Session Report: APS and Public Engagement in Historical Perspective

by Joseph D. Martin

One of the great strengths of APS meetings is their ability to bring together the historians who study the history of physics and the physicists who lived it. In that respect, the FHP sessions at Baltimore’s 2015 April meeting delivered. Among these was the invited session “APS and Public Engagement in Historical Perspective,” cosponsored by FHP and the Forum on Outreach and Engaging the Public. This session admixed historians and physicists not to discuss the development of theories or the growth (and death) of laboratories—as in other FHP-sponsored April sessions on general relativity and the Superconducting Super Collider—but to explore physicists’ roles as public figures. The speakers considered how the APS as an organization, and individuals within it, have understood their obligations to society, in the context of issues from nuclear weapons to global human rights.

The session had the happy accident of coinciding, almost to the day, with the release of leadoff-speaker Sarah Bridger’s book Scientists at War: The Ethics of Cold War Weapons Research (Harvard University Press, 2015). Bridger (Cal Poly) spoke on the subject of her book, describing changing attitudes among physicists during the Cold War toward becoming involved in social and political issues. The American Physical Society was the principle framework in which these discussions were conducted. The distinctive pressures created by the Cold War, and weapons research in particular, gradually convinced the physics community that it had not just the ability, but the obligation to make its collective voice heard on socially important issues on both the national and international stage.

Ed Gerjuoy (University of Pittsburg) joined the session by teleconference to deliver the second talk of the afternoon. Gerjuoy, himself instrumental in the establishing the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS), discussed the committee’s origins and illustrated its influence through the story of Wen Ho Lee, the nuclear physicist charged—and ultimately exonerated—with stealing nuclear secrets from Los Alamos. Lee was subjected to imprisonment and solitary confinement while under indictment, and his treatment angered many in the physics community. Gerjouy’s recounting of CIFS actions on Lee’s behalf provided an apt illustration of Bridger’s wide-angled discussion, which emphasized the sense of conscience that had become integral to American physics by the end of the twentieth century.

The session’s final speaker was also a prime mover in the events he described. David Hafemeister (Cal Poly) spoke on the history of the APS Forum on Physics and Society (FPS). Hafemeister’s talk emphasized that the transition Bridger described, from a physics community leery of becoming too involved with social issues to one that understood engagement with the socially relevant consequences and implications of physical research as part of its mission, involved not just changes in attitudes, but also changes in infrastructure. FPS was a forum in both senses—a unit within the APS, and a space for the exchange of ideas, sometimes challenging ideas, about topics from nuclear weapons, energy, technology, and climate change.

Evident in this session were both the disciplinary differences in approaches to the topic and the complementarity of those approaches. Bridger, operating with the benefit of sober historical remove, could provide a larger frame within which to situate the detailed and sometimes visceral recollections that Gerjuoy and Hafemeister brought to the table. By juxtaposing these perspectives, the presenters provided the audience with an impressively thorough investigation of the APS’s engagement efforts.

The articles in this issue represent the views of their authors and are not necessarily those of the Forum or APS.