Biased Grades

I was pleased to see Emily Conover’s article “Physics Grading Biased Against Women” in the April 2016 APS News. For many years I have used anonymous grading. Many of my colleagues thought it unnecessary, and teaching assistants needed persuading, yet a colleague adopted it for our Ph.D. comprehensive exams. It is a minor bother to set up identification numbers; I used the last 3 or 4 digits of the student ID numbers for all graded work; the numbers are also useful for sorting and returning graded work. When we called the identification numbers “magic numbers,” the students liked the idea more. I found the idea liberating, and students could be more open in class discussion. There are other examples as well — anonymity in auditions, behind a curtain without shoes, has increased the number of women in orchestras [1].

Leonard Finegold
Media, Pennsylvania

[1] L. Finegold, Journal of Science Education and Technology 11, 255 (2002).

Confirming Coulomb

I enjoyed the “This Month in Physics History” article about Coulomb's experiments in the June 2016 issue. When I was a grad student at Columbia in the 1970s, Samuel Devons tried to reproduce the experiments using only technology available to Coulomb. Devons found it very difficult to reproduce the experiments.

John Farley
Las Vegas, Nevada

Basic Research Benefits

Lawrence Krauss makes many good points in his Back Page article (APS News, May 2016) comparing the LIGO discovery to the appreciation of aesthetic things of culture like art, music, and literature. I would add that, in addition to advancing understanding of our universe and ourselves within it, past evidence proves that even seemingly remote and "trivial" events such as this will always eventually lead to profound practical benefits to humankind; it's just a matter of time.

There are many examples in scientific history that prove this point. While the LIGO event is the province of general relativity, another such case is from special relativity concerning correcting the transformation equations between inertial reference frames from the Galilean group to the Lorentz group. The point seems trivial as it has no real practical, everyday consequences except at speeds close to light, so who cares? However, this "trivial" point ultimately led to our ability to unleash the energy of the atomic nucleus (for good or bad) through Einstein's mass-energy equivalence, which has had profound practical effects on humankind from bombs to nuclear energy.

Another example would be the revolution of quantum mechanics. The general public might have asked at the time, "Who cares if I put a free particle, which can have any energy, in a box and the box somehow tells the particle what energies it is now allowed and not allowed to have; while interesting, of what practical benefit is it to humankind?" However, the practical benefits to humankind have once again been profound, with all the applications to semiconductors, lasers, communications, medical imaging technologies, etc. There are many other examples that could be cited also.

It is my belief that the U.S. Congress should be made aware of this and continue to fund this kind of research, and all similar scientific research, even if any immediate practical benefits may not be evident at the time.

Frederick Weist
Clarksburg, Maryland

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: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Rachel Gaal
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Art Director and Special Publications Manager: Kerry G. Johnson
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

July 2016 (Volume 25, Number 7)

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Articles in this Issue
NASA and ESA May Team Up to Measure Gravitational Waves
Members in the Media
APS Selects Editor in Chief
This Month in Physics History
Physicist Makes Thin Films for Tough Conditions
Education & Diversity Update
What Do You Do When A Senator Calls Your Research A Waste of Money?
Research News: Editors’ Choice
Washington Dispatch
2016 U.S. Physics Olympiad Team Gets Ready
Senate Introduces Science Research Legislation
The Back Page
International News