- American Physical Society Sites
- Meetings & Events
- Policy & Advocacy
- Careers In Physics
- About APS
- Become a Member
The annual April meeting of the APS was held at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta Hotel in Atlanta, GA, from March 31 – April 3, 2012. FPS-hosted sessions dealt with Forum Award recipients, the fortieth anniversary of the Forum, developments in radiation detection and nuclear security, a panel discussion on American science and America's future, and post-Fukushima nuclear energy, safety & security. The following paragraphs summarize many of the papers presented during these sessions. The complete scientific program of the meeting can be found at meetings.aps.org/Meeting/APR12/Content/2312
Session B6: FPS Awards Session. This session was chaired by outgoing Forum Chair Pete Zimmerman, and featured two talks. Zimmerman opened the session by reading aloud a letter received from President Barack Obama congratulating the Forum on its fortieth anniversary and praising its work in bringing science-and-society issues to the attention of the physics community.
The first speaker was Forum Burton Award recipient Arian Pregenzer, whose talk was titled "Managing Nuclear Proliferation Risks: Building a Resilient System." Pregenzer opened by reminding the audience of the goals of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has been very successful in slowing nuclear proliferation. She then addressed how in addition to proliferation-prevention strategies, a successful non-proliferation system also requires strategies for achieving system resilience in order to be able to maintain its vital functions in the face of continuous unpredictable changes. A number of prevention strategies are in place, including security alliances, export controls, IAEA monitoring protocols, dismantling missiles and submarines, fissile-materials protection systems, security upgrades at weapons sites, and a Proliferation Security Initiative which has the goal of halting trafficking in WMD-related materials and technologies. Strategies for increasing resilience include developing increased international response capabilities, focusing on non-coercive means of decreasing demand for nuclear weapons by addressing root causes of political tensions, and applying an overall "systems" approach to structuring the non-proliferation system.
The second speaker was Szilard Award winner Siegfried Hecker, who spoke on "North Korea, Reactors, Bombs, and People (and Missiles)." Hecker has made seven visits to North Korea and opened by reviewing how that country has come to acquire nuclear weapons. Acquisition began in the 1950's and 60's with participation in a Soviet "atoms for peace" program similar to the one advanced by the United States. The second phase, from the 1970's to 1992 (the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union) was what Hecker described as "going solo," with work carried out under the cover of civilian power development. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea entered into an "Agreed Framework" in which it would give up bomb development in exchange for light-water reactors. This agreement collapsed in 2002, following which bomb development was resumed; tests were conducted in 2006 and 2009. Thus, the North Korean program has been 50 years in the making. The North Koreans have shut down a plutonium-producing gas-graphite reactor and are now developing their own light-water reactor and associated enrichment facilities. [See the article by Hecker in the April, 2011 edition of P&S – Ed.] Hecker stated that the planned reactor could probably produce 10-15 kg of plutonium per year, but he is much more concerned with the safety of the facility as the North Koreans are isolated from the reactor-operation experience of the international community. Hecker considers the threat of a North Korean attack to be low, but their ability to produce highly-enriched uranium could lead to export concerns and might open the possibility of development of a miniaturized warhead that could be missile-mounted. To close his talk Hecker showed some photos of average North Koreans going about their daily lives – a reminder that they are ordinary people just like everybody else.
Session D5: The Forum at Forty. This session was chaired by incoming Forum Chair Pushpa Bhat (Fermilab) and featured four speakers. (Martin Perl, one of the "founding fathers" of the Forum, was also scheduled to speak but unfortunately could not attend due to illness.)
The first speaker was Brian Schwartz, who has been involved with the Forum since the 1970's. Based on information gleaned from personal files, Schwartz described how the Forum came to be established. To that time APS meetings had dealt only with pure physics issues, but concerns with the job market for new PhD's, social upheavals, and relations between the scientific community and defense industries led a number of members to try to found a "Committee on Problems of Physics and Society." Following the procedure laid out in the APS by-laws, Schwartz and Emanuel Maxwell gathered the necessary 1% of member signatures necessary to petition for creation of a new Society unit to be named the "Division of Physics and Society." A committee determined that the term "Forum" would more appropriately capture the sense of the broad nature of such a group. Thus were Fora established as a new class of APS units.
The second speaker was David Hafemeister, who has been involved with the Forum since its founding meeting in 1972. Hafemeister reviewed the activities of the Forum: over 300 meeting sessions, two conferences on employment in physics, several short courses, studies on civil defense, land-based missiles, and energy; establishment of the Burton and Szilard Awards, and regular publication of the Forum newsletter. Hafemeister noted that three individuals who were closely involved in the Forum went on to serve terms in Congress.
The third speaker was Peter Zimmerman, who encouraged members to reflect on where they would like the Forum to be at age 45: What sort of course offerings, invited and contributed sessions and studies do members wish to see undertaken?
The final speaker was Andrew Zwicker, who became involved in the Forum in the 2000's. Zwicker reviewed how the Forum was particularly innovative in the first decade of the new millennium in adapting early-on to conducting elections electronically and moving the Newsletter to purely electronic publication, a transformation which resulted in significant cost savings. In this same spirit, Zwicker opined that it is important for the Forum to engage in blogs and social media to secure greater outreach to younger physicists.
Following the individual presentations the floor was opened to questions and comments, with Pushpa Bhat serving as moderator. Discussions involved issues such as the fact that scientists cannot avoid politics and that they indeed have responsibility to get involved in a world where most people are not scientists, how one should deal with controversial (or just plain nutty) speakers, the difficulty of getting objective scientific facts on controversial issues (evolution, climate change) before the public in the face of well-funded opposition, how to encourage a culture based on reason, and promoting development of "Physics and Society" classes at colleges and universities.
The panel generated some media coverage, which can be found at: www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/06/science-america-crisis-physics-society_n_1408244.html, and www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/201206/panel.cfm
Session Q5: New Developments in Radiation Detection Technologies & Nuclear Security This session was chaired by Douglas Wright and featured three speakers.
The first speaker was Warren Stern, Director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security. Stern spoke on "A Revolution in Homeland Security Affairs." He opened by reviewing the DNDO's mission, which is to develop global nuclear detection architecture, threat detection capabilities, nuclear forensic capabilities, and to coordinate such activities with overseas counterparts. The fundamental difficulty in detecting illicit nuclear materials is that they can be shielded and their radiation is also difficult to distinguish from background counts; the background radiation can be quite variable in urban areas. Uranium-235 is hard to detect because it is a relatively modest alpha emitter; Plutonium-239 is easer to detect because of the inevitable presence of neutron-emitting Pu-240. The only practical detection options are to deploy bigger detectors, bring them closer to sources, and better characterize background counts by working with nets of distributed sensors. Stern summarized some of the detection capabilities now in place in place around the United States: over 1400 fixed-portal monitors, mobile portals, and some 20,000 handheld radiation detectors. In the New York City area alone over 5,800 pieces of detection equipment have been deployed and 11,000 personnel trained in their use; over 100 drills have been conducted. The future should see deployment of stand-off systems, roadside trackers with video capabilities, truck and trailer-mounted systems, and "active interrogation" systems where external radiation sources are used to induce detectable reactions (for example, fissions) in hidden materials. This, however, is difficult because the interrogating sources must be intense and detecting the induced reactions is an "inverse r4" problem.
The second speaker was Michael Kuliasha, Director of the Nuclear Technologies Directorship of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Kuliasha's talk was titled "Nuclear Threat Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance." Kuliasha described how the DTRA's Global Nuclear Detection Architecture is configured to fuse data from a variety of detection techniques to assess radiological threats; these include X-ray imaging, optical and infra-red imaging to detect actively-cooled material, weighing of vehicles (to detect shielding), acoustic and radiochemical analyses, active interrogation (as in Stern's talk above), and human and signals intelligence. The overall goal is to shift from primary reliance on radiation detection to the use of many mutually-supporting detection approaches.
The final speaker was Michael Larson, who is retired from Lawrence Livermore National laboratory. Larson's message was "Don't Mess With the NEST." NEST is an acronym for Nuclear Emergency Support Team, which was formed in 1975 in response to various nuclear extortion threats. The mission of NEST, which maintains 24/7 deployable response teams around the United States, is to conduct, direct, and coordinate search and recovery operations in response to nuclear threats. Since 1970, some 350 threats have been received; this large number led to the establishment of a Credibility Coordination Center, which assesses threats from the viewpoints of behavioral resolve, technical feasibility, and operational practicality. Exercises and drills are regularly carried out; one significant real-life deployment followed the crash of the Soviet Cosmos 954 satellite in northern Canada in 1978. Current work involves research into disposition of devices and nuclear forensics. In response to a question regarding whether any credible threat had ever been received, Larson related that there was one incident where use of a radiological dispersion device involving stolen material was threatened. The material was recovered and the perpetrator apprehended.
Session T4: American Science & America's Future. This panel discussion was chaired by Pushpa Bhat and featured four speakers: Frank Wilczek (MIT; 2004 Nobel Laureate), Neal Lane (Rice University, Former Presidential Science Advisor), Tim Hallman (Associate Director, DOE Nuclear Physics Division), and Jim Siegrist (Associate Director, High Energy Physics Division, DOE).
Bhat opened the session with a brief description of how so much of twentieth-century American prosperity was a result of scientific and technical innovation, but that this climate of innovation is now threatened by funding crises, lack of STEM graduates, and outsourcing of research and development. The central question she posed to the panelists was: "How can we strengthen and enhance the science and technology enterprise in the United States for the twenty-first century?" Each panelist then offered some individual remarks.
Lane framed his remarks by asking what is the way forward in the disorder of today's world? He pointed out that the post World-War II Government-University funding model has now evolved into a Government-University-Industry system. While current priorities are directed toward biomedical research as opposed to the physical sciences, Lane remarked that the "age of medicine" funding priority may be coming to an end in that NIH funding has now been flat for eight years. A serious issue is that the United States has no formal energy or technology/innovation policies, a situation aggravated by the fact that Congress has no mechanisms (committees, staff) through which to focus on research and development issues. Lane believes that what is needed is for policy makers to be more willing to enter into multi-year commitments, as well as more evidence-based policy development and public engagement by scientists. He also advocated the development of a non-partisan voice for science that might take the form of an independent organization supported by government, universities, and industries which would be charged to collect data, carry out analyses, develop rational policy options, and inform the public of its conclusions.
The second speaker, Tim Hallman, echoed much of what Lane had said, particularly emphasizing the need to better target research and development and be more effective in communicating the value of science to the public. Siegrist seconded Hallman's comments, remarking that effective communication is particularly important in the particle physics community.
Wilczek focused his comments around the theme of "What we have to Offer – Thoughts on Science and Society," arguing that the scientific community is losing opportunities to speak to the economic, political, cultural and moral value of science. In the economic area, market incentives do not reflect opportunities in that science does not produce a "product" as such but rather non-proprietary "public knowledge." Politically, science can serve as an "honest broker" to inform decisions in contentious areas such as climate and biotechnology policies. In the cultural and moral arenas, physics is a powerful, true body of knowledge established through honest and transparent processes.
The session was then opened to comments and questions. Some of the comments raised involved issues of how to best identify pressing problems and assure success in dealing with them, how to remind the public that science makes the nation wealthy, how to encourage Congress to engage in international collaborations in a more welcoming and adaptive way, how scientists can become politically effective (go to DC and experience work in a government agency), how to keep young people interested in science, and how scientists need to understand the concerns of the public. Comments also dealt with the role of industry in supporting basic research, pressures on granting agencies to support directly-applicable work, and the conservativeness of grant-review processes.