APS News

May 2010 (Volume 19, Number 5)

Letters to the Editor

Is “Seminal” Sexist?

A listserv for college educators that I belong to recently had a post recommending a “seminal article.” A response gently suggested that we try and avoid sexist and sexual words such as “seminal” and use alternatives such as groundbreaking, cutting edge, leading edge, and foundational.

This aroused much controversy in this usually decorous forum, with levels of passion usually reached among academics only for the topic of grade inflation. One side argued that the word seminal was innocuous, the issue trivial, and the reaction a symptom of political correctness run amok. The other side said that since many did find the word distasteful and alternatives were available, why not retire it except for use in its narrow, technical sense?

Soon after that episode, I received my March 2010 issue of APS News with its list of prize and award winners. I went through the citations and found the following words used to describe the achievements: seminal (6), pioneering (4), leadership (4), contribution (3), groundbreaking (2), development (2), elucidation (2), original (1), brilliant (1), revolutionary (1), insightful (1).

While seminal was the winner, it seems like we have good alternatives. At the risk of provoking a fresh round of protests in this venue, perhaps we could suggest to prize committees that they use these alternatives whenever possible.

Mano Singham
Cleveland, OH

What to Do When the Oil Runs Out

Everything Frits de Wette says in his letter “The Sun is a Wild Card” [APS News, January, 2010] is valid and sensible, but heating due to anthropogenic activities is nevertheless possible, even likely if you look at the combustion of about one-half of Earth’s stored oil in about fifty years. Should there be an anthropogenic threat, dealing with it will get more difficult year-by-year.

The best arguments against a solar cause are the steepness of the increases and the physical changes in the planet. Tree records do not show such past steepness.

This is an extremely complex question, and we may not have good answers for a decade or more. Further, we may not be chasing the right question. If the increase is solar as per de Wette’s letter, are we going to sit back and watch our agriculture severely damaged, our environment altered, and do nothing?

The proposed solutions are to increase efficiencies and to find new renewable, non-solar trapping, energy sources (or if not renewable, more plentiful.) Since we have used approximately 50% of the stored oil in less than 100 years, and since our usage is ever increasing, a day of reckoning comes, when the soda straw will suck air. Recovery techniques get better every year, and there is still some oil to be found, but this only has to do with the date of the day of reckoning–not its certain arrival.

When the oil runs out, we are going to need nuclear. Wind, water, thermal, and solar, even coal (with caveats) are all good, but no way we power Earth with them. Using the US as a standard, most of Earth is extremely underpowered right now. Our nuclear reactors take forever to build and approve, create too much radioactive waste, are not safe enough, and do not breed new fuel. We need a new design. We have about a decade or two to get a new reactor design done, tested, and approved and another decade to build reactors. This has to do with post-oil power, not with global warming, but the design of all new energy must address global warming.

Let’s get on with solving the problems.

Richard A. Karlin
Pittsburgh, PA

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