APS News

March 2010 (Volume 19, Number 3)

Letters to the Editor

Gravity Probe B Funding Source Clarified

It was good to see the Feb 2010 APS News identify Gravity Probe B as "One of the Top Ten Physics Newsmakers of the Decade."

As you report, the data analysis continues with increasingly accurate results. The final announcement will be in October 2010. However, your article contains one error of fact. Our current funding is not from the Saudi royal family but from the primary Saudi Arabian research institution KACST (King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology) as part of a wide-ranging cooperative agreement between KACST and Stanford University.

Francis Everitt
Stanford, CA
PI of Gravity Probe B

Watch Your Language!

While Michael Lubell’s analysis of the danger to big government and crony capitalists posed by the Tea Party movement (“Vox Populi,” February 2010 APS News) is largely correct, his language is anything but. The term “Tea-Baggers” is an obscene sexual slur whose application to Tea Partiers, infamously popularized by CNN's Anderson Cooper, was intended partly as an inside joke and partly as a sophomoric taunt. (Those who would verify this by Googling should be warned that the results may not be safe for work.) Such talk has no place in civil society, much less in the pages of the APS News.  

Matthew McMahon
Germantown, MD

Sinister Tale Elaborates on History Column

The article about Heaviside [This Month in Physics History, APS News, February 2010] reminded me of a lunch at MIT some fifty years ago at which Norbert Wiener was present and at which he was asked about the novel he had recently written (The Tempter, Random House, New York, 1959).

It was in fact based on the story of Heaviside, Pupin, and AT&T and painted a somewhat Machiavellian picture of the latter. As described in the APS News article, Heaviside was not commercial and had no interest in patenting his idea on loading of cables (for long-distance transmission). The value was recognized by AT&T, but there was no dealing with Heaviside. As recounted by Wiener, AT&T then proceeded to feed information to Michael (Mihajlo) Pupin so that the latter would re-invent and patent Heaviside’s ideas. AT&T then set up a small company that infringed on Pupin’s “invention.” This was subsequently tested in the courts, and AT&T thus acquired final rights.

Henry Stroke
New York, NY

Need to Engage More People in Science

Virginia Corless’s Back Page article [APS News, February 2010], “Theater Deepens the Vision of Physics,” was moving. Her use of the word “deepen” I think was very powerful, suggesting that expanding physics onto the stage will not only broaden and popularize it, but that it should further the science.

Virginia’s recounting of various scientific plays made clear what a beautiful and human struggle the history of science has been and continues to be. Most of today’s science is funded by the public, but most of its results are not published openly for public evaluation. As we who share the responsibility and desire to “convince people that the science of the world we live in belongs to them,” let’s think of ways to engage more people in the scientific process, not just the reporting of results. To truly share the “democracy of seeing” that Boyle spoke of, we cannot simply beef up science PR, but engage the broader community in the critical thinking inherent to the process of discovery. Theater too of course is best met with a participatory and discerning audience, else it falls from art into distraction or propaganda.

I was initially confused by the actress's fearful response to the troupe’s discussion of Weinberg’s closing text and the mysterious fate of our “forever expanding or bouncing universe.” Picturing myself part of their discussion brought back memories of similar conversations I’ve had with people close to me who share a mutual wonder of the forces and matter that influence and surround us, and which we have sometimes learned, through years of collective imagining and experimentation, to harness, mold, and simply but barely understand. When the actress curled up in a frightened ball I was thrown–my emotional responses to these thoughts and discussions have mostly been wonder and awe, even joy. Of course I have also been frightened at the enormity and perceived uncontrollability of our universe–but we should turn that fear and the fear of others into a faithfulness and joy in the process of science, and acknowledgement of how little we actually know, and how much more left there is to be learned.

Jesse Collins
Somerville, MA

Stoppard’s Arcadia has Physics Theme

I very much enjoyed Virginia Corless’s Back Page, “Theatre Deepens the Vision of Physics,” in the February APS News. But I don't think Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen was “first on the scene,” as she says, among recent plays with physics-related themes. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, written a few years earlier, deals with chaos theory as one of its major themes, though, as you might expect from a Stoppard play, it has several other interlocking themes as well. It has been one of my favorite plays since I saw a high school production that my son was involved in about 10 years ago, and I highly recommend it to other physicists.

Michael Gerver
Raanana, Israel

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Editor: Alan Chodos