Did We Do That on Purpose?

Let’s see, here, in Joy of Teaching [APS News, November 2007], our Nobel Laureate Wolfgang Ketterle cannot get a (fictional) job teaching, in spite of his prize and his obvious qualifications.

Then in The Curse of Knowledge, Carl Wieman, also a winner of that very Nobel Prize, comments that a deep and clear understanding of the fundamentals of physics, and a deep and clear understanding of how physics knowledge is acquired, are completely orthogonal areas of expertise.

Did you do that on purpose?

Let us also point out that the group of people we need to train to do outstanding physics, and the group of people who need, at the age of 16, to find out that: science is not magic, it is fundamental to our society, and they can make informed decisions about the priority of science–these tend to be orthogonal groups of people, as well.

Christine Platt
Isssaquah, WA
I found it amusing that the November 2007 Back Page article by Carl Wieman, on why professional physicists are generally not good educators, supports the reluctance of a fictitious high school to let Wolfgang Ketterle (with whom Wieman shared the 2001 Nobel Prize) teach their students (in the Lighter Side of Science column of the same issue).   

Scott Willenbrock
Urbana-Champaign, IL
Did anyone else note the curious coincidence of the “Zero Gravity” and “The Back Page” pieces in the November 2007 APS News? Carl Wieman argues eloquently that physicists don’t necessarily know how to teach physics, and as a matter of fact their intuitions about how to do so may be quite wrong. W.R. Marshall pokes fun at a mythical school board for not immediately accepting Wolfgang Ketterle as a high school physics teacher. Doesn’t this assume that by virtue of his undoubted abilities as a physicist the Nobel Prize winner automatically would be a good physics teacher? And doesn’t this exactly contradict what Wieman is saying? (I confess I have no idea whether or not Ketterle is a good teacher; I am talking about what appears to be an automatic assumption.)

And I have no idea what to make of the fact that Wieman shared the Nobel Prize in 2001 with Ketterle (and Eric Cornell). Am I missing some deep message by the editors of APS News?

Fred Kuttner
Santa Cruz, CA

The November issue of APS News contained an important Back Page article by Carl Wieman about teaching and learning physics, and a sarcastic Zero Gravity column by W. R. Marshall making fun of the state requirements for licensing teachers. I hope that readers will pay close attention to the former article and take the latter article with a huge barrel of salt. I personally think that scientists should not be offended by a requirement that they should be taught how to teach and how students learn. As I am preparing to transition from industrial work to high school teaching, I am taking the training offered by a local teacher licensure program. I value the education I am receiving about how to teach and how students learn. I do not assume that because I know my field, I know how to teach it to novices. I think that colleges, universities and private schools should take a lesson from the public schools and require that all professors, lecturers and teachers receive teacher training. As can be seen fromWieman’s article, the assumption that a knowledgeable scientist knows how to teach his or her knowledge to others is false.

Thomas Wofford
Albuquerque, NM

Biblical Narrative Leads to Progress

In the October APS News, a letter by Mike Strauss was given the heading “Biblical Creation Has Lots of Wiggle Room.” “Wiggle room” means “room to maneuver, latitude” and has a negative connotation. I would use a more positive heading, for instance “Biblical Narrative on Creation encourages us to be Free.” Free to study the cosmos without having to worship the sun or the moon or the earth. Free “to till and keep the Garden of Eden.” Many scientists have been inspired by this freedom to investigate the universe. Of course in a long history opinions have been modified, sometimes drastically. That is also true for physics and astronomy; but there we always call the change from older to newer concepts, “progress” and not “wiggling.”

Piet Van der Laan
Eindhoven, Netherlands

Physics Olympiad is of International Interest

I enjoyed your report on the Physics Olympiad [APS News, October 2007], but, as many APS members don’t reside in the US, or do but have strong international links, I think it would be of wide interest to publish a table showing the medal outcomes for all the participating countries.

Bob Dewar
Canberra, Australia

Editor’s Note: American media are often criticized for focusing too narrowly on American Olympic athletes, and we may have fallen into the same trap. However, there were 37 gold medal winners, 46 silver, and 51 bronze, while 81 participants received honorable mention, so there was scarcely room for us to do them all justice. Interested readers can scan the complete tables at http://www.ipho2007.ir/Results/results.asp.

Physics Majors Enjoy Broad Career Choices

In regard to the article and letters in recent issues of APS News about increasing the number of physics graduates:

Why do we need more physics graduates? Certainly not because there are want ads in the paper that read “Wanted–physicist” or letters in the personal columns that start “Looking for that special someone, must be able to solve Schrodinger equation.” We all agree, there are very few job descriptions outside of national labs and academia for physicists. That is unlikely to change any time soon and there is little APS can do about it. However, how many technical and scientific jobs are filled by physicists?  

Surprisingly, quite a few! Most physics majors wind up doing work that falls outside of the traditional realm of a physics course of study. I’m not talking about physics majors in disguise as chemists, materials engineers, laser jocks, or such. I’m talking about people trained as physicists doing very non-physics related work: doctors, lawyers, economists, etc.

Does the fact that a number of our students wind up not doing physics mean we need to change our curriculum to meet and foresee their needs? No! A physics degree is one of the most challenging courses of study. It attracts students by virtue of its intellectual and mathematical rigor and it is precisely that sort of training that make a physics major a very attractive commodity to any potential employer. Certainly, we should try to pull in modern developments into courses where possible. Physics is an evolving discipline, but we should not sacrifice the intellectual rigor of the physics discipline to simply boost numbers. That would dramatically undermine our field by populating it with less qualified and poorly trained people calling themselves “a physicist”.

One of the more impressive (and least known) statistic that points to the success of physics majors going on to non-physics related graduate studies is that physics majors consistently out-perform chemistry and biology majors on the MCAT exam. So, want to increase your chances in going to Med School? Be a physics major. Want to increase your chances in going to law school? Be a physics major.

Eric Bittner
Houston, TX

Ed. Note: APS News has been running a series of articles, “Profiles in Versatility,” that highlights people trained as physicists who have pursued a wide variety of careers. These can be viewed online at www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/features/profiles.cfm.

More Trained Teachers Won’t Solve The Problem

I have been thinking about the recent “traffic” in APS News triggered by Leo Kadanoff’s “On the Responsibiliities of APS,” first printed last August and reprinted in October. As someone who has been actively involved in science education outreach since 1979, when I entered graduate school, I believe that education is an important part of the mission of the APS. However, I am perplexed by the call to double the number of physics undergraduate majors while guiding them toward teaching (“...and a wide variety of other occupational goals”). It is true that many physics teachers in public high schools are not principally trained as physics teachers, and many are, as a consequence, ill-prepared to teach the subject. But this has less to do with a lack of available, qualified candidates than it does with the reality in most schools that there are too few students taking physics to justify full time physics teachers. Consequently, schools often wind up using chemistry or other science teachers to cover the small number of physics classes. I personally know of several excellent physics teachers who were not trained initially to teach physics, although each has invested a significant amount of effort to learn the subject since being assigned to teach it. And I know many qualified physicists, some with advanced degrees, interested in teaching high school physics who cannot find full time career positions because full time, public high school physics teaching positions simply don’t exist even in many of our best high schools.

I wonder if APS and the AAPT have considered this reality before deciding to push for a doubling of physics undergraduates to expand the ranks of qualified high school physics teachers?

Rick Moyer
San Diego, CA

Two-phase Approach to Energy Independence

With reference to Byron Dorgan’s  Back Page, December 2007 APS News: I believe the Senior Senator has a reasonable handle concerning  the effect of Global Oil Supply Strategies on our national security.  A dual phase approach seems warranted to handle the two major issues:.  

1. Phase 1 Energy Independence Technology: Time is running out on our ability to survive as a Nation with global oil supplies managed by people with interests oposed to our interests. We do have a substantial reserve of coal in our country. The technology to convert that fuel to liquid form has been available for decades. A crash program of R and D and pilot demonstrations to perfect oil-from-coal technology could give us breathing time as we avoid the potential blackmail of the oil producers and threats from those who do not wish us well. Stressing alternative-fuel source development programs that are directed to the short term objective of threat avoidance is not the desired way to manage our magnificent planet, but without an effective international body to oversee duel distribution our options at national survival are very limited .

2. Phase 2 Energy Technologies: Development of conservation and extreme efficiency devices is progressing but is taking a very long time. As the interim independence program proceeds, the share of funding shifts into the Phase 2 efforts and gradually we reduce the carbon fuel dependence.

To use a phrase currently in vogue in television: “I am NOT smarter than a 5th term Senator”  but I do not see the national leadership placing the proper priorities on the urgency required our survival.

Jerome Eckerman
Potomac, MD

Michelson’s Polish Roots

Not only out of national pride but also in keeping with historical evidence, I would like to correct a mistake in “This Month in Physics History” in the November APS News. Albert Abraham Michelson was born in 1852 in Strzelno, a small and very old town, which at that time was occupied by Prussia during the partitioning of Poland; he was born neither in Germany, as stated in the article, nor in Prussia, as is commonly written in his biographies on the Internet. He was born to a Jewish-Polish family; his father was a Jewish merchant from the nearby town of Inowrocław, and his mother, Rozalia Przyłubska, was the daughter of a Polish merchant in Strzelno.

For his whole life Michelson was proud of his Polish roots. Many years after his death his daughter, Dorothy Michelson-Stevens, asked the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń (birthplace of Copernicus, thirty miles from Strzelno) to identify the place of her father’s birth, the name of which she knew only in a misspelled version. In the local archives in Strzelno it was found that Michelson indeed was born there. The members of the Toruń chapter of the Polish Physical Society then decided to commemorate this finding with a plaque, written in Polish, which states: “In this town, on December 19, 1852, Albert Abraham Michelson was born; Professor at the University of Chicago, Nobel Prize Laureate. With his famous experiments on the velocity of light he started a new era of development of physics. This plaque, which salutes this great physicist, was funded by the Polish Physical Society.”

Lidia Smentek
Nashville, TN, and
Toruń, Poland

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