Volume 25, Number 1 January 1996


To New Members: Welcome!

I'm happy to report that the Forum on Physics and Society (FPS) has garnered a large number of new members this year.

Our forum is dedicated to the interdisciplinary task of advancing and diffusing knowledge on the inter-relation of physics and society. We support this endeavor through our symposiums, newsletter, studies, books, workshops, home page, awards, and other activities.

An important role of this and other APS forums is to act as a kind of glue to help bind the physics community together. Today, physics is battered from without by loss of jobs and declining public interest, and from within by splintering into nearly-independent sub- fields to the point that it has become difficult to organize even a single truly general APS meeting each year. Our forum helps to counter this trend by cutting across the specialty boundaries and uniting all physicists in pursuit of societal issues that confront all of us.

New members and others might be interested in a little history, gleaned from early pages of Physics & Society. Our was the first of the APS forums, established in 1972 partly because of the desire of many APS members for a place within their professional organization to bring up concerns about the Vietnam War. Presently, we are one of five forums (on Education, History of Physics, International Physics, Industrial and Applied Physics, and us). The first FPS newsletter appeared in July 1972. Among the FPS founders were the authors appearing in that first issue: Jay Orear editorialized about the newsletter and the new forum's bylaws; FPS chair Earl Callen noted our forum's solid start with about 1000 charter members and, in a separate article, analyzed the destructiveness of B-52 bombing raids over Vietnam; program committee chair Brian Schwartz discussed invited sessions at APS meetings; Martin Perl discussed the organization of the newsletter; and current FPS Chair Al Saperstein described the new national forum speakers bureau and called for FPS members to give talks on physics- related societal topics.

Jay Orear edited the newsletter from 1972 through 1975. Martin Perl took over as editor in 1976 and continued through 1979. It is interesting to note that Perl's discovery of the tau particle, for which he received this year's Nobel Prize, occurred during this period--an outstanding example of the ability to focus on both physics and society. John Dowling assumed the editorship in 1980, continuing until 1987, when my own tenure began.

Membership in FPS has built steadily to nearly 5000 today. Despite that good showing, many of us believe that many more physicists should want to participate in an organization devoted to physics-related social questions. It seems reasonable to suppose that one physicist in about four might have an interest in such questions, implying an FPS membership of over 10,000. In my opinion, it's something to aim for.

Of course, mere membership means nothing without commitment. All levels of commitment and interest are welcome. For some members, that commitment will mean merely looking over some of the articles in Physics & Society and discussing physics- related societal questions with others. For others, commitment might extend to incorporating societal topics into existing or new physics courses, organizing or presenting a paper at an FPS-sponsored session at an APS meeting, writing letters or articles in Physics & Society or other publications, becoming a candidate for the FPS Executive Committee, participating in an FPS-sponsored study, talking with members of congress, or taking up such questions as global warming or energy resources at a professional level. Or you might want to help edit this newsletter! As you can see from our announcement elsewhere in this newsletter, I'll be stepping down shortly and we are searching for candidates.

One of our forum's responsibilities is the nomination, to the APS, of candidates for the Forum Award for promoting public understanding of issues at the interface of physics and society, and for the Szilard Award for accomplishments by physicists in promoting the use of physics for the benefit of society. A partial list of recent award winners indicates the breadth of topics that are of interest to our forum:

-- John Holdren, 1995, for analysis of global energy issues, leadership in arms control, and presentation of these ideas.
-- Roald Sagdeev, Evgeny Velikhov, 1995, for contributions to Soviet glasnost.
-- Gary Taubes, 1994, for promoting public awareness of the scientific method in his book Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion.
-- Herbert York, 1994, for leadership in controlling nuclear weapons.
-- Harvey Brooks, 1993, for elucidating the role of science and technology in modern society, and for science advising.
-- Kurt Gottfried, 1992, for analysis of the SDI program.
-- John Gibbons, 1991, for leading the US Office of Technology Assessment.
-- James Randi, 1989 Forum Award, for defense of science against pseudoscience charlatans.
-- Anthony Nero, 1989, for identification of radon as a major health hazard.
-- Thomas B. Cochran, 1987, for negotiating a private agreement with the Soviet Union making possible seismic measurements that contributed to verification of nuclear test limitations.
-- Arthur Rosenfeld, 1986, for research on energy conservation technologies, helping to reduce U.S. energy consumption by about $150 billion per year.

You'll find all sorts of information on our home page (http://www.aps.org/units/fps/): links to science-and-society information sources, upcoming events, a Physics & Society file back through 1993, links to all FPS- sponsored internet conferences (four are in progress), a list of FPS-sponsored studies and books, our current officers, and more.

Congratulations on your decision to join the Forum on Physics and Society! To benefit the physics community and the world at large, please lend a hand.

Art Hobson

Zealots, Rational Decisions, and Science Education

Humankind must draw what lessons it can from the chaos that has infected the world even more deeply since the end of the cold war than it had earlier. A significant science- and-society lesson may in fact be drawn from a recent and especially tragic example of this chaos, namely Yitzhak Rabin's assassination by Yigal Amir. It is a lesson in methodology: In matters regarding Israel, Rabin followed the path of evidence and rational thought, while Amir followed his beliefs and feelings.

Rabin was certainly no traditional pacifist. He was a military man, a steadfast Zionist who, as chief of staff of Israel's military, oversaw Israel's victory in the June 1967 Six Day War. Newsweek magazine's remembrance of Rabin describes him as suspicious by nature, and convinced of the virtue of overwhelming military power. He was reluctant to shake Yasir Arafat's hand, and described himself as uncomfortable about that handshake on that memorable day in 1993 when the two leaders signed the first Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

Newsweek describes a "change of heart" by Rabin in 1987, but it could be better called a "change of mind." Prior to the intifada, he had advocated vigorous military repression of Palestinian protest, even outraging other world leaders with his order that Israeli soldiers break protesters' limbs. But as the intifada wore on, Rabin became convinced that there could be no security for Israel until there was peace with the Palestinians, and that peace would require a negotiated agreement. He seems to have reached this conclusion for rational reasons, having to do entirely with Israel's long-term security. Thus, he was capable of looking at the evidence, thinking honestly about it, and coming to a rational conclusion in spite of his previous attachment to a far different conclusion.

Amir, coming from a background of religious fundamentalism and emotional rhetoric, was ruled by his feelings. He is reported to be a member of the far-right group Eyal, an offshoot of the Kach organization founded by the late extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahane had claimed a scriptural basis for violence against Arabs. Amir told police God had personally instructed him to attack Rabin, stating "I acted alone on God's orders and I have no regrets." He belonged to that tiny group of Israeli religious extremists who combine Old Testament zeal with a gun-toting pioneer spirit.

The most fundamental lesson we scientists can teach to others is the lesson of science's method. The core of that method is quite simple: Take nothing for granted, form conclusions based on careful observations and hard honest thinking, and be willing to modify those views in the light of new experience.

The 20th century has been torn by rigidly-held and conflicting ideologies. The nationalistic, religious, and economic ideologies seem to come in every imaginable variety, many of them in utter contradiction with each other. Yet those who believe them are, like Yigal Amir, absolutely convinced that they are right. The result has been war, prejudice, fanaticism, and other scourges. Science's view on this is that the danger lies not so much in the beliefs themselves, as in their absolute nature . Even wrong or harmful beliefs can be corrected if one is willing to trust experience and to be intellectually honest. And even correct and healthy beliefs can become dangerous if accepted uncritically or absolutely.

In thinking about how we might do better in the 21st century than we have in the 20th, we might ponder science's most basic value: Whenever possible, subject ideas to testing by experience, and to challenge by critical rational thought. It is a practical, simple, but demanding code. It can be painful to honestly re-evaluate one's beliefs in the light of experience. Yitzhak Rabin embodied that code, in a situation where it counted most. It is perhaps a code that all of us, scientists and nonscientists alike, could usefully take to heart in our daily decisions about politics and life.

Today's threats demand thoughtful, experience-based solutions. In an age of rapid change and conflicting ideas we must allow experience and mind, not beliefs and feelings, to rule. Science educators and in fact all scientists should be teaching this lesson, in their classes and in their lives.

Art Hobson