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The annual APS March Meeting is well-known for featuring exciting groundbreaking research in a broad range of subjects: from condensed matter and materials physics, biological physics, and chemical physics, among other subfields. But the meeting also offers a wide variety of non-traditional topics relating to physics research, science policy, and public outreach. The 2001 conference - to be held 12-16 March in Seattle, Washington - is no exception, featuring talks on the physics of foam and earthquakes, secrets of successful hi-tech start-ups, ethical issues associated with genetically engineered organisms, the future of physics in the national defense, and a panel discussion with physicists who have carved out successful second careers writing science fiction.
Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble
General physics lectures with a regional twist will be offered at a Monday morning session on the physics of Seattle, and what could be more appropriate for the country's cappuccino capital than a lively discussion of the science and art of foam by Emory University's Sidney Perkowitz (see profile, APS News, July 1999). "Foam, bubbles and their patterns are widespread in nature and science, and in human culture, from the birth of the goddess Aphrodite, to artistic usage, to pleasing food and drink," says the popular author of Universal Foam: From Cappuccino to the Cosmos, released last year. Perkowitz will present the human and scientific sides of foam and survey current foam-related research, including Seattle-based efforts, to understand and apply its special dynamic and structural properties.
He will be joined by the University of Washington's Steve Malone, who will discuss the physics of both earthquakes and volcanoes in the greater Seattle region. "Seattle may be known for its rain and gloom, but for serious environmental impact they can't begin to compare to our earthquakes and volcanoes," says Malone. The city lies inland from a classic subduction zone, and hence is subject to earthquake shaking from three major source zones - major earthquakes were recorded in 1949 and 1965 - as well as ash-fall from volcanic eruptions. Chief among the latter potential disasters is Mount Rainier, a staple of the Seattle area, and considered the most dangerous volcano in the Cascade mountain range. While not a threat to the downtown area, some nearby communities lie directly in the path of devastating mud-flows from the volcano, according to Malone, although scientists expect to have recognizable precursors and hence ample warning of any future eruption.
Invasion of the GEOs
Recent highly publicized studies suggest serious potential environmental risks associated with releasing genetically engineered organisms (GEOs), renewing public concerns over the evaluation and regulation of these products in both domestic and international arenas. LaReesa Wolfenbarger, an AAAS Environmental Fellow with the EPA, will present an overview of the risks of GEOs - most notably, the emergence of new viral diseases and the spread of invasive (weed-like) characteristics - summarize the available evidence addressing such risks, and discuss challenges for realistic risk assessment to kick off a Monday morning session on biological policy issues. "Ecosystems are a dynamic and complex network of biological and physical interactions," she says. "Introducing a new biological entity, such as a GEO, may potentially alter any of these interactions, but evaluating all of these is unrealistic," and thus she believes that the most useful information for risk assessment is likely to come from experiments that address sources of variability.
Another ethical challenge being raised by the explosion of technological advances in basic biological research is the potential physical risk to human participants, such as stigmatization, discrimination in insurance and employment, invasion of privacy, or breach of confidentiality. Such concerns will be the focus of Elisa Eiseman of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, a federal advisory committee addressing issues in basic science research involving human participants. She will describe two recent reports proposing recommendations in this regard. "Both of these reports make it clear that the protection of research participants is key to conducting ethically sound research," she says. "Our goal is to develop guidelines by which important basic research can proceed while making sure that the rights and welfare of human research participants are not compromised."
Does Size Matter? Secrets of Successful Start-Ups
High-tech start-ups are a magnet for engineers, MBAs and venture capitalists alike, but the vital role of physicists in their success is often overlooked. A Monday afternoon session will focus on roles for scientists at start-ups, particularly female scientists like Hilary Lackritz of ACLARA BioSciences, Inc., who will give a realistic assessment of the rewards and risks in the start-up world. "Size usually does matter, and in this case, small size can equal independence, entrepreneurship, and other advantages that are hard to come by in Dilbert's corporate world," says Lackritz. "For those who want constant excitement, change and rapid opportunities to have an impact in the technical world, start-up companies offer wonderful challenges."
Her enthusiasm is shared by fellow speaker Laura Smoliar, manager of device reliability at Silicon Light Machines, who will discuss the essential contributions physicists make and the various positions they hold in high-tech start-ups. "As the high-tech economy continues to heat up, especially in telecommunications, the opportunities for physicists continue to expand," she says. "This is truly a time for physicists to make their mark in the start-up world." Also featured in the session is Lisa Dhar of Lucent Technologies/Bell Laboratories, who will describe the incubation of a new commercial venture within that company focusing on high-density holographic recording media and storage systems.
Putting the Physics Back into Phiction
So-called "hard" science fiction makes a serious attempt to portray science and scientists as accurately as possible, often by using scientists as principal characters, and scientific problem solving as a major plot element. John Cramer, a physics professor at the University of Washington, is the author of two such novels: Twistor, about "small" science in a university physics research laboratory, and Einstein's Bridge, in which the 1993 cancellation of the SSC project is played out against a fictional background of breakthrough discoveries, alien contact, wormholes and time travel. During a Wednesday afternoon session on successful physicist writers, he will discuss his experiences in writing and publishing hard science fiction, and how this relates to the general problem of public appreciation, perception and (more frequently) mis-perception of science.
Also featured in the session is Michael Riordan of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, author of The Hunting of the Quark and Crystal Fire. He will discuss how development of a strong narrative often relies upon having strong characters, illustrated with examples of central characters in his books. "I have built my narratives around larger-than-life physicist characters, who help me to portray how physics occurs in actual practice, in contrast to the desiccated accounts usually found in textbooks and scientific publications," he says. Sidney Perkowitz will also be on hand for an encore appearance, discussing some common challenges in presenting physics in the popular media, illustrated with examples from his books, lectures and television appearances.
Optoelectronics Goes Organic
Nanostructured organic optoelectronic materials and devices have the potential to generate a revolution in telecommunications, information processing display and transportation, according to Larry Dalton, a researcher with the University of Washington and the University of Southern California. He will kick off a Wednesday morning session on the topic by describing a number of impressive new prototype devices and phenomena using new materials, including frequency agile oscillators with bandwidths on the order of 100 Ghz; large angle 3-D optical beam steering; optical gyroscopes; acoustic spectrum analyzers; and novel phased array radar systems. Other session speakers will discuss the electro-phosphorescence phenomenon, polyfluorene light-emitting devices, and the development of an organic solid state injection laser at Lucent Technologies/Bell Laboratories.
The Future of Physics in the National DefenseWhile silicon CMOS technology has served us well for 30 years, ever-diminishing feature sizes are causing DARPA and other agencies and laboratories associated with the Department of Defense to look beyond silicon to possible, equally revolutionary alternatives. According to Jane Alexander, DARPA's deputy director, the agency is investing in a variety of technologies and approaches to extend electronic device design beyond the traditional CMOS approach, including leveraging quantum effects, using spin effects in semiconductors, developing electronics based on molecular self-assembly, and understanding biologically inspired systems. Other talks will focus on current research for potential national defense applications at the Naval Research Laboratory, MIT's pioneering Lincoln Laboratory, Boeing, and the University of Maryland.
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