- American Physical Society Sites
- Meetings & Events
- Policy & Advocacy
- Careers In Physics
- About APS
- Become a Member
My Back Page in February APS News presents my own views on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; I am delighted with the extent to which the Administration shares them. On the other hand, the Administration's proposed National Missile Defense Program, which will be defeated by bomblets and balloon decoys, should be replaced by a local system to intercept North Korean ICBMs in boost phase. To paraphrase Bob Park, "These are not necessarily the views of the Administration or its opposition, but they should be."
Richard L. Garwin
Senior Fellow for S&T -Council on Foreign Relations; IBM Fellow Emeritus
My top ten physicists of the millennium are:
Rolando Saniz Balderrama Departamento de Ciencias Exactas, Universidad Catolica Boliviana
Editor's Note: In the June issue we printed several top ten lists, and thought that was it. The next top ten physicists of the millennium will appear in the year 3000.
Who was the first physicist in the world to graduate with that title? We know that Galileo was originally a physician, Carnot a military engineer, and so on. What was the division between engineers and physicists when it was done? When was the foundation of a school of Physics in Europe and in the USA?
Jose Lopez Cervantes
Spencer Weart Responds:
The term "physics" in English originally applied to all the sciences, and practitioners of the physical sciences in the 18th and early 19th centuries mostly called themselves "natural philosophers." For that matter, many researchers worked as much in chemistry or even medicine as they did in the fields we now call physics. The word "physicist" in its current sense was coined explicitly by the philosopher William Whewell in a book he published in 1840. He said he wanted something comparable to the French term "physicien" - meaning physicist in our sense. I'm not sure of the exact origin of the French word, but I believe it became fairly common among scientists in Paris during the 1820s. Both Whewell's "physicist" and, probably as a consequence, the term "physics" to describe our science, spread in English quite rapidly after 1840. I don't know exactly which school or department first called itself and its graduates by the term "physics" rather than "natural philosophy," and I am afraid it would be quite a lengthy research project to sort that out. I believe it became pretty widespread by the 1890s.
Director, Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics
I think it inappropriate that APS News allow itself to be used as a forum for religious debate. Since Barbara S. Helmkamp (Letters, May) is given space to opine that theistic belief is important in obtaining happiness, justice, and peace and to suggest that humanism has been bad for our culture, may we soon look forward to a rejoinder from a non-theist, who will tell us why we should not believe in God? If the views expressed on any such issues can be supported by scientific studies, then the references should be cited. Otherwise they should be omitted from a scientific publication.
John G. Fletcher
I don't want to second-guess the Ig Nobel Board on their choices for the Top Twenty Technological Screw-ups of the 20th Century (APS News, May 2000). However, the mixup between English and metric units that doomed NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter is my solid choice for number 21.
I was interested in reading your list of the "Twenty Technological Screw-ups of the 20th Century" in the May APS News. Born in 1917, I well recall all but the first three.
But there is one you missed, one in which I was a reluctant participant. You did not include it, probably because the matter was thoroughly "hushed up" by the two major participants: General Electric Co. and the University of Chicago Physics Department, and because my article, "The Short Life of the Mesotron," relating the events, was rejected when I submitted it to Physics Today several years ago, on the unusual grounds that most of the other individuals involved were no longer alive to refute it - that, despite the fact that enough was published in APS journals to confirm its major points, that it was accompanied by a letter from my associate at the time, affirming its correctness, and that it had a "moral" for researchers who aspire to be Nobelists.
Briefly, it was a highly publicized "discovery" of accelerator-generated "mesotrons," in such large numbers that its "discoverer" claimed that a new type of energy-releasing chain reaction was possible. When the "discovery" was announced in the New York Times and in a symposium at the January 1946 meeting of the American Physical Society at Columbia University, the publicity was so intense that it was necessary to repeat the presentations later in the same day. There was very little notice, however, when a paper refuting those claims was presented later that same year. References to relevant published material occur in Phys. Rev. 71(10), 649-660 (1947).
George C. Baldwin
Santa Fe, New Mexico
In his column, Top Twenty Technological Screw-ups of the 20th Century, Marc Abraham refers to the Y2K computer bug as one of the "Twenty Screw-ups," but his only comment on its "nature" is that it's "all too well known to turn-of-the-century readers." What does he mean by this? Does he mean the Y2K computer bug was a screw-up because it caused a lot of problems, or it was a screw-up because it didn't cause a lot of problems? It was predicted to be a "screw-up," but I think most "turn-of-the-century readers" would agree that it didn't really have any effect at all. In that case, the only thing we could call a "screw-up" is the people who thought it would cause a problem.
In reality, the Y2K computer bug belongs on the list of the "Top Twenty Predicted Screw-ups that Ended Up Doing Nothing At All." These would include:
But if I put every bad weather forecast on this list it would be prohibitively long. I'll end it here. The moral of the story is this: science is a job, not a religion. It's very fallible.
I enjoy the Ig Nobel Prizes and the shenanigans of the Annals of Improbable Research as much as anyone. However, "The Back Page" of the May 2000 issue of APS News was only half true. It is well known that the humor and fact can be quite disjointed. But I believe the list of Top Twenty Technological Screw-ups of the 20th Century should demonstrate the application of intellectual rigor that we physicists use in our scientific work.
A "screw-up" is usually caused by hubris (exaggerated pride or over confidence). I suggest that a top ranked technological screw-up would include actions that push the technology well beyond known limits and leaders who force such accomplishments. In my opinion, only 10 screw-ups listed by Marc Abraham were due to such hubris. The remainder included 2 cases of fraud, 4 cases of human error and 4 accidents or incidents resulting from limited knowledge.
My analysis suggests the following distinctions among Abraham's 20 screw-ups:
2 - Titanic sinking
3 - World War I deadlock
7 - Antibiotic resistant microbes
10 - China's Great Leap Forward
11 - Mariner I failure
12 - Hancock Tower glass failure
14 - Bhopal chemical plant leak
15 - Challenger explosion
16 - Chernobyl meltdown
20 - Y2k bug
1 - N-rays
18 - Cold fusion
Human Error 5 - Wrong Way Corrigan
13 - Korean Air shot down by USSR
17 - Iran Air shot down by Vincennes
19 - Codelco trading fiasco
4 - Hindenburg explosion
6 - Tacoma Narrows bridge failure
8 - De Havilland Comet crashes
9 - Malpasset Darn failure
Two of Abraham's choices caused me some disquiet. China first decided that a "Great Leap Forward" needed to happen. Only then did technology become the means by which it was to occur. Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution was a great human tragedy. However, truly great technological screw-ups result by emphasizing the technology and excluding human concerns.
Finally, Chernobyl resulted from a scientific test that put the reactor in a catastrophic operating mode. The design was not particularly sloppy, just not in accord with Western safety standards. This viewpoint would suggest an alternate candidate for a great technological screw-up, namely, the millions of internal combustion engines polluting the Earth's atmosphere.
Larry L. Gadeken
I must confess that it was a severe narcissistic blow to see my technologically underdeveloped country, Chile, contributing with the 19th top technological screw-up of the 20th Century, in the May issue of APS News. Thus, I would like to set the record straight and to prove that this "distinction" is utterly undeserved.
The truth of the matter is that Juan Pablo Dávila was far from pressing the wrong button when placing orders to buy/sell copper for CODELCO, the Chilean government owned company. The investigations that followed the 1994 "blunder" established that Mr. Dávila had conspired to commit fraud with foreign and Chilean agents, including his wife and his brother in law. At this point the judicial process is under appeal, but he has been sentenced to jail for fraud against the Chilean State (3 years), incompatible business with his job as operator for CODELCO (3 years), and introducing false evidence in a criminal trial (2 years). In addition, he has been ordered to refund the non-negligible sum of 186 million dollars to the public treasure.
Thus, I urge you to remove blunder 19 from your list. As Mr. Abraham points out "The people mentioned had reasons -in many cases good reasons- for doing what they did." However, no matter how good the reasons Mr. Dávila could have had, a criminal act cannot be categorized as a technological mishap.
Univ. Catolica de Chile, San Aiago, Chile
In "The Back Page" of APS News May 2000 issue I found the sentence about Chernobyl. You wrote: ".the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Russia suffered a partial meltdown due to design deficiencies and sloppy maintenance." This version was suggested by Russian official news agencies. The question is: is it true?
Some days ago the Russian magazine Ogonyok published an interview with Russian physicist Konstantin Checherov (http://www.ropnet.ru/ogonyok/win/200015/15-30-33.html). Checherov started to work in Chernobyl with the special mission of the Atomic Energy Institute (Moscow, Russia) just after the first day of the tragedy. After some years of work with the experimental data, Checherov developed a very realistic model of the Chernobyl catastrophe. His main conclusion was: it was not a "partial meltdown." It was an explosion with the practically full nuclear fuel exhausted into the environment. The Chernobyl reactor was practically empty of nuclear fuel after it happened.
This version was in contradiction with the official version and only now is published in the press for the first time. Possibly, this article I mentioned above can be interesting for scientific community.
I object to your published description of the cold fusion fiasco (Technology Screw-up #18). The work of McKubre et al. at SRI as presented at the Minneapolis APS meeting, and more fully at the American Chemical Society meeting last October, pretty much confirms the conclusion of Fleischmann and Pons that radiationless deuteron fusion sometimes occurs in deuterided palladium with the nuclear product being helium-4. The screw-up was not so much the procedures followed by Fleischmann and Pons as the overly quick rush to judgment by the physics community, despite the stature of the experimenters and despite the supportive theoretical views of Julian Schwinger. After all, Fleischmann was a respected member of the Royal Society, and Schwinger was quite possibly the most eminent US theoretical physicist living at the time.
Talbot A. Chubb
Retired from Naval Research Laboratory
©1995 - 2020, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.