Volume 23, Number 1 January 1994


How Do We Know?

Regarding the last section of the editorial comment "How Do We Know?" (July 1993): I believe that physics and other natural sciences have been successful most of all because of improvements in observational techniques. Of course, testing by experience and critical thinking, and especially the symbiosis of theory and experiment, are sound notions; but they are not enough to distinguish physics from a quasi-science like economics. We physicists are distinguished by our extraordinary efforts to improve the methods of observation. The social sciences have made slow and fitful progress partly because they have more complex subject matter, but also because they have been seduced by the ease and glory of theorizing, often being satisfied with casual personal observations or with systematic but uninspired observations to support the theorizing.

Marc Ross
The Harrison M. Randall Laboratory of Physics
The University of Michigan
500 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1120

Radioactive Waste

As a nuclear physicist with experience in nuclear fission (Westinghouse) and nuclear fusion (Oak Ridge National Laboratory), I often wonder about why there is a great uproar about radioactive waste disposal. In a nuclear power plant, the most radioactive element by far is the operating reactor core. The activity of all other wastes is trivial by comparison. Therefore, why not simply contain the wastes of a reactor at the site of the operating reactor? Security and monitoring are already on site. If a new reactor replaces a decommissioned reactor on-site (the sites have been already approved), the old reactor can be monitored along with the new one.

I get the impression that the idea is to dispose of our operating reactors permanently in underground sites rather than to continually upgrade and improve them.

Igor Alexeff
Professor of Electrical Engineering
University of Tennessee
Knoxville, TN 37996-2100

Making Physics Self-Supporting

This letter is motivated by Professor Rotwarth's letter (April 1993), and the irresponsibility and hypocrisy of Congress regarding the Superconducting Supercollider.

Particularly since World War II, science in our nation has been an anomaly. In a nation noted for its entrepreneurial freedom science has been directed and its policies determined by the military, politicians, and pressures for profits. While the applications of science have provided the basis for most of our economy, science has not received a proportionate share of the rewards. Science must depend on political policy makers, war-makers and profiteers for its support. We are beggars.

The hypocrisy of Congress in killing the SSC after funding its startup is a perfect example of the government's incompetence in things scientific. At the same time, hundreds of billions of dollars are wasted on pork-barrel funding. This cynical arrogance should be rewarded by finding ways to support science independently and in proportion to its contribution to the economy.

This can be done relatively simply, but it won't be easy. The reward for putting science on a self-supporting basis, however, more than justifies the effort. Science, free to follow its own directions, may even be the dynamic ingredient that can save civilization.

Science can support itself through creation of one or more for-profit venture capital corporations with one major common goal: the accumulation of capital for the support of science. Many successful venture-capital firms have flourished since World War II. These provide models for strategies that can allow science to free itself from pursuits driven by war, politics, or the need for profits.

While various kinds of venture firms can be envisioned that will suit this purpose, all should include certain features. The accumulation of capital to support science is most essential. Directors, managers, money sources, scientists, and projects must be of the highest calibre. Early stages must have strategies to make the most money, progress, and accomplishment with the least effort. Rewards must be equitable for participants while allowing reasonable accrual of funds to allow support of increasingly larger projects.

There will be many problems, such as inter-science priorities, different value judgments, and conflicts over radical and conservative ideas. Still, the continuation of our present policy structure for science has steered science in ways that are inadequate for the future, and because political decisions are so fraught with error they may even jeopardize mankind.

One of the earliest post-World War II venture firms might still be one of the best examples to study. That is the American Research and Development Corporation of Cambridge, Massachusetts, founded in 1946 with a capitalization of $46,000. The 16 April 1956 Chemical & Engineering News chronicles the corporation's first ten years, giving insight into their struggle for success. Moody's 1972 Bank and Finance Manual gives a later look at the growth of this company just before it was bought out by one of the companies it founded. A list of many companies whose stock it still held was impressive. Its greatest financial success was the Digital Equipment Corporation stock, worth over $350 million at an original cost of $64,000. The cost of all company stock held at that time was $25 million and had a market value of $410 million.

It takes little imagination to read into these records the efforts necessary for successes. But science, freed from the present yoke, is more than worth the effort.

Edward B. Montgomery
6720 Greenwich Lane
Dallas, Texas 75230