APS News

December 2010 (Volume 19, Number 11)

Letters to the Editor

Petition Process Fraught with Irregularities

The October article titled “Plans Afoot for Topical Group On the Physics of Climate” refers to APS President Callan having “commented that he hoped this TG would go a long way toward reducing tensions that had been raised within the society by the climate issue…”

Within the APS, founded as it was for the advancement and diffusion of knowledge, these tensions can hardly be alleviated without first being disclosed and openly discussed. As our petition group sees it, there is basic disagreement concerning important aspects of the scientific process.  In normal practice, the APS facilitates communication, which is carried out by individual scientists and collaborating research teams.  For any topic, and during any particular period of time, published results and less formal communications either agree or don’t agree with one another, understanding either converges or fails to converge, and consensus is either reached or not reached. Although many mechanisms exist for encouraging justified consensus, science can progress only when assent is voluntary and based on evidence, as understood by individual scientists. We view the leadership posture, exemplified by the APS Statement on Climate Change, as conflicting with this voluntary, evidence-based process by imposing an institutional position on a scientific question.

The TG Petition disseminated by Roger Cohen aimed to bypass this conflicting barrier by establishing an APS Unit having the following five characteristics: (1) focused on the physics of climate; (2) open to all scientific communication falling within the scope of its Areas of Interest (AoI) statement; (3) not subject to any constraint associated with the APS Statement on Climate Change or any other institutional position; (4) open to AoI modification based on progress in climate physics; (5) excluding separate and potentially distracting topics such as policy and the environment. The open character of this petition was affirmed by the composition of its signatory group, which includes both supporters and opponents of the APS Statement on Climate Change.

The TG petition effort was conducted in accordance with Article VIII, Section 1 of the APS Constitution, under which two hundred or more APS members may petition the Council to establish a TG. Two documents are required for the TG to be considered and established: an AoI statement and Bylaws. The petition, with our AoI statement and a list of 225 signatories, was submitted on 4 August 2010. Our draft Bylaws document was submitted the next day. On the basis of both the APS Constitution and precedent, we had every reason to expect this petition to be taken up by the APS Council at its November 2010 meeting.

In conflict with this reasonable expectation, the APS leadership acted so as to produce an entirely different result, the establishment of a leadership-selected Organizing Committee (OC). This body is mentioned nowhere in the APS Constitution. Moreover, contrary to the October article, the initial OC meeting is scheduled to occur after the November Council session, thereby insuring that TG approval cannot occur under the normal process prior to April 2011.  There are additional irregularities, including these:

1. Competing Initiative
. On 2 August 2010, as our Petition was about to reach its minimum goal of 200 signatures, APS President Curtis Callan disseminated a competing initiative titled “Topical Group on the Physics of Climate and the Environment.”

2. Petition Confusion
. Although President Callan’s message contained no AoI statement, and is not clearly and unambiguously recognizable as a petition as defined in the APS Constitution, the APS leadership has chosen to treat it as a petition. In addition to lacking an AoI statement, it refers to itself as a “solicitation of support,” contains phrases indicative of a survey such as “…see whether you would be interested,” and is described in the October issue of APS News as having been authorized by Council as a “poll [of] the membership.”

3. Misleading Claim of Support. It is misleading to assert that 800 members believe that they signed a distinct and separate petition, because some APS members inquired of our group as to whether or not the message they received was in some way related to or supplementary to our own Petition.

4. No Authoritative Evidence of Authorization
. The October article refers to Council authorization for a poll of the membership given in April, but the Minutes of this Council meeting showed no such authorization when accessed on 3 October 2010.

5. Disappearing Rationale. The substantive elements in President Callan’s initiative that made it different from our Petition, the topics of environment and policy, were soon dropped by the APS leadership, thereby removing the only seemingly legitimate purpose for convening an OC that has the reconciliation of conflicting petitions as its primary responsibility.

Roger Cohen’s participation in the OC, in spite of these discouraging irregularities and an unnecessary delay, reflects the possibility that the OC might nevertheless eventually result in establishing a TG consistent with our group’s goal of open and unconstrained scientific communication. The actual outcome, and the possibility of reduced tension, will depend on actions taken by the APS leadership and the OC members it selected. Additional information about our group’s Petition effort can be accessed at the Climate Physics Topical Group Petition.

Robert Levine
Sierra Vista, AZ

Early Work on Graphene Cited

In response to an article entitled “October 22, 2004: Discovery of Graphene” Andre Geim wrote a letter to APS News to express his opinion that “One needs to be aware of many earlier papers that poked in the same direction. Researchers previously tried to make increasingly thinner sheets of graphite and grew thin graphitic layers on top of other crystals. Their papers were mostly–if not entirely–observational, and there was no convincing case put forward to spark the graphene gold rush.” 

There is no doubt that Geim and Novoselov made a significant contribution to graphene physics by observing, in late 2004, that electron mobility in graphene is 100 times faster than that in silicon 1. However, Geim did not cite patent literature and conference proceeding papers where significant discoveries and technology developments had already been reported. After 2004, a large percentage of academic and popular literature attributes the discovery of graphene to Geim and Novoselov.

I am writing to offer my observations on this issue. Based on our open literature and patent document search results, there does not appear to be any report before 2002 that convincingly documented the actual production and use of free-standing single-layer graphene sheets for any application. However, significant work had been done in graphene between 2002 and 2004, briefly summarized below:

In 2002, Jang et al. produced single-layer and multi-layer graphene by carbonizing polyacrylonitrile (PAN) fibers, partially graphitizing the resulting carbon fibers to produce graphene sheets dispersed in an essentially amorphous carbon matrix, and then extracting/ isolating these graphene sheets out of the amorphous carbon matrix.2

Jang, et al. also investigated these graphene sheets as a reinforcement for various composite matrices and developed several methods of producing graphene in large quantities.2,3 In March 2004 (seven months prior to Geim’s paper), Schwalm, Schwalm, Wagner and Jang presented a paper at the APS March Meeting in Montréal that discussed the density of states and related electronic properties of graphene.4

In 2003, Kaner’s research group at UCLA reported potassium-intercalated and exfoliated graphite sheets.5 In 2004, Walt de Heer’s research group at Georgia Tech reported thin graphitic layers grown on SiC as a base material for future integrated circuits.6 I am of the opinion that single-layer graphene was produced in both cases.

Bor Z. Jang
Dayton, OH

References Cited:
1. K. S. Novoselov and A. Geim, "Electric field effect in atomically thin carbon films, Science 306, 666-669 (2004).
2. B. Z. Jang and W. C. Huang,“Nano-scaled Graphene Plates,” US Patent Application No. 10/274,473 (submitted on 10/21/2002); now U.S. Pat. No. 7,071,258 (issued 07/04/2006).
3. B. Z. Jang, H. C. Wong, and Y. Bai, “Process for Producing Nano-scaled Graphene Plates,” U.S. Patent Application No. 10/858,814 (submitted on 06/03/2004).
4. W. Schwalm, M. Schwalm, J. Wagner and B. Z. Jang, “Local Density of States for Nanoscale Graphene Fragments,” Am. Phy. Soc. Paper No. C1.157, 03/2004, Montréal, Canada.
5. Viculis, L. M., Mack, J. J., & Kaner, R. B. “A Chemical Route to Carbon Nanoscrolls,” Science, 299, 1361 (2003).
6. C. Berger et al, “Ultrathin Epitaxial Graphite: 2D Electron Gas Properties and a Route toward Graphene-based Nanoelectronics,” J. Phys. Chem. B 108, 19912 (2004).

Headline Creates False Impression

The story “Two Women Chosen as Blewett Scholarship Recipients” in the October APS News caught my eye.

Although I was aware that there existed a scholarship program to help female physicists return to research careers, I didn’t remember its name. So, from just the title of the article, APS seems to be saying, “WOW, two women actually won something, isn’t that unusual!” Scanning the article informed me of the nature of the scholarship, making the mention of the recipients’ gender in the title completely unnecessary.

Pointing out that a woman won a prize leads to reactions ranging from believing the woman only got the award because of her gender to perhaps APS feels an incessant need to point out that there are in fact female physicists. Although the field is growing more welcoming to women, constantly having your achievements questioned or having colleagues continually feel the need to point at you and say ‘look, a woman!’ is tiring and demeaning.

Simply titling the article “Drichko and Nikolic-Jaric Chosen as Blewett Scholarship Recipients” or “Blewett Scholarship Recipients Chosen” would have sufficed.

Jennifer Steele
San Antonio, TX

Physics Degree Has More Than Economic Value

I would like to add two points to Jean George’s letter in the October 2010 APS News.

First, I think the ideas of a “pre-physics” degree is interesting, though I’m not sure physics is similar enough to medicine for an equivalent approach. Premed students have more than one possible major that can prepare them for medical school, with different majors preparing students in different ways, all useful. At least some premed curricula can themselves directly prepare students for jobs in the medical field, though not for jobs as physicians or surgeons. But whether or not a degree advertised as “pre-physics” is a good way to clarify job prospects to potential students, they do need to know what they can and cannot do with just a baccalaureate background in physics.

Second and more importantly, I think the approach implicit in George’s recommendations–to avoid job dissatisfaction problems by physicists with graduate degrees by not actively recruiting people to graduate study in physics–is a very good one if not taken too far, i.e. by limiting the admission rate of new physics students based on job prospects for the field instead of school capacity. Like George and many others of us, I’m not working in academia these days either, so if my interest in getting a degree were job satisfaction as a physicist I would have been better off not bothering with a graduate physics degree at all. But that wasn’t why I went to graduate school. Sure, I wanted the opportunity for a research career. But more than that, I got the education I did (through considerable hardship) because I didn’t want to not understand the universe any more than I could help. To me, not becoming a physicist would have been like being blind and remaining so when it wasn’t necessary. Even if my eyesight were of no help in making a living, or if I could get rich by not seeing. I wouldn’t give up vision. Same with physics.

The solution is in part, as George suggests, to avoid recruiting people into physics if they wouldn’t take it up on their own; but we should also avoid shutting people out of a physics education “for their own good” just because the prospects of a livelihood may happen to be bleak. Anyone who wants to understand nature regardless of job prospects (I think this includes a lot of the APS membership) would be well served by (1) the clear understanding of physics that they come to school to gain, (2) a clear understanding of the field’s job prospects, and (3) a knowledge of how to make a worthwhile living either way, whether in physics as the opportunity exists, or in other work otherwise. And to ensure that this happens, physics faculty also need to figure out how to make their own way in the world when the market doesn’t (or shouldn’t) favor recruiting students who really would be happier elsewhere.

William N. Watson,
Oak Ridge, TN

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Editor: Alan Chodos