Human Rights Issues in Physics

Herman Winick

"There is no national science, just as there is no national multiplication table. Science that is national is not science." Anton Chekov

This is particularly true in physics, with the premier example of the thousands of scientists from dozens of countries working together at the LHC at CERN.  In addition to working together at such central facilities (high energy physics, neutron sources, synchrotron light sources, telescopes, etc.), in all scientific fields scientists from many countries gather periodically at international conferences, group meetings, schools, and symposia. Getting to know each other personally from these contacts, and communicating regularly via email or Skype, provides opportunities for the rapid spread of information about human rights issues, including cases in countries with repressive governments where such information is not readily available.

In some situations it is possible for persecuted scientists, and other academics and scholars, to leave their home countries to escape danger. Two organizations that help in such cases are Scholars at Risk (SAR), based at NYU (, which helps arrange positions at participating universities in the network, and the Scholar Rescue Fund which provides up to $25K of matching funds to any university in the world that will invite an endangered scholar. These effective organizations have saved the careers, and sometimes the lives, of hundreds of endangered scholars. I have worked with them for more than 10 years.  I highly recommend these organizations to you, and especially invite scientists to urge their institutions to join Scholars at Risk’s network.

There are other ways in which each of us can promote human rights, particularly when traveling abroad to countries with repressive governments. In addition to dedicating a talk to an imprisoned scientist or academic and expressing interest in meeting them or visiting with his/her family, human rights can be promoted by talking about relevant topics to everyone.  For example, in addition to talking to scientist colleagues in countries such as Egypt, Iran, Jordan and Turkey, I have had such conversations with store clerks and taxi drivers about honor killings, women’s rights, genital mutilation, homophobia, human trafficking, and stoning.

Invariably all with whom I spoke are against human rights abuses. They often put the blame for these abuses on their government, or on a small fraction of the population, or on tribal customs. The conversation can then lead to tactfully asking how they think that these conditions can be improved and what they are doing in this regard. This can also be followed up by emailing a relevant article to them.

As scientists we are privileged to travel and meet with colleagues around the world. Please consider this as an opportunity to promote human rights.

Professor Herman Winick is at Stanford University. He was the Chair of the FIP in 2007 and currently the APS Councillor for the FIP, 2010-13

Disclaimer—The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on International Physics Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.