Ethicist Gets It Right

I loved your “Ask the Ethicist” column in the December APS News. I recall having to write almost all of my own recommend letters for grad school from my profs and later for employment as well. Now that roles are reversed, I always require an electronic copy (for me to edit as appropriate) of a recommend letter be provided to me from the requestor and assume my peers and colleagues expect the equivalent. Very nice synopsis from Jordan Moiers.
Robert B. Hayes
Las Vegas, NV

Ethicist Gets It Wrong

Unbelievable! A student writes in asking if it’s ethical to ghost write his/her own letter of recommendation, and there is no outrage that the person (most likely a professor) asked for this ghost written letter in the first place... THE EMPEROR IS NOT WEARING ANY CLOTHES! How about this: if the professor really wants to get to know the student in order to write a good letter of recommendation, they sit down with the student for an hour or so and talk to them. Then, the professor could take another hour to craft a letter that captures his impression of the student based on interactions in class and the personal discussion. Unfortunately, that would take at a minimum two hours of time away from the professor’s very busy schedule, and in my opinion this is the heart of the professor’s request. Let’s not delude ourselves; the professor is not going to modify the letter. The professor is going to read the letter over quickly, and so long as it sounds reasonable is going to sign it and get that nuissance-task off his or her plate. Interacting with students is not a top priority for a number of faculty, especially at the large research institutions, no matter what lip service they pay to it. Shame on the professor for asking for this ghost written letter, and shame on “the Ethicist” for not calling the professor to task.

James Camparo
Redondo Beach, CA

Bias? What Bias?

I do not believe that you have fallen into “American Olympic athletes” trap, as suggested in the Editor's Note to the letter from Bob Dewar in the January APS News. After all, APS means American Physical Society, so its focus is naturally American Physics. If Bob Dewar needs information about Australian Olympians I am sure that there exists a relevant Australian periodical. I do not advocate limiting news to exclusively American, but I do advocate a reasonable balance, and as someone who is not an American (I am Polish), I have no bias on the “America versus the Rest of the World” issue.
Piotr Zolnierczuk
Bloomington, IN

Ed. Note: We thank Piotr Zolnierczuk for his support. We are proud of the roughly 20% of APS members who are not in the US, and we attempt, in part, to reflect that constituency with our “International News” column that appears every other month.

Oil Addiction Distorts Senator’s Thinking

Senator Byron Dorgan’s Back Page [APS News, December 2007] fell short of the frankness and completeness I was hoping for in dealing with America’s oil addiction.

Most glaring was Senator Dorgan’s statement of “…so they don’t disrupt our energy supplies.” It is not our energy. It is theirs! The Senator states unequivocally that America needs to “improve management of alliances to better secure global oil supplies.” This thinking is equivalent to China arguing for international pressure to ensure “their” corn, which happens to be growing in Kansas, is kept inexpensive so it won’t disrupt China’s economy. Our addiction to oil is distorting our philosophy for the worse.

Dorgan is arguing two main points: (1) increased energy conservation/alternative energy development, and (2) greater production of oil at home and strengthened alliances so import prices remain low. These two points are like arguing for both n and 1/n to get larger as n goes to infinity. To be frank, the American energy consumer will not conserve or arduously look for alternative sources so long as oil supply is plentiful which, in turn, keeps prices low.

By plotting the percent of energy consumption in the US that comes from renewable resources as a function of time, one finds the graph is flat from 2001 to 2005. It has stayed at about 6% (or 3% if one removes ethanol from a renewable classification). A sustainable, responsible, and secure future cannot be had until this graph shows a significant, positive trend.

Senator Dorgan did little to belie the false impression that corn-based ethanol is a panacea for energy independence and good for the environment. The explicit support for increasing “renewable fuels like ethanol” is disappointing.

Making progress with CAFÉ standards is good but will soon be negated by increased number of vehicles on the road. Why is the fundamental problem of population pressure on natural resources so absent from our political discourse? Senator Dorgan implicitly believes–along with many politicians from the President on down–that money generated by economic growth can be applied to fix any problem growth creates. This is just plain pollyannaish. One can argue economic growth does not necessarily imply population growth but disconnecting the two takes immense strain.  

Alan J. Scott
Menomonie, WI

Nuclear Energy Too Controversial?

An entire page on energy security and methods to achieve it, without a single mention of nuclear energy. That must exceed Senator Dorgan’s tolerance for controversial issues.

John Tanner
Idaho Falls, ID

US Needs a Tax on Oil

The Back Page article by Senator Dorgan in the December APS News is absolutely correct about the urgent need to find new, renewable, and environmentally friendly energy sources, and to conserve our energy so we need less of it. But I am disappointed by the lack of political will to do the most effective thing. A tax on oil provides a meaningful incentive to conserve, and makes alternative energy a better investment. An oil tax can also raise revenue to fund research in renewable energy. I favor a floor price for oil, so investors could be assured their investment in alternate energy will not go bust. Almost all the industrialized nations in the world except the United States tax oil to encourage conservation and investment in oil alternatives, and it is time that the United States developed the political will to do the same thing.

Paul McManamon
Dayton, OH

Hubble’s Thoughts on Hubble’s Law

I always enjoy reading “This Month in Physics History” and the January installment on Hubble’s discoveries was no exception. However, I would like to point out a few minor errors in that piece. Most astronomers in the early 20s favored the theory that spiral nebulae were “island universes” and in fact believed the Milky Way to be much smaller than we now know it to be. Shapley and a few others favored the idea of a much larger Milky Way which contained the spiral nebulae, but Shapley’s letters indicate that he knew he was in the minority on this issue. Also, it was Henry Norris Russell who presented (on behalf of Hubble) the data on Cepheids in Andromea at the AAS meeting in January 1925. Most importantly, it is untrue that “Hubble didn’t discuss the implications of what he had found” in his 1929 PNAS paper. In the final paragraph of that paper he writes “the velocity‑distance relation may represent the de Sitter effect,” referring to the model of the Universe presented by Willem de Sitter in 1917. This model was originally interpreted as a static model, but did predict a redshift that increased with distance because of scattering and an apparent slowing down of distant atomic vibrations. So in 1929 Hubble did not interpret his data as indicating an expanding Universe, but rather as supporting de Sitter’s static model. It was only later realized that de Sitter’s model was equivalent via a coordinate transformation to expanding models such as that proposed by Georges Lemaître in 1927 (Lemaître’s model was unknown to Hubble and most astronomers until 1930). A detailed account of this history is given in Robert W. Smith’s The Expanding Universe (Cambridge U Press, 1982).

Todd Timberlake
Mount Berry, GA

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.

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