FEd Fall 2001 Newsletter - Browsing Through the Journals

Spring 2001



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Browsing Through the Journals

Thomas D. Rossing

journals.gif (3543 bytes)"The nature of discovery in physics" is the title of an interesting paper by Nobel Laureate Douglas Osheroff in the January issue of American Journal of Physics. "It is often said that to make an important discovery in physics one must either be good or be lucky, but that good people manufacture their own luck," Osheroff begins. The paper is partly autobiographical, partly philosophical. "The hardest thing for an experimentalist to decide," he says, " is when to leave a study and move on to something new. Being the world's expert at something may ensure an ability to do good incremental research, but may make major breakthroughs less likely."

One question which often plagues graduate students is: How much must he or she know about a subject in order to contribute to mankind's knowledge of that subject? If one knows too much, one's mind may become constrained by current wisdom on the subject. Osheroff's policy is "one should understand the subject well enough to acquire a good physical intuition on how it should behave." "However," he continues, "one can never understand one's equipment too well."

Physics at Work exhibitions, designed to show school students how physics is relevant to them, have been held at Cambridge University annually since 1985, according to an article in the November issue of Physics World. The event, which attracts up to 2000 students from 50 or so schools, includes talks about research in industry as well as at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. Students frequently ask the physicist-exhibitors "How much do you earn?" As it happened, one of the companies represented was being floated on the stock market at the time, so students were surprised by the answer to that question.

Australian scientists are in uproar over the planned closure of Quantum, a science show that has run for 16 years on national television, and the axing of the Science TV Unit at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), according to a news note in the 4 January issue of Nature. The Australian Academy of Science, which persuaded the ABC to begin science programs in 1964, branded the removal as "a leap backwards."

A planned program using textual material, exercise workshops and small-group teaching has replaced lectures in the physics course at the University of Leicester (UK), according to an article in the December issue of Physics World. Only relatively recently have lectures become an important means for communicating information. In the last century, students were told to expect relatively few lectures, because most material can be found in standard textbooks. "There is nothing more tedious than yet another boring lecture," the author argues.

A different point of view on lectures is taken in a guest editorial in the December/January issue of Journal of College Science Teaching entitled "Creating a Motivational Learning Environment in Science: Adding a Personal Touch to the Large Lecture." A useful goal for each class session should be to have students leaving the class saying, "I never thought about it that way before." Students should come to class with expectancy and excitement, not with a feeling of boredom of knowing how each class session will proceed.

An interdisciplinary course "The Atomic Era: European Refugees, American Science, and the Atomic Bomb" is described in the February issue of The Physics Teacher. This course, at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, is taught by a team of three faulty members: one in physics, one in sociology, and one in German studies (who is the author of the TPT paper). A typical final exam asks the students to discuss the scientific, political, sociological, historical, and cultural events that culminated in the development and use of the atomic bomb, and it is graded by all three faculty members.

A centuries-old academic tradition in Germany, the notorious post-Ph.D. habilitation requirement, may be on the way out, according to a brief article in the 5 January issue of Science. The DFG, Germany's central research foundation, announced a new program of "junior professorships" that will provide independent support for young researchers. Young scientists will be able to apply for 3-year support for their own research or group projects they head. Under the present system, to be eligible for tenure, young scholars are required to work for 6 years or more as a kind of academic apprentice, dependent on a senior professor for support.

Asian nations continue to lead in science and math test scores, according to the results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study TIMSS) summarized in an article in the 8 December issue of Science. Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea are the star performers, while eighth graders from the United States are still near the middle of the pack, pretty much as in the first tests in 1995. The new findings, called TIMSS-R (for repeat) include longitudinal data that allow countries to measure their progress over time. The US is the only country to show a significant drop in both science and math achievement as its students mature.

"Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century," a report released by the Carnegie Corporation in November, is summarized in the December/January issue of NSTA Reports. The report calls for middle schools that "teach a curriculum grounded in rigorous, public academic standards for what students should know and be able to do." The authors suggest that large schools be divided into "smaller learning communities with teams of teachers and students." Copies of the report ($18.95) can be ordered from Teachers College Press.

In celebration of the joint meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) with the American Astronomical Society (AAS), most of the December issue of Physics Teacher is devoted to teaching astronomy. On the cover is a photo of Messier 82 (the Cigar Galaxy in the constellation Ursa Major) from the Suburu Telescope, and the customary December centerfold is on Women in Astronomy, including a brief biography of Caroline Herschel, first woman to discover a comet. Like her brother, astronomer William Herschel, she was trained as a musician (she a singer, he a conductor and composer).

The "Amateur Scientist" column, which has been a regular feature in Scientific American since 1928, is going to be discontinued, according to an interview with Shawn Carlson, the present columnist, in the January 23 issue of the New York Times. The column is to be suspended in March to make room for "other good ideas for columns" according to John Rennie, editor in chief. Carlson, who has written the column for the past 5= years, is the founder of the Society for Amateur Scientists. Ironically, his efforts in promoting amateur science were recently recognized by the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation with a grant of $300,000.

Thomas D. Rossing is Professor of Physics at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL. He has been an editor of the Forum Newsletter for six years.