APS News

March 2011 (Volume 20, Number 3)

Letters To the Editor

APS Should Engage in Climate Change Debate

Thomas Wolfram and Sam Werner argue that the APS “should limit its activities and publications to scientific matters and avoid societal and political issues altogether.” In response I would argue that global climate change IS a scientific matter–one that also possesses enormous societal implications, complicated by contentious political issues.

We live in an era of heavily funded think tanks, many of which become dedicated to an anti-science agenda whenever studies indicate an adverse effect on business as usual; e.g., global warming, the health effects of smoking, ozone depletion, acid rain, etc. As a counterbalance, it is essential that the relevant scientific societies such as the APS, ACS and AGU, take a public stand when the science is highly relevant to our long-term well-being. The scientific societies include our most knowledgeable individuals in these specific areas, whose research message needs to be transmitted to the public. When there is general accord among their respective memberships (about 90% in the case of global climate change), the scientific societies are a legitimate and perhaps the only vehicle for delivering their concerns to the public. Otherwise, those with the financial resources will control the debate, regardless of their scientific expertise.

So I applaud the actions of the APS Council for its statement on global climate change. The only perplexing issue for me is the question of why such a large component of the global climate change dissenters are old geezers such as myself (PhD 1961), who are no longer active in basic research. Where did I go wrong?

Vic Viola
Golden, CO

Physicists Need to Speak Out

Concerning the letter “APS should stick to Scientific Matters” [APS News, January 2011]: apparently, some physicists, Thomas Wolfram and Sam Werner among them, believe that climate change is a purely political matter.

I do not believe that this represents the views of the majority of physicists or APS members. Climate change, nuclear energy, anti-missile defense, and others are subjects where physicists, and APS members in general, have a special competence and should not hesitate to speak out.

Henry Blumenfeld
Gif-sur-Yvette, France

Societal Engagement is a Positive Step

APS has been taken to task in some letters for its stance on scientific issues that affect society, currently highlighted by the politically charged issue of climate change. While acknowledging the duty of individual scientists to be involved in issues that have a social and political dimension, some members believe APS should confine itself to a scientific ivory tower. A drift of the Society from a scientific agenda in the 1960s to a socially relevant agenda today has been cited specifically.

In my view, that drift is an appropriate reflection of the growing awareness of the American public during the past half-century to societal and environmental issues and how science impacts those spheres in which we live. Certainly such issues are also debated within the political arena, but I do not fear that the APS leadership is prone to political demagoguery on matters of science.

The opposite has been the case. The valuable Office of Technology Assessment was abolished by Congress in 1995 to prevent authoritative, unbiased knowledge of science and technology from challenging political agendas.

That being said, identifying members who formulate statements for the Society may be a positive step to achieve greater transparency.

Jim Stoffels
Richland WA

Need for Funding Distorts APS Mission

Confirmation of your own observations is always pleasant to see; in science, a necessity. The joint letter submitted by APS Fellows Wolfram and Werner last month was thus very gratifying. And it sparked the question as to why the APS has evolved into a “social club” as opposed to (or in conjunction with) a premiere scientific organization. The answer would appear to lie in the need in the physics community for public funding. Public funding is certainly facilitated when the organization “toes the line” on social issues. The situation reflects the ultimate quid pro quo, or in some circles it may be called prostitution. When the APS focuses on social issues to facilitate funding, the question of organizational ethics should at least be acknowledged because the organization should focus all of its resources on physics without peripheral and circular arguments regarding “diversity” or any other social issue. Great intellects, regardless of ethnicity or gender, or any other barrier, can do great things in the field of physics if they so desire. Madame Curie, Lise Meitner and a host of others did.

John E. Rhoads
Wichita Falls, TX

Scientists Responsible for Effects of Their Work

Regarding the incorrect reporting on Fox News in connection with an APS member's resignation: I am writing because of the responses that defended the behavior of Fox News, and that suggested that scientists should just stick to scientific matters.

I could not disagree more. First of all, I wholeheartedly agree with the actions of the APS Council and its current statement regarding the Climate Change issue. Also, it is clear to me (and I assume to most fair and balanced members) that if Fox News wished to clear up the erroneous reporting, inviting the APS President to explain the situation and restate the APS position on Climate Change would have been the obvious right thing to do.  Apparently, they don’t agree.

That there are APS members who cannot even agree on this is very surprising to me. That there are members who believe that scientists should stick to science, strikes me as both a very simplistic idea to have and a cowardly attitude by some working in the scientific community. As a physics student at the University of Heidelberg, I had many a German physics professor who would remind us that we must take at least some responsibility for the work that we as scientists produce. We have a responsibility to try to improve the well-being of mankind and not to help destroy either human beings or the environment in which we live. Sure, we all have to make a living, but we also have to look at ourselves in the mirror each day, and explain what we have done, and why.

I have been increasingly disturbed by the anti-science atmosphere in our country, particularly within the last 10 years (which has been well documented by e.g. the Union of Concerned Scientists). But I was even more surprised, while attending the New England APS meetings, to find many speakers presenting amateurish and fringe ideas about Climate Change with a political bias, while no reasonable mainstream views on Climate Change were being presented as a counterpoint. Mainstream scientists have to be out there vigorously defending their scientific findings against politics and corporate interests. Otherwise, in this political climate we, the scientific community, will lose the support and attention of the general public, something we cannot afford to do.

Either you care about the potential of science to help solve problems and improve the world, or you don’t. Unfortunately, unless we sometimes dirty your hands with politics, we shall lose support for science in this country, and that includes losing support for funding basic research and innovation.  Of course, if that happens those with their heads in the sand might find themselves unemployed.

Peter Somssich
Portsmouth, NH

Member Actually Reads APS Constitution

Robert Levine in his 4 December letter about establishing a Topical Group on the Physics of Climate states that “The Topical Group (TG) Petition was conducted in accordance with Article VIII, Section 1 of the APS Constitution http://aps.org/about/governance/constitution.cfm, 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 Area of Interest statement and Bylaws.”

This caused me to read the APS Constitution, which contrary to Levine’s implication neither requires the Council to establish the TG based on a petition, nor grants the petitioners the right to have their Area of Interest statement and Bylaws automatically approved by the Council. In fact the Constitution requires that the Council consult with all Divisions and Topical Groups before approving any new Topical Group. While it is silent about consulting with the broad membership, there is nothing forbidding this, and given the availability of email, doing so in my judgment was prudent. With respect to Bylaws, again, the Constitution places “ultimate legal and fiscal responsibility” for TG in the Council and requires the Council to review and approve or disapprove all Bylaws. Draft Bylaws submitted by petition are not privileged.

My sense of this is that petitioners may ask the Council to establish a new unit of the society, but they are not the constituting body, that before the Council approve the creation of a new TG, the entire membership of the Society shall be offered a choice to join to gauge interest and gather information, that the Council is free and it is indeed prudent for the Council to appoint an ad hoc committee to draft Bylaws and and Area of Interest statement, and finally, that the ad hoc committee, as a creation of the Council would be wise to take the documents of the petitioners into account but should solicit information from the Divisions and other units as well as the broader membership.

However, there is an underlying serious issue that the Council and the ad hoc committee should consider. Topical Groups are to be set up to “to advance and diffuse the knowledge of a specific subject or subfield of physics.” On the other hand, a Forum is an organization to advance and diffuse knowledge regarding the interrelation of physics with matters not exclusively in physics. This appears to better fit the physics of climate, which shares important aspects with many other sciences, including meteorology, geology, geophysics, chemistry, ecology, etc.

Joshua Halpern
Washington DC

Evidence of “Scotch Tape” Use Proliferates

The “'scotch tape” technique for thinning crystals was in use in the late 1950s and 1960s in the UK, where the tape was called sellotape. We used it to thin crystals of molybdenite for optical absorption measurements, see the Frindt and Yoffe paper; Proc Roy Soc 273A, 89 (1963), where the work began in the end of 1959 by R.F. Frindt, who was my research student then. Frindt at Simon Fraser University developed the procedure further on, and in 1966 showed he could obtain single crystals of MoS2 several molecular layers thick; see J Appl Phys 37, 1928, (1966). Since then single layer samples have been prepared many times, and most recently a single layer transistor formed using molybdenite has been described by Radisavljevic et al in Nature Technology Letters published online 30 Jan 2011.

A. D. Yoffe
Cambridge, UK

Back Page Leaves Unfortunate Impression

I was disappointed to see a great arrogance of science expressed in the Back Page article [APS News, January 2011] by Sheila Tobias: “... the problems an able science teacher presents his or her students are not like (elementary) mathematic problems yielding to a single right answer, but are more like puzzles inviting discussion and dissent.” While certainly correct, Tobias gives the impression that this point does not apply to literature, history and other subjects. Such an attitude impedes making common cause with teachers in other areas, which is likely to be a more successful approach to many problems in education, including those referred to in the article.

Terry Goldman
Los Alamos, NM

Pulsed Van de Graaff Proved a Useful Tool

The excellent review of the history of the Van de Graaff generator and its role in the history of physics in the February number of APS News warrants some extension.

The generator was of course admirably adapted to the acceleration of charged particles. But with the discovery of the neutron by Chadwick in 1932, it soon acquired an enhanced role both as a source of neutrons and as a tool for spectroscopic investigation of neutrons produced in nuclear reactions.
It soon proved useful in both roles. The interaction of energetic hydrogen isotopes became a standard means of production of monoenergetic neutrons in the laboratory, and in the early sixties pulsing of the output of the Van de Graaff made it an admirable means of measuring neutron energies in the MeV range by their time-of-flight.

It should be noted that the conversion of the dc beam of the conventional Van de Graaff to operation as a source of ion bursts of nanosecond duration is also to be credited to Robert J. Van de Graaff. In a 1952 paper to the Denver December Meeting of the APS, he described an ingenious system of ion beam deflection in combination with a special magnet to condense ion bursts of ten nanosecond duration to less than one nanosecond (1).

Many such systems soon became operational in low-energy nuclear physics laboratories around the world and provided a rich source of data on the interaction of neutrons in the MeV range, of importance to theories of nuclear reactions, and to neutron applications to problems of nuclear reactor design for energy and military uses.

1. L. Cranberg, R. A. Fernald, F. S. Hahn and E. F. Shrader, Nuclear Instruments and Methods 12, (1961) 335-340.

Lawrence Cranberg
Austin, TX

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Editor: Alan Chodos