Almost everybody in this country seems to like "scientific research" - it appears to promise improved health, wealth, and security for the nation. But, as indicated by the News item about the continued decline in numbers of American physics Ph.D.'s, fewer and fewer of the usual - male - American students seem willing to commit themselves to the dedicated, prolonged, stressful research apprenticeship implicit in a Ph.D. program. Fortunately, the laboratories and libraries of our research universities are being kept from closing down by foreign students and increasing numbers of woman students. It is still too early to tell whether the reported recent increase in undergraduate physics majors foretells an increase in the quantity and quality of our graduate programs or a much needed improvement in the level of high school science teaching. Certainly, the current national budget commitment to science research and education (e.g., a proposed NSF budget "34% below where it should be", cf., Editor's Comment, P&S, April 2005), and the state budgets with which I am familiar, will not support any major improvements in the near future.
Perhaps more troubling is the confusion, in the public and political mind, as to what this vaunted "scientific research" is. As the news item on the shifting goals of the international space station indicates, the U.S. space station program has shifted from that of a very expensive - though possibly very productive - research laboratory to a very expensive mere "bus stop" - a way station on a route to the Moon and Mars. Or has it shifted into a taxpayer funded means "for private-sector commercialization of products?" In contemplating this shift, we must sadly realize that - in spite of the large-scale exposure of college students to science as taught by scientists - the "science" of scientists (an international "evidence based" community) is not the science of the American politician, business person, or taxpayer.
Nor, apparently, is it the science of the military. The high level technology upon which America relies for its military security depends upon science for its design, creation, testing, and validation. In a world of finite resources, it is not a wise priority to procure and rely upon tools whose proper functioning, in the realm of their anticipated use, has not been validated. Proper calibration and validation of tools is an integral part of science, even if the usual science process is open to inspection and duplication by others. All the more so is such validation necessary when the process is not open to others and may be the grounds upon which national survival rests. Yet, as the Boston Globe editorial in the news section suggests, not only is the validity of the testing of the - very expensive - American missile defense program doubtful, but also the scientific integrity of one of America's premier academic institutions. If scientific fraud has been countenanced by MIT, how can we expect American science - and its concomitant health, wealth, and security - to flourish?
Underlying the confusion shown by the American public as to the nature of science is the evident failure of our college science teaching to communicate the nature of science to the bulk of our students. As I noted, in the January issue, many of our students finish their undergraduate careers possessed of a split brain - at least with respect to science. They can pass enough of the required science courses to get their degree, but refuse to make the - supposedly learned - science a foundation for their out-of-school lives. In his Commentary, David Griffith suggests that the two-brain syndrome may be alleviated by better science teaching: teach fewer topics but emphasize their historical and cultural development. But many of us try to do exactly that in our teaching. I certainly made a major effort in that direction in the introductory astronomy course which I've taught for the past few years. The result was my recognition of the "two-brain syndrome", a recognition spurred by the intelligent honesty of one of my students. She raised the question: in which age of the earth should she believe - the several thousand years of the Biblical literalists, in whose fold she had been raised, or the several billion years of the university science departments, in which she was just a short term visitor? Given the rising controversy in the land about the relation between science and religion, as manifested in contentions about "brain death", evolution, cosmology (e.g., see the AAPT statement in the News section and the NY Times "op-ed" in the Commentary), this question can not be merely dismissed as backwoods musings. We face the possibility of a contentious "two-society" country, one based upon "rationality", the other upon "faith". I believe that our scientist-readers must strive for some insight into the thinking of an honest contemporary "faith based" non-scientist. In further, post-school, conversation with her, I raised a question:
Emily: thank you for a very pleasant lunch last Friday. there is one question which I neglected to raise and which is very important to my understanding of our differences. It is:
If the truths of the Bible are eternal (as I expect you to believe), then why is it so important, to you and your fellow believers, how old the Earth actually is: 6 thousand years or 4 billion years? Why is it so necessary for you to throw out the results of 2 thousand years of scientific endeavor making use of humanities rational facilities, one of God's great gifts to us?
Her response is her Commentary on "faith". I don't believe she has really addressed my question; perhaps it is too uncomfortable. She raises the counter question: does faith in God take priority over man's rationality? But the question of priority implies a conflict; is this conflict really necessary? She asks about rationality replacing the need for God. But I know of nothing in main-line science that requires the replacement of God by human rationality. The contention will continue. Hopefully, further discussion will make the questions more pointed, failure to address them more difficult - for all parties. Really dealing, honestly and completely, with the questions may dampen down the contentions in our society, help restore some broader sense of civility. Or will it?
Though the previous items may lead to some doubts and qualms about the future of our science, we can certainly look back with pride. As our two articles show, physics has inculcated its past practitioners and leaders with very humane values. As physics is an active struggle with the physical world, so have physicists been active in struggling to preserve and extend human rights, liberties, security, and dignity. We've always known that Einstein was a stalwart in such matters but the article on APS endeavors in the field shows that Einstein was not a distant outlyer.
And so we have to hope and strive to overcome the dichotomies of the two-brain individual and the two-society America.