“Easy” Course Would Provide Useful Background

Reading “Conference Takes a Critical Look at Graduate Education” in the March 2008 APS News, I recalled being at a similar conference a decade ago (“Chairs’ Conference on Graduate Education”). Our conclusions were also similar: that our programs should not be the same as 50 years previous. Since most of our PhDs will have careers in industry, we might emphasize less academic-research oriented courses, start research early, and work for shorter time to the PhD.

However, I’d also like to suggest an “easy,” definitely qualitative, course to broaden the physics perspective of young physicists about to leave academia.

Five possible topics:

1. Particle physics
2. Cosmology
3. Foundations of Quantum Mechanics
4. Condensed Matter
5. Some Industrial Applications of Physics

Each of these areas is currently discussed in newspapers, radio/TV, and books for a popular audience. (And number 3 comes up in too much pseudo-science.) The course should include, even emphasize, controversial issues, which do get the most popular attention. Can anyone deny that our PhDs in one of those areas are often unable to discuss the others? In fact, the course would have to be taught by several different people, even lecturers from outside the department.  

As a former industrial physicist, I know that the ability to talk about current issues with non-physicist, technical colleagues will benefit the career of a new industrial physicist PhD. Such background would also be valuable for a new instructor at any level.

Bruce Rosenblum
Santa Cruz, CA

Need to Educate Public About Energy

During the early 1970s there was a nationwide shortage of gasoline for our transportation needs. At that time I, probably along with other technology-oriented individuals, was outspoken about the concept to develop new propulsion technology and energy sources to replace the internal combustion engine. This would have required a considerable undertaking, requiring extensive Government support for research projects.

It was the ideal time to start an all-out program to develop practical means of capturing energy from natural existing sources and utilizing them to meet our various needs. Back then, it was already realized that the reserves of oil had a limited supply left and would be needed way into the future for many uses other than energy. These included many manufactured products that require oil as a raw material. We had (have) to conserve oil.

This was contrary to the interest of the various energy industries and therefore no research was funded. Thirty-five years later, we are even more dependent upon the same combustion engine and carbon-based power generation.

It must be acknowledged that more recently some progress, mostly privately sponsored, has been accomplished with solar cells to recovery electricity, as well as with electric and hydrogen cars. But these are in its infancy, and we still don’t know which technology is practical for mass usage. It will take many years for new proven technology to be developed and phased in.

Here we are today, with massive environmental problems and minimal newly developed technology on the horizon to meet our energy needs. Grudgingly, the government recently was forced to fund minimal recoverable energy research. But at this rate it would take at least 25-50 years for real change. This country and the rest of the world are captive to the whims of the energy producers and the world energy lobby.

The energy industries’ and our government’s recent approach is to produce ethanol from corn as a stop-gap measure. For ethanol and biodiesel there are a number of other less- in-demand farm crops to use, as well as fungi and seaweed. This puts ethanol in competition with feed for cattle and humans, and corn syrup production. Now there is a corn crop shortage, causing extensive price inflation. Also remember, it
takes considerable energy to produce ethanol. 

Where do we go from here? The APS and IEEE have programs to encourage members to educate the public on scientific topics. The possibilities for future energy sources should probably be at the top of the list. The increasing cost of auto fuels and power for our homes is already a major part of the family’s budget and will continue to escalate.

What better way to educate the public than through students at all school levels and adults through public television. Through this, both the new generation and the older may realize it is their responsibility to be outspoken and to lobby our elected officials to help get the necessary accelerated research started.

The APS should help set up a member advocacy group to help advance this effort.

Roger Gottfried 
East Northport, NY

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Science Writing Intern: Nadia Ramlagan