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Cameron Reed, Physics & Society
The annual APS April meeting was held in Denver, CO, 2-5 May 2009. The Forum on Physics and Society hosted or co-hosted nine sessions on a wide variety of topics, including applications of accelerators, science policy, managing nuclear fuels, contributions of physicists to the intelligence community, scientists and arms control, and geoengineering as a measure to address rapid climate change in addition to a panel discussion on large physics projects and a Town Hall meeting on science and society. The following paragraphs briefly summarize the papers presented. We hope to publish the entire text of Lewis Branscomb’s talk (Session G7) in a future edition of P&S. The complete scientific program of the April meeting can be found at http://meetings.aps.org/Meeting/APR09/Content/1380.
Session B6: Applications of Accelerators (jointly sponsored with the Division of Biological Physics) J. Murray Gibson, Director of the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National laboratory, spoke on “Neutron and Synchrotron Radiation Studies for Designer Materials, Sustainable Energy, and Healthy Lives.” Gibson described applications of high-x-ray fluxes in areas such as energy (imaging fuel combustion), climate change (understanding how sea animals capture carbon and phosphorous), protein structure (imaging cancer-attacking viruses), and materials science (metal fatigue). Cynthia Keppel (Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility) spoke on “Medical Applications: Proton Radiotherapy.” Keppel described how proton therapy is now recognized as the most effective external-beam treatment of various types of cancers since the depth-dose profile of a proton beam delivers a minimal radiation dose in front of a tumor, most within the tumor itself, and none behind it. She also described the current development status of Hampton University’s Proton Therapy Institute. Richard Sheffield (LANL) spoke on “Applications in Nuclear Energy Security,” addressing how accelerators can be used to transmute nuclear waste via spallation reactions, in particular minor actinides which are the primary concern with long-term waste disposal. A prime example is Am-241, which otherwise decays to the very long-lived isotope Np-237. This process would not eliminate the need for a long-term repository but would reduce the necessary repository timescale to only a few hundreds of years from thousands of years. Only two accelerators would be required to deal with the waste fuel of the entire US reactor fleet. This session was chaired by Pushpa Bhat of Fermilab.
Session D4: Panel Discussion: Global Physics Projects (jointly sponsored with the Forum for International Physics) This session was also chaired by Pushpa Bhat. Prof. Sir Christopher Llewellyn-Smith (Oxford University and Former Director-General of CERN) spoke on “International Scientific Collaboration.” Llewellyn-Smith remarked that international collaboration in large projects is natural given the universal nature of physical laws and the scale of effort required. He pointed out that in any such project a firm scientific foundation is essential to build political support. However, these projects face complex decision making, require dealing with differing national cultural and governmental norms, can face issues of intellectual property ownership and work permits, require stable financial support, and should ideally be located near existing facilities. The scientific community must recognize that site selections are always dominated by political factors. An issue of growing concern in large projects is that the time needed for administrative decisions may become longer than the time scale on which technology and scientific needs change. Dennis Kovar, Associate Director for High-Energy Physics in the Office of Science at the Department of Energy, remarked on the need for central leadership and a majority stakeholder for such projects. Pier Oddone, Director of Fermilab, spoke of the success of the CERN model, remarking that is difficult to conceive of another area of endeavor that could bring countries together in such a way. Following these remarks, a Panel Discussion moderated by Lawrence Krauss of the University of Arizona was held; this was joined by former Presidential Science Advisor Jack Gibbons. A variety of questions came from the audience concerning issues such as dealing with construction versus operating costs for large projects, realistically bringing minority partners and developing countries into projects, prospects for next-generation accelerators, and competition that the high-energy physics community in the United States will face for economic stimulus funding against “job-ready” projects that provide immediate employment.
Session F2: Town Hall Meeting on Science and Society. This session was the first public town hall on science and society held at an APS meeting. Pier Oddone of Fermilab opened with a few brief remarks, setting the context of the evening by pointing out that 2.6% of US Gross Domestic Product is devoted to research and development (mostly in the area of defense) and that of some $60 billion allocated for science and technology, about half goes to the NIH. Lawrence Krauss of the University of Arizona then spoke on the value of esoteric science, reminding the audience that scientific facts such as the big bang do affect our cultural view of ourselves and that they are independent of the questions that motivated their discovery and the purpose of the questioner. Krauss went on to point out that America faces a serious paradox in that, while about half of the country’s GDP growth over the last half-century is attributable to science and engineering, public science literacy as a whole is poor, a situation which can lead to irrational decisions such as those concerning missile defense. On the question of issues such as Intelligent Design, Krauss remarked that science is not a threat to a moral world and that society should not feel obliged to respect all religious sensibilities, particularly if they conflict with scientific findings. He closed by reminding the audience of the sense of wonder that science provides and that its underlying ethics remain honesty, creativity, full disclosure, and anti-authoritarianism. Llewellyn-Smith (see Session D4 above) then spoke concerning world energy supply. Currently, one-quarter of the world’s population lacks electricity; it will be necessary to double energy supply to bring most of the world’s population to Human Development Index level of 0.9 (out of a maximum possible 1.0). The required energy supply can only practicably come from fast-neutron fission reactors, and, more distantly, fusion. At the same time, it will be necessary to capture and bury CO2. Unfortunately, public funding of energy research and development is at a level of only about one-half of what it was in 1981. During the open discussion that followed, Llewellyn-Smith remarked that scientists must contribute to improving public understanding of numeracy, probability, orders of magnitude, and peak versus average quantities.
Session G7: Science Policy: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. This joint FPS-FHP session was moderated by Dan Kleppner of MIT and featured remarks from two former Presidential Science Advisors, Jack Gibbons (Resource Strategies, VA) and Neal Lane (Rice University), and from Lewis Branscomb, former director of the National Bureau of Standards and now at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Gibbons addressed the evolution of conservation in energy policy, describing aspects of his career which dealt with early efforts to improve the efficiency of refrigerators and air conditioners and how these efforts had to take into account marketplace realities such as houses with low-amperage fusing. He then related how national-level attention to energy efficiency became important with the Yom Kippur war of 1973. Lane addressed three topics: The role of citizen scientists, special challenges for science, and the larger role of physics in civic life. He argued that there is a pressing need for more citizen scientists and that members of the community should get involved with citizens and politicians. Historically, the physics community has contributed extraordinary individuals along these lines. Lane remarked that the last half-century has been a golden age of science and it is unfortunate that many great industrial laboratories now no longer exist. A significant challenge is that public perception of federally-funded research is most strongly linked to progress in the areas of health and medicine; winning the war on understanding fundamental laws of nature does not have the same appeal to mainstream voters. A current challenge is that many in Congress do not appreciate the importance of science and that agency self-interests can get in way of cooperation. Lane argued that the APS has had an influential policy role for a long time, but that physicists must do more than just advocate for our own field: it is important to link across disciplines because an attack on any field of science is an attack on all science. The last panelist, Branscomb, reminded the audience how the massive infusion of “soft” government money following World War II lead to conflicting motives between science and politics. He argued that democracy benefits when it is appreciated that both science and democracy have common roots such as transparency and trust and warned that if science becomes corrupted by government, the latter will itself become suspect. It is important for scientist to share their understanding with the public in order that politicians can raise support from the public for policies. An important aspect of civic scientists is that we must partner with governments to upgrade public understanding of technical issues. Branscomb closed by outlining what he sees as various challenges that stand in the way of building a more rational society. These include reform of the election process, including science education in communications (media) skills, reducing media ownership concentration and securing government funding for long-term “Jeffersonian science.”
Session H7: Managing Nuclear Fuels: An International Perspective. This joint FPS-FIP session was chaired by Noemie Benczer-Koller of Rutgers University and featured three presentations on how other countries are dealing with nuclear waste. Elizabeth Dowdeswell of the Canadian Nuclear Waste Management Organization spoke on “A Contract Between Science and Society,” describing how the CNWMO is currently holding public discussions to determine the terms and conditions that would make a used-fuel repository socially acceptable and how those terms will factor into the design and implementation of the project. Kazuaki Matsui (Institute for Applied Energy, Japan) addressed the issue of “Radioactive Waste Management, its Global Implication on Societies and Political Impact,” describing how a fuel-reprocessing plant designed to handle about 800 metric tonnes of waste fuel per year is undergoing commissioning in Rokkasho, Japan, following a site selection process that paid particular attention to that country’s seismic situation. In a talk on “Management of Spent Nuclear Fuel at the National Institute of Physics and Nuclear Engineering, Bucharest, Romania,” Lucian Biro of the Romanian National Commission for Nuclear Activities Control described how a research reactor in that country, which had started operation in 1957 and was shut down in 1997, is being decommissioned. All fresh highly-enriched uranium (HEU) has been repatriated to the Russian Federation; all HEU spent fuel will be repatriated in 2009; and repatriation of low-enriched spent fuel is to follow.
Session J7: Physics Contributions to the Intelligence Community. This session was chaired by FPS Chair Donald Prosnitz (Rand Corporation). Robert McDonald of the National Reconnaissance Office spoke on “Physicists & Engineers in the Spy Business – What Does the Record Say About National Reconnaissance?” McDonald related how individuals with backgrounds in engineering, mathematics, and physics have been and remain central to the operation of the NRO. He reviewed the development of the U2 and Corona projects, which were essential in building political confidence for undertaking arms control negotiations. Lisa Porter, Director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, an office of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, spoke on “Physics, Physicists, and Revolutionary Capabilities for the Intelligence Community.” She described how IARPA undertakes high-risk/high payoff research in areas such as smart collection of data, incisive analysis of intelligence, and safe and secure operations in the modern “cyberworld.” Physics contributions include research in novel detectors and quantum information science. Donald Kerr, former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, spoke on the interface between intelligence and policy in a talk entitled “Physicists and the Intelligence Community: The Next Decade.” Kerr related that while the current emphasis of the intelligence community is to prevent violent extremism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, these efforts do not remove from the table historically earlier emphases on global situational awareness, supporting targeting and arms control, and integrating intelligence to reveal pending threats. Areas where physics plays a particularly large role are those of nuclear forensics, cybersecurity, and balancing concerns of technology, privacy, policy and risk.
Session Q7: Is Geoengineering a Possible Stop-Gap Measure to Rapid Climate Change? Barbara Levi, a Contributing Editor to Physics Today, chaired this session in which three talks were delivered on possible mechanisms for temporarily halting or slowing global warming via global-scale albedo engineering while effective emissions-control strategies are developed. David Keith (University of Calgary) spoke on “Solar-band Climate Engineering: Technologies, Risks, and Unknowns.” Keith discussed strategies for lofting sunlight-shielding micron-size particles into the atmosphere. Such particles could be made in bulk at a reasonable cost, and could be concentrated where the need is greatest (e.g., at the poles), and could be replenished as necessary. As the particles could be deployed on an experimental ramp-up testing basis, we would not be committed to an “all at once or not at all” program. Alan Robock (Rutgers University) spoke on “The Many Problems with Geoengineering Using Stratospheric Aerosols.” This talk complemented Keith’s in that, based on simulations utilizing atmosphere-ocean circulation models, Robock considered possible undesirable side-effects of artificially-introduced atmospheric aerosols. These include precipitation reduction in populous Asian areas, changes in cloud cover, lessened river flows (particularly the Nile), a general whitening of the sky, and lowered output of solar generating stations. One possible beneficial side effect for plants is an increase in diffuse sunlight. Questions remain, however: Whose hand would be on the thermostat? Are there possible uses of such technology as military weapons? Kenneth Coale (Moss Landing Marine Laboratory) spoke on “Ocean Iron Fertilization.” Coale described experiments aimed at artificially fertilizing oceans with iron. The additional iron will promote phytoplankton growth; the phytoplankton then absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere. It is estimated that some 5 gigatons of CO2 per year could be sequestered in this way. A political danger of any geoengineering scheme is that it might have the unintended consequence of decreasing efforts to reduce emissions.
Session R7: FPS Awards Session. This session was chaired by FPS Chair Donald Prosnitz (Rand Corporation). The Leo Szilard Lectureship Award was presented to Raymond Jeanloz (UC-Berkeley) for his contributions to sound public policies on nuclear weapons and arms control. Jeanloz spoke on “Science and International Security,” addressing the danger of nuclear-weapons proliferation now that technical hurdles are no longer the major “choke points” to those who would like to acquire nuclear weapons. He reviewed the status of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and also described how international monitoring systems are now sufficiently sensitive to detect even small underground nuclear detonations. Jeanloz emphasized the importance of the scientific model of openness and communication in addressing problems of global concern. The Joseph A. Burton Forum Award was presented to Patricia Lewis (James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies) for her contributions to arms control and international security. Lewis spoke on “Remembering our Humanity: the deep impact of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto.” Lewis related that Einstein, in one of his last acts before his death, supported a manifesto written by Bertrand Russell calling for the abolition of war and renunciation of nuclear weapons, and encouraging governments to find peaceful means of dispute resolution. The manifesto led, directly or indirectly, to the establishment of numerous organizations and programs devoted to bringing together scholars and public figures concerned with reducing the danger of armed conflict and promoting cooperative solutions for global problems. Following Lewis’ talk, outgoing FPS chair Andy Zwicker (Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory) recognized new APS Fellows that had been nominated by the Forum. The new fellows are Michael Berman (Air Force Office of Scientific Research), William Hammack (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), Allen Sessoms (University of the District of Columbia) and Dean Wilkening (Stanford University). Zwicker also recognized Al Saperstein and Jeff Marque for their efforts in editing Physics & Society for twelve years.
Session X6: The Role of Scientists in Arms Control. This session was chaired by Benn Tannenbaum of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Peter Zimmerman (King’s College, London) spoke on “Dr. Inside and Dr. Outside: Physicists Involved with National Security and Foreign Policy.” Zimmerman described real-life examples of physicists who had switched from academic careers to careers in government service, and discussed routes into public service for individuals interested in giving it a try. David Hafemeister (Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University) spoke on “Progress in CTBT Monitoring Since its 1999 Senate Defeat.” Hafemeister reviewed how the International Monitoring System will be able to detect an underground nuclear explosion in hard rock with a threshold of 0.1 kilotons if conducted anywhere in much of the populated world. Kory Sylvester (National Nuclear Security Administration) spoke on “Technology and Policy: Looking to the Future.” Sylvester discussed how scientists and engineers must remain engaged with national security debates and think about the strategic and policy environments within which questions are posed to them.
This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.