Letters

Lindsey Off Base on Energy

Lawrence Lindsey's Back Page article on energy, growth, and the environment is quite telling in its choice of words. Twice Lindsey says that the United States should be seeking ways to escape the environmental consequences of global warming. Nowhere is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, as compared to today, contemplated.

Even more troublesome is the lack of discussion concerning an allowance for developing nations to ultimately generate per capita greenhouse gases comparable to those of the US. It seems that we have become a fat and greedy people with only a warped self-serving view of the future. Lawrence Lindsey would have us man the dikes while ignoring the cries of our neighbors. Somehow I don't think it will work.
Paul Harris
Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey

In the 1950s I was surprised when my office-mate at an oil company research laboratory was transferred to Long Range Planning and reported to me that this meant the next five years. Thus I was only disappointed but not surprised to see the survival of this viewpoint in Lindsey's Back Page article.

I suspect that an essential function of all religions in the past was to promote the altruism and the associated view essential to the long term survival of their group. I suspect that they were not aware of this function, since I do not see anywhere any indication of religious efforts to deal with the incompatibility of short-term planning with the inevitable need to take finite resources into account before we hit a brick wall. Do most physicists really believe that a technological solution for this problem exists, or do they just despair of finding an actual solution that can be implemented?
Elmer Eisner
Houston, Texas

I am writing in response to Lawrence Lindsey's Back Page column in the July issue of APS News. He argues (disingenuously, I believe) from several invalid premises.

First, he ignores that fact that the great increase in electricity and home heating fuel prices had little to do with the actual costs to producers. Rather, thanks to deregulation, they saw an opportunity and charged what the market would bear and then some, recording record profits in the process and bankrupting the distributors. This situation will not improve until the government steps back in and imposes limits.

Second, he neglects to mention that what progress we have made in energy efficiency and pollution control only occurred because of government mandates, with the affected corporations fighting every inch of the way. In fact, they continue to lobby for weakening of our environmental laws. This implies that the only way CO2 emissions will be reduced is under the force of law and international treaties. Unfortunately, corporations have found a sympathetic ear in the Bush administration and the Republicans in Congress, so that it is unlikely that much progress will be made for at least four years.
Michael Bleiweiss
Methuen, Massachusetts

Law of Cat Obstruction

As a physical chemist, I have always found APS News interesting. I have also been impressed with the writing in APS News, and I have found it quite enjoyable to read. As I am also an animal lover who lives with two incredibly sweet cats, my interest was particularly sparked when I noticed the "Zero Gravity" section in the last issue of APS News (August/September 2001), entitled "Feline Physics." I was enjoying the various physical laws that cats obey, when I was chagrined to find that one of them, the Law of Cat Obstruction, contains a rather annoying error. While it is entirely possible that this usage is so widespread that some will say that I must accept it as standard, I am quite sure that no self-respecting feline would ever think of "laying" on the floor. Mine, at least, prefer to "lie" there. Of course, I suppose the error would be perfectly understandable if the column were written by a "lay" person.
Louis I. Grace
Santa Barbara, California

Cats are mammals, and like most mammals, they do not lay eggs, although they may lie on the floor.
John Mcintosh
Middletown, Connecticut

Visa Reform Needed

I just received the APS News May 2001 issue in which the visa problems of physicists are addressed. In my position as a professor in Europe and consultant to the US industry I have had several students who did their master's thesis or PhD work in my laboratory in the States. In order to do this they have to apply for a J-1 visa, which expires after a period of 3 years. PhD work usually takes 2-3 years, before they can pass their exam to defend their thesis at my university. Some students did excellent work and applied successfully for a European fellowship for postdoctoral studies. However the visa policy of the US does not allow them to pursue their postdoctoral years on the basis of a fellowship. This is only possible if they are fully employed as a postdoc either by a university or by a US company.

On the other hand the conditions of the fellowship often state that the research work must be carried out in a foreign country in a place of high scientific quality and reputation. It is obvious that this is not possible if the student has used up his 3 years of J-1 to do his thesis work. The negative effects are 2-fold: a) Top students will not get their fellowship and their career is jeopardized by this visa policy. b) US universities or industrial companies who do not have the money to hire postdocs or even employees on a permanent job basis, suffer also from the disadvantage of this policy.

I think many European students would be grateful to the APS if they could take this problem to the Department of Foreign Policy or INS or whoever is responsible for this situation. APS could suggest making a clear distinction between students who do their thesis work in the States and those who apply as postdocs, regardless of whether paid from fellowships or by a US employer. One could give the visa a different name: Maybe S-1 for students, and J-1 for postdocs based on a granted European fellowship. I do not think that this solution would be a disadvantage for the US. On the contrary, they could benefit from the work of our best European talents.
Ernst Bucher
University of Konstanz, Germany

Richard M. Todaro published an article in the July 2001 issue of the APS News on the selection of the finalists for this year's Physics Olympiad US team. He writes, "Although the competition has been held every year since 1967, originally it included only Soviet-bloc nations and the US did not participate until 1986."

In fact, no Olympiad was held in 1973, 1978, and 1980. Also, although the US joined the competition quite late, other Western countries did so much earlier. France and the Federal Republic of Germany participated already in 1975 and two Olympiads were organized in the West (1982, Malente, FRG and 1984, Sigtuna, Sweden) before the US sent a team the first time to the 1986, London competition.
Laszlo Takacs
University of Maryland, Baltimore

Update on Large Numbers

While I was flattered and honored that APS News chose to publish my little toy article "A Fuga Really Big Numbers" in the April 2001 issue, I was quite taken aback to find it published at all, since no one had ever written me to ask for permission. I only stumbled across the publication of the article while doing some random web wandering one night. Equally amazing was that they did not put in a web link to my site (http://members.aol.com/acockburn/). The article was something I wrote one evening, and put on my web site as a draft, for the amusement of people who occasionally visit my site, until I could think of what to do with it next.

Of the people who replied to the draft on my Web site, Stephan Houben, a PhD student in numerical mathematics at the Eindhoven University of Technology, was the first to catch that I had put the parentheses in the wrong order. We conjured up the name Megafuga to fix that. Feynman's Hair Raiser Function described by Lorin Vant Hull, is the Megafuga function, I think, and I feel absolutely no embarrassment at having reinvented something Feynman invented 50 years ago - quite the opposite, I'm delighted. Sunir Shah wrote that not only was Megafuga already known as "tetration", but there is a standard way of writing it as repeat exponential, putting the superscript to the left of the number it raises. Megafuga(4) is (4 tetrating 4), which is, someone computed, something like 101.5 googol. Truly a big number.

We played with these things for a while, becoming old 8-year-olds again, until Stephan Houben suggested we stop using kid-style repetition: "The game is more interesting if you can do it without referring to another function mentioned previously at any time previously during the game". He offered the Ackerman function, which creates new, bigger functions as it goes. Megafuga / tetration (n) is only Ackerman[4](n). Then someone wrote in with Graham's number and someone else with reference to Conway's "Book of Numbers" with some other very large numbers and functions in it.

Interestingly, none of the readers in the previous six months noticed what Virginia Trimble did, the goof of having 105 be ten thousand (blush). Spell checkers don't catch that, and evidently, neither do more than one in 103 web readers. I guess that's what peer review is about.

The publication gaffe aside, I'd like to thank APS News for thinking the article worth your reading and those of you who replied. And even after all this discussion of functions, I think that Kieran's "gargoogolplex" will remain a handy number to stick into any function (just think of gargoogolplexation of gargoogolplex!).
Alistair Cockburn
Salt Lake City, Utah

The Editors reply: It is certainly the policy of APS News to seek authors' permission before reprinting original material, whether in the "Zero Gravity" column or elsewhere. Unfortunately, Dr. Cockburn's article — first sent via a private mailing list — appears to have slipped through the cracks somehow. We humbly apologize for the mix-up.

PROLA Isn't Free

Wonderful! PROLA is complete. And so, I go in, find an ancient (short) paper and discover that being a long-time APS member is insufficient to let me SEE the paper. Back to the dusty visible library volumes.
Albert English
Delray Beach, FL

Thomas McIlrath, APS Treasurer/Publisher, replies: PROLA (prola.aps.org) has proven to be an outstanding success, containing all of Physical Review, Physical Review Letters and Reviews of Modern Physics from three years ago back to 1893 (the past three years are accessed through current subscriptions). The Society is very proud of its success. The creation of PROLA cost more than $2,000,000 plus intense dedication by a few truly outstanding individuals. This initial cost has been absorbed in the general budget and reserves. However, there is an ongoing cost of updating links, adding new material, maintaining servers, etc. This cost is covered by subscription fees, mainly from libraries. Library subscriptions allow unlimited access to their faculty and staff. (Librarians often ask us to remind members that their campus access is not free, but is paid for by the library). Individuals can subscribe for$100 per year or they can buy articles on a pay-per-view basis. The Society is not-for-profit and continues to price its journals at cost and attempts to spread its charges evenly through the community, but someone has to pay the bills.

A letter writer recently asked, "Why did these speakers [at a recent meeting]...use transparencies and not a laptop and projector like [all the speakers at] every non-physics conference I've been to?" (APS News, July 2001). Three simple reasons can be given.

1) Overhead projectors for transparencies are ubiquitous. They are part of the standard equipment of lecture and conference halls everywhere. 2) Overhead projectors are simple and reliable. In contrast, the systems of laptop computers hooked in to projectors are so complex that they frequently fail. 3) Preparation of black and white transparencies for use with overhead projectors can be done on almost any office copy machine in the country.

Now let me make two assertions in regard to laptop computers, projectors and presentation software such as PowerPoint. 1) Most physicists seem to lack even the most rudimentary understanding of the geometrical optics of visibility and legibility of materials to be projected in a lecture setting. 2) Presentation software such as PowerPoint has done more to degrade the quality of visual communication than anything in history.

The advent of exotic and versatile presentation software opens up whole new realms of optical screw-ups. Hundreds of marginally legible fonts are available in many sizes and these can be combined with all manner of distracting geometric and colored camouflage. The result is attractive non-communication in which the presentation medium replaces the message. Only with this exotic software can one compose a slide using small black type on a dark blue or green background, or present important messages in yellow type on a white background. The composer may have been able to read the image close-up on a computer screen, but when the image is projected for a large audience, it can't be read by a person past the third row.

I think it is important that we teach physics students the simple geometrical optics of visual communication using reliable overhead projectors. Once this fundamental skill is mastered, they can use presentation software, learn about the use of colors, and take their chances that their laptop - projector system will work as they wish.
Albert Allen Bartlett

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