Robert L. Byer, The William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in the Department of Applied Physics at Stanford, and the Co-Director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center, assumed the APS presidency on January 1st 2012. In the following interview with
Photo by Ken Cole/APS
Robert L. Byer
APS News, he discusses his priorities for the Society during his presidential year.
Q: What do you see as the most pressing issues facing the physics community right now?
A: The most pressing issue facing the American Physical Society, which represents a large fraction of the physics community, is communication about physics and the importance of physics in modern society.
Q: How do you mean?
A: Well, we have a number of issues that we face both on a national basis and a global basis, and the American Physical Society has been active in the past in explaining the scientific or the physics background that helps illuminate decisions on those issues. That ranges all the way from alternate sources of energy, which have been in the news recently, to international arms control and related activities. So when there’s a physics component, the American Physical Society can undertake studies to help clarify from a physics perspective issues with regard to the major questions that we face.
Q: What are some other issues that you see the American Physical Society having to address in the coming year?
A: One thing that we’ve undertaken this last year, and it started with Kate Kirby, our Executive Officer, was a long range strategic plan. That plan asked the general question of what are the ways that the American Physical Society can best serve its members, can best serve physicists and the broad community, and best serve society. We’ve now completed a year of study on the strategic plan, and are about to roll it out to the divisions of the Society as well as the members, and there are a series of statements in that strategic plan which will become our area of focus in the next few years as we begin to implement our strategic plan.
Q: Can you give us a heads up on what some of the strategic plan might contain?
A: One of them is an emphasis on the international community and better serving the Society’s international members. The American Physical Society has historically had a large fraction of its membership from outside of North America, and today more than half of the authors of papers in our journals are from outside of North America. We need to engage the international community more fully, and so one of the statements in our strategic plan is to do exactly that, to begin to engage on an international scale, the physics community broadly.
Q: Broadly speaking, what will be your main focus during your presidential year, and what approach will you take towards achieving these goals?
A: It will start with a rollout of the strategic plan, so that the Society at large can become familiar with the elements of that plan, and then we will begin to place emphasis on one or two or perhaps at most three of the key elements of that plan and begin to implement those. I just mentioned international engagement, but “re-imagining meetings” was another statement that came from the planning process. It’s an interesting phrase. “Re-imagining meetings.” What it means to me is that APS has an opportunity to better serve its members and the community at large by relooking at how the meetings are structured, ways in which we can improve them, ways in which they can meet member expectations, for those members that attend and make presentations at the meetings.
Q: How well do you think the Society is serving its members and are there any areas in which APS programs can be enhanced?
A: APS is one of the largest physical societies in the world, I think second only to the German Physical Society, but we do have a lead role in journals and publications, and that’s been a traditional area of excellence for us. So we will continue to innovate in our journals and our publications. The recent online journal Physical Review X
is a good example of that. We will also continue to make sure that the journals continue to reach and serve the broader international community that’s now the majority of our authors of the journal papers. So that’s one area of real concern to serve members. The second area is to improve communications between the American Physical Society administrative structure, both the volunteer groups as well as the executive and officer group in Washington DC and our members. We can do this by direct services that directly enhance a member’s reason to join the APS, and a set of indirect means that generally enhance the meaning of physics to a broader group of people, from students, to minorities who participate in physics, to educational and outreach activities. These are examples of what we will do in the future to enhance communication and service to our members.
Q: What do you see as the Society’s role in public policy?
A: The APS traditionally has taken a proactive role in public policy, and I think that we expect to continue to do that. Our office in Washington DC is in direct support of public policy as it’s implemented in Washington DC. We have traditionally divided that into two aspects. One is to inform the public more carefully what science, particularly physical science, has to say about pending public policy decisions. An example of that is the POPA study of energy critical elements. If we’re going to revise and modernize and improve our sources of energy in the future, the questions asked “Are there elements that we acquire from the Earth, for example, from mining, that are in short supply that may prevent us from reaching our long- term goals?” That study was well received by Congress and led to immediate action with regard to how we preserve those energy- critical elements so that we can move forward within the boundary of an Earth that isn’t infinite but has finite resources.
Q: What do you see as the Society’s role in international issues?
A: The tradition in science from 100 plus years ago is that science is international, and that all society benefits from basic research and science broadly. In the physical sciences, that held true because the international community that worked in particle physics and high energy physics, really drew strength from scientists from all over the world for a discipline that required an enormous investment of resources. So as we move forward, the question I think about a lot is “How does the American Physical Society best serve and represent physics on the international scale through collaboration?” It is collaboration we want to enhance, for example, holding joint meetings or jointly sponsored meetings in collaboration with other societies. We already have collaboration in publications, and we can certainly involve members of the broader international community in the leadership positions of the American Physical Society.
Q: In recent years APS has been increasing its focus on education and outreach. What do you think of these efforts and how do you aim to guide them?
A: Education and outreach is our future and we need to find ways to not only continue our efforts in education and outreach, but to broaden them. Part of the strategic plan recognized that there are opportunities to go beyond what we’ve done in the past and make further progress in directions of both education and outreach. Collaboration with our fellow societies that represent minority physicists is something that we already have talked about and have discussed and I think that’s something that will come about and we will find ways to support those societies that represent minority scientists and engineers. In physical sciences at least, we have made slow and steady progress in involving women in the physical sciences. I think we can do better, and we will continue to work to bring a better balance in representation in the physics community. In education per se, reaching teachers matters because teachers amplify contact with future students. APS programs already in place can be extended to increase our reach to prepare teachers for teaching science at the K though 12 grade levels.
Q: How is it that you personally first became interested in physics?
A: It’s interesting because everyone that gets involved in science has a story to tell. In my case I grew up with a real passion for astronomy and wanted to be an astronomer. One of the last things I did before I headed to college was to go meet with a very famous astronomer at Caltech and ask him about my plans to study astronomy. His words were directly to me, “No you don’t young man, you want to study physics,” and I didn’t understand exactly what he meant at the time so I asked him and he said “Well, if you study physics, which gives you a broad perspective of science, and you later decide that you want to go into astronomy or astrophysics you can do so.” And I followed his advice. I went off to Berkeley and majored in physics and that gave me indeed a much broader perspective of what the possibilities were and twenty and thirty years later by happenstance I got involved in astrophysics projects, called the LIGO project for ground-based gravitational wave antennas, the LISA project for space-based gravitational wave antennas–exactly the kinds of things that I could never have imagined as a high school student, but physics has enabled me to participate in and contribute to.
Q: What have been some of your career highlights?
A: Again, luck plays a role in these sorts of highlights. By good luck my faculty member at Berkeley, then a young assistant professor, Sumner P. Davis, allowed me to work in his laboratory, just gratis, as an undergraduate student. That opened the door and opened my eyes to a whole set of possibilities of doing physics beyond the undergraduate experience. By even better luck, Sumner P. Davis recommended that I interview with a small company in Mountain View, CA because they were working on this new kind of widget called the laser. So I went down and interviewed and discovered the very first day I was there “Wow, here’s a whole new way to make light and a whole new set of possibilities to use light.” By luck I worked for the world’s first laser company for one year before going back to graduate school. Working for Spectra Physics was a huge learning experience about how a small startup company and Silicon Valley worked. It wasn’t called ‘Silicon Valley’ at the time but the stories about the Varian brothers and Hewlett and Packard were being discussed. I returned to graduate studies in Applied Physics at Stanford where by good luck I was assigned to work with professor Stephen Harris in the rapidly developing field of nonlinear optics. Today nonlinear interactions and devices that we once thought were impossible to demonstrate or construct are commonplace in our commercial products, and serve the science community broadly.
Q: Why did you choose to run for the APS presidential line?
A: I was nominated. However, after being nominated I met with the former APS presidents at Stanford University and had a chance to talk with each of them. The list of former APS presidents included among others Burt Richter and Artie Bienenstock, for example. They gave me the background to better understand the American Physical Society, better understand what would be expected in the four year term that extends from vice president, president elect, president and past president, and also the appreciation for the amount of time commitment that it would take. For example, I learned from Artie Bienenstock that I should be prepared for a lot of travel and for extensive interactions. I asked him if I should take my sabbatical leave the year I serve as President, if elected, and he said by all means. I have followed his advice and beginning January 1, 2012, I am on a sabbatical leave from Stanford for one year. I think I can contribute to the APS through the strategic planning process. I hope, with the assistance of our very capable staff and our volunteers, both at the Executive Board, and the Council level and in the various units, that we will continue to grow a very successful American Physical Society.