise to NSF. In 2002, the President signed the NSF Authorization into law. It authorized a doubling of the NSF budget between 2002 and 2007. In 2006, NSF is authorized to be funded at $8.5 billion. Yet the President’s 2006 budget funds NSF at $5.6 billion—34% below where it should be.”
Chairman Bond had the following to say to the research community in the U.S.,
“This must mean a greater effort by the research and high-tech sector in advocating and ‘selling’ the virtues of NSF to the general public….come out of your labs, out of your think tanks, and let people know how important this funding is.”
This diminishing support may be due to a lack of any current "giants" of science - at least as perceived by the public. More likely is the evident growing distrust of the scientific enterprise itself: the public doesn't trust "experts", especially when these experts tell it things it doesn't wish to hear. The public expects to reap the medical and technological benefits that science has to offer without accepting the constraints, world views, and thinking processes that necessarily accompany them. Congress has most recently shown its disdain for judicial, medical, and ethical "end-of-life" expertise in the Terri Schiavo case. Not only are evolution and "big bang" cosmology disbelieved in many popular non-science institutions, it now turns out that even some science museums are refusing to show IMAX films on earth science because their lay focus groups perceive that the films may link volcanism to the possibility of evolution. Thus the future making of such films, and hence the scientific education of the public, is jeopardized.
All of this in a society with more formal and higher level study of science, by the general public, than has ever been seen before.
Clearly, as we currently teach astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, etc., we are not teaching science to many (most?) of our students. It's time for us to put less effort in arguing for the number of science courses our citizens should have completed and become more concerned with what is actually taught in those courses. It's time to start teaching science as well astronomy, ,…, zoology..