APS News

February 2010 (Volume 19, Number 2)

Letters to the Editor

Steps to Remember in Teaching Science

Regarding Joseph Ganem's Back Page article in the October APS News on the status of physics teaching in American schools and subsequent letters by Tony Loomis and Ian Hutchinson: My experience and observations are based on my teaching of physics at a high school, community college and at a university in Canada.

The elementary school teachers are not subject specialists and therefore they need a lot of help which they do not get and they end up teaching the subject of science on the basis of their experience as to how they were taught science.

In the high schools, most of the teachers who teach physics have never taken any university physics courses or if taken it would be only one. As not having much deep knowledge in the subject they are unable to recognize the importance of conceptual learning and hence never try to bring in related demonstrations, examples of life experiences, so students do no learn as to how to think and the technique of problem solving.

Instead of going into the status of teaching physics at the undergraduate and post graduate level, I would like to state the pedagogical steps that teachers should remember in the profession of teaching “science” as stated by the late Prof. Arnold Arons, Professor of Physics, Washington State University, in the Plenary Session Address, August 1991, at the Soviet/American/Canadian Conference on Science Education.

• Scientists should not extrapolate their own experience to the majority of their students. Only a very small fraction of our students learn as rapidly as we did.

• There exist no verbal explanations and no demonstrations so perfect and so clear as to convey understanding, mastery of concepts, or mastery of modes of abstract reasoning to passive listeners. It is necessary to keep returning to the ideas and modes of thinking at intervals in altered and richer context. On each return, a few additional students achieve success.

• Such mastery of thinking and reasoning do not become rapid with increasing age of the learner.

• Many slower learners fail to grasp abstract concepts and modes of reasoning unless they are led to explain the reasoning more than once, in their own terms.

• Understanding is knowing where the ideas that we are dealing with come from.

Eknath Marathé
St. Catharines, ON

Electron Accelerators Best at Treating Cancer

In the article on accelerators in the December APS News, Dennis Kovar says that the scientific community needs to do a better job of conveying those (applications of accelerator beams) benefits. The rest of the article clearly demonstrates this.

Claims that cancerous tumors were first treated with accelerated particle beams in 1961 (Harvard proton cyclotron) are a perfect example. Proton therapy was first performed at Berkeley in 1954.  However, electron accelerators were used in radiation therapy much earlier, beginning in the 1940s. I thought maybe electrons weren’t being considered as “particles”, but the article did mention the FEL at TJNAF.

Jurgen Debus described how proton therapy is used to treat a relatively rare disease that has other effective treatment options.  This is another great example of truly failing to communicate the benefit of accelerator R&D. If ocular melanoma is a prime example of the benefit, then Brian Baird is right; the money should be spent elsewhere.

In truth, it is electron accelerators that have provided the largest benefit in treating cancer. These are accelerators (particle ones, I believe) and they have become very mature. Proton accelerators have not as yet provided a comparable benefit in this area. They may, particularly as technologies develop (superconducting devices, laser wakefield accelerators, dielectric wall accelerators, etc.).  

In the meantime, I think it is true that we do need to do a better job of communicating.
Charles Bloch
St. Louis, MO

Bob Park Got There First

I was disappointed that the article on the “new” physics blog put out by the APS Washington office did not mention the fact that this is far from a new idea. The Washington office of the early 1980s established the blog–not known by that name, then, of course–“What’s New,” edited by Bob Park. It thrived and when he retired he continued it under his own steam with other support–in fact, it still is regularly issued. I welcome the successor, it fills a real need, but it is not an original idea.
Phil Anderson
Princeton, NJ

Less Einstein and Edison, more Pasteur

In his Back Page article (December 2009), Philip Wyatt raises very important issues about the place of physics in today's American society. While I share his concerns about the disconnect between physicists and “industry,” I want to comment on a few points where I have some disagreements. As someone who works in industry (almost nine years in R&D of a great US chemical company) but also spent seven years in postdoctoral fellowships, I see very clearly that the atmosphere, motivation, and rewards in academia and industry are very different. There is always a tension between striving to understand a phenomenon to the best of our ability (which is what scientists want) and to utilize one’s understanding to benefit one's company, or country, or humanity (which is what inventors want). As one of our old-timers was saying, an industrial scientist should strive to be less like Albert Einstein (pure science) or Thomas Edison (inventions based on great intuition and hard work) but more like Louis Pasteur (combining research with its application). Obviously, this means constant internal compromise, significant discipline, and ability to prioritize. For many people who go into physics to emulate Einstein, industrial positions could mean unhappiness, constant regret, and family problems; “Waiting-for Godot” postdoctoral positions would be much better! Wyatt suggests that re-directing one's effort to help American manufacturing could be a worthy goal. Perhaps; yet I do not believe that anyone should be forced to sacrifice personal happiness for that goal. If they voluntarily decide to, they must be clear why they are doing that.

This is, of course, looking back. Going forward, I agree that there needs to be a dramatic improvement in training of young physicists to make them better prepared to the demands of today's and future industry. This probably should mean a stronger emphasis on the development of Applied Physics and Engineering Physics programs in most universities, as well as clear delineation of Pure Physics programs. Young people who go into Pure Physics should be given to understand that they will likely have difficulty finding jobs in their field (like History, Art, or Ancient Languages majors); but, they will have an opportunity to interact with Nobel Prize winners and spend a few years in CERN or the Kavli Institute working on some of the most interesting problems in all of modern science. On the other hand, Applied or Engineering Physics programs should be closely integrated with local industries (in Michigan, most Detroit-area universities–Wayne State, Kettering, Oakland–used to work very closely with Big Three auto companies), have engineers from those companies as adjunct or visiting professors, and include mandatory classes on patents, intellectual property, and economics in their curriculum. An applied physicist is going to have a very difficult and thankless task of having to stop his/her research at the moment of maximum intellectual satisfaction in order to transfer the results from research to development; seeing his/her most interesting patents gathering dust because of adverse economics; and ultimately getting rewarded for something that became a success but really was an “it works but I have no idea how!” product. People who can cope with that–and only those people–will be able to enjoy an industrial career. And, of course, professors who do not understand this dynamic cannot fully prepare their students–or, for that matter, do good industry-sponsored research.

Finally, a comment about terminology. I think that in industry today, anyone who has a degree in something which does not have “Engineering” in it is a little suspect. Many “Materials Engineering” PhDs I know are really physicists; some “Chemical Engineering” PhDs have their thesis work done essentially in Polymer Physics. Having degrees in “Applied Physics” or “Engineering Physics” should probably go a long way in alleviating managers’ anxiety described by Wyatt. Again, though, I assume that the curriculum in those Engineering Physics programs would prepare students for careers in which Pasteur, and not Einstein, will be their role model.
Valeriy V. Ginzburg
Midland, MI

Need 2-Way Street Between Industry and Academia

The key problem which Philip Wyatt fails to address [APS News Back Page, December 2009] is the culture within academia that becoming part of industry constitutes “academic failure.” It is perceived as a one-way track: if you join industry then there is very little chance for you to ever rejoin academia, you won’t produce papers, you’ve “sold out.” If you see 70% of PhDs clinging desperately to non-permanent post-doc positions then it’s specifically because of a fear that once they let go there’s no turning back. If there really is a desire to revitalise the connection between physicists and industry then that perception must change, and for that to happen there have to be very clear avenues back to academia if someone decides that they don’t enjoy industry after all.

I otherwise strongly agree with everything in the article and that the US will continue to rust if the current trend continues.

Chris Ouellet
Upton, NY

Show Me the Money

Commercial enterprises operate to maximize profit. That is a basic tenet of capitalism. “Outsourcing, financial re-structuring” etc. are not accidents, they are deliberate actions whose goal is to increase profits.

In his Back Page in the December APS News, Philip Wyatt implies that the erosion of “the country’s manufacturing base” could be reversed if physicists were less “distant, aloof, nerd-like” etc. and the physics community were more involved with industry.

Perhaps he, or someone else, could tell us how the various recommendations he makes would increase the profits of US industry. The trends he laments will not change for any other reason.

Eustace Mendis
Toronto, ON

Physicist Serves on Ford Board

In his December 2009 Back Page article, Philip J. Wyatt states that “No major manufacturing firms in the US have a physicist on their board of directors; nor do such firms have physicists in the top echelons of management.” This is not true. Homer Neal, of the University of Michigan, has been a member of the Board of Directors of Ford Motor Company since 1997.

The fact that Ford has come through the recent economic crisis better than other US auto manufacturers may in fact support the point Wyatt was trying to make, but a critical reader will be wary of sweeping generalizations like this.

Eric Myers
Poughkeepsie, NY

APS Should Conduct an Independent Climate Study

There is much to applaud in APS President Curtis Callan’s responses to interview questions in the January 2010 issue of APS News. He is indeed correct in noting that all scientists have ‘a dog in the fight’ to maintain the integrity of the science process in the climate issue. He is also correct to emphasize the importance of due process conducted by elected representatives. Therefore, it is critical that the ongoing process surrounding the APS Climate Statement be above board, engendering confidence by all members, regardless of their point of view.     

As one of the group of members who developed the May 2009 Open Letter to the Council, I can say that we were heartened by the Ad Hoc Committee’s recognition of problems with the 2007 APS Statement and by the Council’s remanding it to POPA for addressing issues of ‘clarity and tone.’ However, we were disappointed that the Ad Hoc Committee rejected our proposed Alternative Statement, referring only to IPCC reports and their derivatives. These were the very reports that had been challenged, so that merely nodding to them again added no value.   

Thus, the Committee did not provide new information to the Council, having simply transmitted IPCC findings while ascribing ‘authority’ to them. Accordingly, we have proposed that the Society conduct an independent scientific study and assessment so as to gain its own insight into the issue. As of this writing, the Petition for such a study/assessment has gathered nearly 250 signatures, including 90 Fellows and 15 members of national academies. In addition, letters from hundreds of other members demonstrated that a substantial fraction believe that the current APS Statement should be withdrawn, pending an independent scientific assessment. The Petition was submitted to APS leadership in late November. To date, no acknowledgement has been received.

The need for an independent study/assessment has been underscored by the recent “ClimateGate” disclosures. Whatever else these disclosures may demonstrate or lead to, they emphasize the need for the Society to take an independent course. To rely on investigations by the agencies that created and tolerated the conditions revealed by the disclosures is not a credible course. Most importantly, a review of the Ad Hoc Committee’s report shows that a majority of the references used to reject the proposed Alternative Statement relies on work derived from individuals directly implicated by the disclosures. Therefore, the scientific credibility of the Ad Hoc Committee’s report has been eroded.    

Callan says he would like to set a priority “to address the question of how best to argue for societal support of science…” As a first step, the Society needs to demonstrate that it stands for the integrity and vitality of the science process itself. The Society should undertake an independent study and assessment of the global warming issue. Physics is the science best equipped to marshal the needed resources. The impact will not be modest. What we do will be important not just for the Society but also for physics and for science.  The world will watch.
Roger W. Cohen
Durango CO

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Editor: Alan Chodos