APS News

May 2012 (Volume 21, Number 5)

Letters to the Editor

Lazarus’s Little-Known Contribution

The late David Lazarus was editor in chief of the American Physical Society from 1980 to 1991. His recent passing brings to mind a bit of APS history that not many members know about. Prior to July 1, 1985 (or just possibly 1986), there were no extra membership fees for APS members who wished to join a subgroup, which, in those days, comprised Divisions and the two Topical Groups that had just been formed in 1984. At an APS Council meeting I attended in 1985, Lazarus pointed out that almost all professional and technical organizations did have an additional charge for subgroup membership. He proposed that APS do the same, adding an extra $5 dues for each such membership. The motion passed easily because the feeling was that this would be a minor bump in the road. Turns out that in the very first year after the fee was instituted, subgroup membership dropped ~55% across the board!

One could postulate that Lazarus was being prescient in his doubts about the seriousness of the commitment APS members had to the entities that had been formed to acknowledge their interests in specific fields. However it’s come about, the net result stemming from a fortuitous–in light of the consequences–suggestion made a quarter-century ago has been positive: the additional dues collected each year have been almost completely returned to the subunits providing much needed help to maintain their operations.

Larry Rubin
Mercer Island, WA

Scholarship and Cyberspace

In a letter in the January APS News, Gil Paz endorsed the idea that talks be posted online along with the plethora of slides and Power Point presentations that already exist in cyberspace. The subject of posting “talks” in addition to meeting slides online concerns me. I am not opposed to wide dissemination of new ideas–rather, it is the methods we use to do so, and the consequences thereof, that I am responding to.

Standards for posters, talks, symposia, and the like are quite variable. Slides are provocative and catchy, but rarely refer to peer-reviewed literature, which provides the needed context. If one is not a member of the “in-group” in a particular topic, they are not very useful. People working in very competitive areas are not likely to post their formative ideas online.  

The material of which Gil Paz speaks pops up as more chaff even in carefully considered internet searches. Years may have gone by, and the individual who presented may or may not be identified well enough to be tracked down–or the ideas may have been long abandoned, for good reason.

Most scholars would agree that the study of the history of ideas and breakthroughs on important questions is supported by the written word. In the past twenty years or more, the increasing use of email has left much of this communication in the dark. How many scholars consistently print communication with colleagues and editors so that they may be examined?

We are in an era when free access to cyberspace is in doubt. Many organizations and societies charge additional fees for online access to journals. If one is not close to a participating library, it may cost $30 or more to download or read a single journal article.  This provides a great advantage to those working in the formal academic setting where subscriptions and licenses are bought at great expense. This is the same setting that judges the worthiness of projects based on the availability of funding. This brings politics directly to bear on the competition, giving the academic some lesser degrees of freedom and introducing more conflicts of interest.

It is well known how political forces affect the tenure process and the referee system–the “in-group” religion receives preferential treatment. The Ivory Tower is no utopia.

Against the odds, including the high cost of journal subscriptions, leading some college and university libraries to cut subscriptions, the refereed journal article remains the staple of most of academia. Journals with lesser “citation impact” already are threatened. A leisurely walk to the college or university library is still a worthwhile endeavor. The computer does not encourage critical thinking.  

Many years and precious resources are spent training good scholars. Travel, expense accounts, and attendance at professional meetings decline and costs soar. I am not yearning for some “good old days” when a single keyword search on Medline cost $400 for a five year time block at the Medical Library. However, we should beware that posts on the internet do not necessarily reflect “the free exchange of ideas.”   We should be concerned with the quality and accessibility of such exchanges.

The Academy is beset by numerous new problems. Computer resources that appear “free” should be carefully considered in the broader context of society.

Victor S. Alpher
Austin, TX

How to Increase Research Productivity

Dimitri Kusnezov and Wendell Jones, authors of the Back Page “Beyond the Endless Frontier: A 20th Century Model faces 21st Century Realities” [APS News, March 2012] see science and technology as a homogeneous activity, and, while they are concerned with changing the governance structure of research, they seem unconcerned with the nature of research itself.

Research projects operate in a multidimensional space:  Some require hundreds or even thousands of investigators, while others can be carried out by a single person; some can be guaranteed to obtain the desired result, others have only a small chance of success; some seek results that (while necessary) will not change anyone’s worldview, others may change the way a whole field is developed; some may take years or decades, some may take weeks or months; some require only the salaries of the investigators, others require additional, expensive resources; some fall within areas the importance of which can be seen by all (including those who operate the sources of funding), the importance of other projects may not be clear to most people until much later; and so on.

The most effective way to improve the productivity of research would be to make the system more sensitive to these differences. For example, let us not have a system in which an inexpensive, highly-speculative piece of research (which, in the unlikely event of success, would change the world) competes for funding (as it largely does today) with a piece of research that, at considerable expense, will gather valuable data that are needed for a variety of projects but will increase nobody’s understanding of anything.

Alwyn Eades
Bethlehem, PA

Kusnezov and Jones Reply:

We agree with Eades that a healthy research enterprise is a rich ecology of elements across a range of risks and benefits, from basic to applied. Our core concern is that the 20th century model of governance for enterprises at the national level inexorably produces decisions that are sub-optimized against today’s challenges. Accordingly, broader issues of system health are increasingly orphaned. As Eades rightly states, the goal would be “to make the system more sensitive to those differences.” This complex nature of the research “commons” is what drew us to this challenge. Our hope is that the creative work done thus far by Ostrom and others on governance of shared and complex systems can be built upon for this national security S&T commons to help the nation build and sustain a robust and responsive research enterprise.

Bohr Helped Rescue Danish Jews

The March “This Month in Physics History” APS News column on Bohr notes that when “Hitler’s army invaded Denmark, Bohr fled with his family to Sweden in a fishing boat.” In Sweden, Bohr played a critical role in the rescue of Danish Jews by persuading the Swedish government to issue a declaration by radio in October of 1943 that Sweden would provide sanctuary for Jews fleeing Denmark. As a direct result of Bohr’s intervention, the Danish resistance ultimately succeeded in bringing 7,000 Jews to Sweden, rescuing all but 500 who fell into the hands of the Gestapo. Unlike most other European countries, Denmark was one of the very few that saved most of its Jewish population from the Holocaust. As a scion of a well-to-do Danish-Jewish family on his mother’s side, Bohr would certainly have well understood the threat to Danish Jews after the Nazi occupation of Denmark in April of 1940.

David Siminovitch
Lethbridge, Alberta

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Editor: Alan Chodos