Respect for the Other is Too Often Missing

The July APS News provided me with much food for thought on two very different issues. The Back Page has a very impressive article: The “Violence of Our Knowledge: On Higher Education and Peace Making” by Parker J. Palmer. The following paragraph in this article gives the key to many problems:

“So what can we do about the violence of our knowledge? We don’t need to import a new culture to the academy. We need to reclaim the best of the culture in which we have always been rooted. For example, scholars at best always have respect for otherness, whether it comes to subatomic particles or people. If we could reclaim that simple epistemological principle that knowing requires respect, we could get a good start on reducing violence in the academy.”

But in earlier articles in the same APS News we find the absence of respect for the other, creating unsolvable problems.

A small group of Palestinian and Israeli academics learned respect for the other in a public lecture in December 1982 by four Palestinian professors at a Weizmann Institute auditorium. Their simple message is the key to Mideast peace : “We don’t want to drive you into the sea; we don’t want you to drive us into the desert. We need a two-state solution with peace and mutual respect”. But “respect for the other” was not forthcoming from Israelis, who first dismissed them as naive young academics and ignored them as they rose to top positions as Ministers in their government and Presidents of top universities. Instead we find the flamboyant empty talk described in the article “Nobel Laureates Tackle Middle East Problems”.

The “respect for the other” that we have tried to introduce is simply missing. Without it there is not much hope for progress.

A completely different example in “This Month in Physics History” states that “BCS theory was quickly accepted as correct”.

This reveals other aspects for the absence of respect for the other that has hurt the physics community.

BCS was not accepted so quickly. I spent a sabbatical year in 1958-59 at the University of Illinois at Urbana and saw BCS criticized as nonsense by people at the top of the establishment because it was not gauge invariant. That year Bardeen invited a young physicist, Phil Anderson, to give a colloquium in which he not only showed how to restore gauge invariance to BCS, he also introduced a new mechanism which is claimed to be the same as the Higgs mechanism later presented in particle physics. The absence of “respect for the other” in the way this physics was treated by the condensed matter and particle physics communities may have played an important role in the failure of the SSC accelerator to obtain congressional funding.

Harry J. Lipkin
Rehovot, Israel

Biblical Creation Has Lots of Wiggle Room

In the July APS News you state “the biblical creation that Earth is only 6,000 years old and was created by God in six 24 hour days.” In fact, the Bible makes no claim as to the age of Earth. The Hebrew word “yom” translated “day” often means a long period of time, just as the English word does when I write “the day of the dinosaur.” Many Biblical scholars and Christians believe the “days” of creation are long periods of time and the biblical story of creation is perfectly compatible with the big bang and the 14 billion year old universe.  In addition, Hebrew genealogies often have many gaps in them, so the Bible makes no claims as to the time scale when humans first appeared on Earth. I would expect much better fact checking from APS News, rather than perpetuating false ideas.

Mike Strauss
Norman, OK

Undergraduate Research Key to Gender Equity

We applaud the efforts of the Gender Equity Conference organizers and participants to strengthen the women in physics enterprise at universities and national laboratories, as reported in the June APS News.

We agree with Barbara Whitten that the greatest leak from the pipeline is at the undergraduate level. Yet one major ingredient appears to be missing in the discussions and report. No mention was made at all of using undergraduate research, as an addictive tool to attract and retain female students in physics. We have a small, yet rather thriving Women in Science and Engineering program at San Jose State University, only partly supported by outside funding from NSF and NIH. There have been no dropouts and no leakage has occurred in our WiSE@SJSU pipeline.

It has been reported that merely 20% of the research university faculty are active in undergraduate research; for state universities, that percentage is about 50%. Apparently, typical research professors are only interested in their postdocs, PhD students, and/or (best) graduate students. It would be much better for undergraduate students, female and male alike, that many more faculty participate in undergraduate research, and, if needed, come down from their ivory towers.

The headline suggested that there is no silver bullet, but there are lots of ways to help gender equity in physics. Our work indicates undergraduate research could be the golden nugget to retain and attract female students in physics. Start research at the undergraduate level, and get them captivated to overcome the frustrations and biases in the physics enterprise. Then, the rest will follow.

Carolus Boekema
San Jose, CA

Doubling Plan Sounds Fuzzy

The APS Executive Board’s advocacy of doubling the number of physics majors, particularly with a view to addressing the shortage of high-school physics teachers (APS News, August/September 2007) is laudable but woefully short on practical advice beyond a fuzzy-sounding suggestion to make degree plans more user-friendly. Indeed, I have to wonder how many Board members come into daily contact with undergraduate students and programs; the problem may not be the typical structure of a physics major as such. In many smaller institutions–such as my own–administratively-mandated minimum course-enrollment requirements constrain the teaching of upper-level courses to alternating years, making it tough enough for a student to complete the program in 4 years even if they get on track at the outset. I have seen many students consider careers in secondary teaching only to become turned off by the bureaucracy and twaddle of their Education programs. These programs often seem to end up attracting analytically weak students, leading to a self-propagating situation where many students enter college with weak high-school preparation. Our administrators need to hear authoritative outside-source messages explaining that physics is a vertically-integrated discipline and needs to be supported as such for an institution to be credible, while we in the trenches need effective strategies to help us work with state and local education administrations. These might be better places to start.

Cameron Reed
Alma MI

Doubling Need Manufactured by Self-serving Bureaucrats

What, may I ask, apart from insuring the continued employment of physics faculty, is the intended purpose of doubling the number of physics bachelors? [APS News, August/September 2007] Who, apart from self-interested physics bureaucrats, has identified a need? It can’t be to satisfy a demand in the marketplace–where are the “physicists wanted” ads? And why “doubling”? The APS Board can’t possibly have any quantitative basis for that number. Why not “fourpled”? Or halved, for that matter? We have been seeing self-serving declarations from both the APS and the AAPT (not to mention the IEEE) apparatchiks, for decades–with no indication that anyone has paid any attention, and with no obvious detriment to the American economy. More physics bachelors–men, women, minorities–or martians–would be a result of a surge of interest in physics, not a source of such interest, and will do nothing to improve the teaching of high school physics.

Robert A. Myers
New York, NY

Physics Must be Relevant to the Real World

I have been getting increasingly disillusioned by some of the editorial content of APS News and Physics Today

Every year the candidates in the APS election talk about the need for increased funding to keep America competitive, but these talented scientists who write and speak so precisely in their work use vague, undefined concepts that cannot easily be quantified in their campaigns. I am probably one of the more vocal supporters of basic research outside of a basic research organization, but these “motherhood and apple pie” statements make me skeptical about whether the APS has any interest in exploring the continuum between physics as a scientific discipline and physics as a means both to solve real problems and to provide discipline to how problems are discussed and framed. 

The apprenticeship program we call graduate school has helped me immeasurably in tackling a wide range of problems. There are hard problems to solve in areas from agriculture to telecommunications and from research to manufacturing. And while we should test and reformulate our models, we must keep our beloved science from becoming little more than Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game.

Steve Rosenblum
Ithaca, New York

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff