APS News

October 2009 (Volume 18, Number 9)

Letters to the Editor

Survival Unites Science and Religion

I read the recent discussions in the APS News carefully but found no trace of what I regard as the crucial connection between science and religion. Ensuring the long term survival of human civilization strikes me as a religious concern, whatever its origin. Despite the many factors threatening long term survival readily apparent to those who choose to look, this concern is hardly universal. An honest appraisal of our current efforts surely suggests the need for science to enhance our chances for success in this endeavor.

Elmer Eisner
Houston, TX

DeWitt Not Split on Many Worlds Idea

I was happily surprised to find that Bryce DeWitt was featured in "This Month in Physics History" in the May 2009 issue of APS News. The article is excellent.

Unfortunately, it contains one wrong statement1 that I have tried to rectify2 for many years–namely "Ironically, it was Bryce DeWitt who changed his mind." In fact, DeWitt promoted Everett's work from the very beginning. When John A. Wheeler asked DeWitt to read Everett's thesis, DeWitt found it "new and refreshing." His only reservation "I do not feel myself split" was quickly dispelled by Everett's response that we do not feel the earth move. DeWitt immediately replied "Touché." However, the remark "I do not feel myself split" has been construed as an initial rejection by DeWitt.

I am currently editing a book The Pursuit of Quantum Gravity, Memoirs of Bryce DeWitt from 1946 to 2004 that will be published in the near future by Springer-Verlag. I hope this book will set the record straight once and for all.

Cecile DeWitt-Morette
Austin, TX

1Peter Byrne "The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett", Scientific American, Dec. 2007, pp 98-105.
2Cecile DeWitt-Morette "Letter to the Editor", Scientific American, April 2008 p14 and p18 (as edited by Scientific American).

Advisers Care About More Than Physics

Regarding the “Profile in Versatility” in the August/September APS News: I find it profoundly sad, that people who by their own admission first and foremost care about money and power, are also those who advise US senators on the physics of the US defense technology. Though, that must explain how we end up wasting billions of dollars on “missile defense systems”... and those advisers end up as defense industry executives.

Vyacheslav Lukin
Alexandria, VA

No Simple Answer to Brain Drain Problem

I must respectfully voice my skepticism with regards to Nina Fedoroff's concept of “science diplomacy”–especially since I am one of many scientists who are part of the “brain drain” mentioned in her “The Back Page” essay (August/September APS News). She oversimplified the problem by disregarding lessons from history regarding the development of science in various civilizations from antiquity to modern times. In every case, science has flourished only in societies that have stabilized economically and politically. This is well discussed by Steven Johnson in his book, The Invention of Air. In reflecting on the conditions under which the legendary Joseph Priestley first discovered the ecological relationship between plants and animals, Johnson points out that had the very same tools and accumulated data been made available to, say, a monk living in medieval times, the discovery would never have been made simply because the monk would not have the time or the energy to reflect on the matter: He would have been too preoccupied with laboring for sustenance and protecting himself from brigands, among many things. There is a parallel situation for scientists in brain-drain countries: a significant part of their time and energy is diverted to problems that simply don’t exist in developed countries, and none of these problems are addressed by “science diplomacy.” Granted, we have to do something regardless, and such programs do provide much needed moral support and encouragement for those scientists. But the benefits will always be short-lived as soon as university professors find themselves once again preoccupied with, say, financing the health care and education of their children by working a second job. In the long run, I believe this type of foreign aid simply exacerbates a scientist’s desire to move to greener pastures, by reminding them what they are missing. It is true that a paradigm shift is needed if we are to ease the brain drain and become equal partners across a “flat world,” but it would be naive to expect such a partnership until the quality of life in developing countries is significantly improved.

Albert A. Gapud
Mobile, AL

Indirect Costs Should be Decoupled

Arthur Bienenstock’s article in the July 2009 issue of APS News, entitled “Administrative Burdens Stifle Faculty and Erode University Resources,” is a thorough and penetrating analysis of the many factors that confront faculty and university administrations in managing research grants.

The main argument is that “The most appropriate way of dealing with ... administrative burdens resulting from federally-funded research would be to lift the cap on administrative cost reimbursement,” so that universities are treated the same way as other non-profit and for-profit sectors. Bienenstock also acknowledges that “discussions of indirect cost rates are painful for faculty” because increases eat into money available for research, and that “faculty will protest strongly to Congress should there be a move to lift the cap ...”

Allowing faculty to charge directly for administrative support, as the article suggests, would increase the management burden on researchers, and could lead to less than optimal use of staff positions. Also, some of the costs of federally-funded research, especially those involving human and animal subjects, will remain unrecovered. I think another approach to the problem which would get immediate support from faculty researchers is to decouple the award amount from indirect costs. So, if a particular NSF program has a ceiling of $100K per year, all of that $100K would be available for direct costs. If the grant is funded, NSF will negotiate directly with the university to arrive at the appropriate indirect costs for that grant. While this still leaves open the question of what is the appropriate reimbursement rate for universities, it has the benefit that faculty researchers may be more willing to support the concept of full reimbursement under these conditions.

B. Ramu Ramachandran
Ruston, LA

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Editor: Alan Chodos