Volume 23, Number 3 July 1994


Trouble for Physics

In its Spring 1994 issue, the journal Academic Questions carried an article entitled "The Natural Sciences: Trouble Ahead? Yes." It is a title that applies with even more force to physics than to the other natural sciences.

Authors Paul Gross and Norman Levitt (1) begin by quoting physicist and science historian Gerald Holton, who is concerned about anti-rationalism in Western society, and particularly with the growth of the academic anti-science "postmodernist" critique. According to Holton, "the argument made is that modern science has misled Western civilization badly. It provided false models such as the primacy of rationality and the search for objective truths... The search for objective truths in science was illusory in the first place, because all truths are only socially constructed fictions...This message, with avatars such as Michele Foucault and Jacques Derrida, has so repelled or bored scientists that hardly any have attempted an answer. At the very least, scientists...should pay more attention, avoid over-reaching in return, speak up against extreme nonsense... We must counter those expressions of the claustrophobia of the spirit; they wrongly assume the human situation requires an either/or choice." Holton writes that "History has shown repeatedly that a disaffection with science and its view of the world can turn into a rage that links up with far more sinister movements."

For Gross and Levitt, the problem lies partly with science education. They note the general science alienation among non-science undergraduates, and they chastise scientists for the fact that "A majority of students...never meet science in even remotely gratifying circumstances," and that "In gauging relativist claims that science is merely the ritualized belief-pattern of one transient culture, or eco-radical claims that science is the serpent of Eden, [students] have little countervailing experience beyond, perhaps, a painful passage-at-arms with freshman calculus or chemistry."

I agree. But I would add that we should too quickly dismiss the radical critiques of science that are surfacing more frequently these days. Scientists have, for example, contributed mightily to the specialization of knowledge that today threatens to tear even physics (itself a subfield) into noncommunicating branches called "particles," "condensed matter," and so forth. Partly because of an inappropriate aping of the scientific style, knowledge itself has fractured into disconnected specialties and the cry of students and others for educational "relevance" has become more than a little justified.

For another example, we have not taken much responsibility for the global threats that have arisen partly from the hands of the scientific and technological community, threats such as nuclear weapons and global warming. Postmodernists and scientists might argue over whether the scientific community is in some sense to blame for such threats, but there can be little argument over the fact that most scientists are doing little to educate their fellow citizens about such matters. Most of us go about our business of research in particles or condensed matter, we teach our narrowly-focused "pure" physics courses to "pure" science students and preferably to "pure" physics students, and we treat nuclear weapons and global warming and such as interesting topics for hallway discussion but hardly fit topics for serious introduction into our own daily work

. And for a third example (the one that Gross and Levitt write about), we ignore the anti-rationalism that is all around us. Although Gross and Levitt discuss primarily the postmodernist form of anti-rationalism, we also must contend with such pseudoscientific beliefs as creationism and astrology, and with emotionally-based religious and political belief systems that are at odds with most of what science stands for. The only long-term solution for such ills is thoughtful and broad science education, yet few of us concern ourselves with science education, preferring instead to fill the pages of The Physical Review with learned articles on particles and condensed matter.

Now, I certainly don't want to knock particle physics or condensed matter physics or any other special tree in the beautiful forest of physics, but I do want to raise the question of whether physics can prosper if so many of its practitioners pay attention only to their own individual tree, at the expense of the forest. At a time when the "unity" meeting of the American Physical Society, namely the April meeting, is failing for lack of interest and being incorporated into the March meeting which thus becomes the single remaining general meeting; at a time when APS retiring president Donald Langenberg's excellent address at the "Unity of Physics Day" gathering at the April meeting garnered a surprisingly (to me at any rate) small turnout; at a time when so few of our public school or college students learn any physics at all: Is it really so surprising that our Superconducting Supercollider collapses for lack of political support, and that many of us find ourselves out a job? A perceptive friend of mine, a physicist, remarked to me a couple of years ago that physics may be in the process of becoming, like Latin and Greek, a dead language. Perhaps so, I said at the time. Nothing I have seen since that time has changed this view.

The remedies are clear, but they are not easy, they will take time, and our research-oriented reward system is not appropriate for the task. My recommendations would include an hour of meaningful science education every school day of grades K through 12, more time and attention devoted by academic scientists to teaching nonscientists, tipping the research-versus-teaching balance away from its current overemphasis on research toward teaching as the first priority, a closer organizational relationship between physics research and physics teaching directed ultimately toward a joining of the APS with the American Association of Physics Teachers, a broader definition of "physics" to include more applied topics and to include neighboring areas of the other sciences and certain philosophical and societal topics such as scientific methodology and global warming, and greater dialogue with our colleagues in the humanities and other fields such as business and law. Briefly, we must humanize physics, and integrate it into the broader culture.

Trouble for physics? The answer will continue to be yes, unless we are open to the challenge of looking within ourselves for the cause of many of our own problems, and up to the task of redefining our view of physics and of the organizational structures that support it.

Art Hobson

1.  	See also Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition:  The 
	Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Johns Hopkins University 
	Press, Baltimore, 1994); also the review of this book by Bennett 
	Berger of the Department of Sociology at the University of California 
	at San Diego in Science 13 May 1994, pp. 985-9.