Physics and Society Jan '97 - Comments

Volume 26, Number 1 January 1997



I assume that FPS members, concerned as they are about the impacts of physics upon society and vice-versa, would be eager to maximize the impact of their Forum on APS and the general scientific community, as well as on society as a whole. Such an impact can only be created by an external perception of interest and involvement by a large group of members in the affairs of the Forum. Evidence of such involvement would be participation in FPS elections. Unfortunately, the number of ballots cast in past Forum elections has declined from over 1100, in 1992, to 224 in 1996 - this of a Forum membership of about 4000!

The Forum Nominations Committee, chaired by Peter Zimmerman, has striven to produce a well-rounded slate of capable candidates for this year's election of Executive Committee members and the future Forum Chair. Candidate statements and biographical information is included in this issue together with a tear-out ballot. Please take the time to consider the material and cast your ballot. Evidence of your participation or non-participation is noticed - if FPS is to be taken seriously by APS headquarters, it must be taken seriously by its own members.

Al Saperstein

Message From the Chair

You last received a message from me in the April 1996 issue, when I was just about to assume my responsibilities as FPS Chair. As I write this message, I have almost exactly half completed my term. It has been a hectic often worrisome six months, which has impelled me to do some very serious thinking about our Forum and its role in the APS. I will spare you these reflections for the present, however. My term is only half over, not fully completed, and it is quite probable that the coming six months will change my thinking. But I do feel you are owed a report from me when my term will have been completed. Expect to receive such a report in the July 1997 issue.

Here I want to exercise a different function of the Chair, namely not to reflect but to exhort. This issue of P&S carries many importantannouncements about FPS activities. I urge you to review the information about forthcoming FPS sessions at the 1997 March and April meetings, in Kansas City and Washington D.C. respectively. Please attend those sessions if you possibly can, and let the FPS Program Committee Chair, soon to be FPS Chair, know what you thought about them. Only if we FPS officers get feedback from FPS members can our Forum hope to retain membership interest and support. I also urgeyou to give some thought to the request for nominations of proposed FPS Fellows. The FPS Fellowship Committee does not want to overlook any members of the APS who deserve to be honored for their contributions to understanding, explaining and positively affecting the relation between physics and society.

Most importantly, I urge you to carefully review the credentials of the candidates for FPS office, and then VOTE! Last year the number of ballots returned was disturbingly low. Unless and until a respectable number of our members are interested enough in the future directions of FPS to cast their ballots for or against its would-be leaders, the health of our Forum must be considered suspect.

Edward Gerjuoy, FPS Chair
Department of Physics
University of Pittsburgh,
Pittsburgh, PA 15260

Comment on Neal Lane's July 1996 address to the Arlington Rotary Club

FYI, the American Institute of Physics' information service regarding goings-on in Washington, D.C., gave extensive quotes from NSF Director Neal Lane's address to the Arlington Rotary Club in July of this year. I'm referring to FYI #129, which can be found on the web at:

Some of the things that Lane had to say to his audience seem self-evident to professional scientists (e.g.," to talk to each other. We have ...seminars where we converse in ... jargon...."), while other things that he said sound so foreign to us, or even unpleasantly burdening, that most of us might prefer to look away, and to not hear or react (e.g., " is important for scientists to get out of their labs and engage in a genuine dialog in their communities...I am asking scientists and engineers to actively reach out in their communities....").

Whence the discomfort? For many, and perhaps most scientists, part of the pleasure of the activity of science comes from its insulation from the rest of society. For the most part, we choose problems that we find interesting, we choose collaborators that we like, and we talk about our work with people who are like-minded in their interests, if not in the details of their opinions. We have become accustomed to creating a very small world for ourselves over which we exert far more control than we can in the world at large. In addition, knowing all the future consequences of our research might appear to make that research less exclusive, less intriguing, less pure, less worthy of the obsessive, driving effort that much research entails.

An extreme example: Many participants in the Manhattan project have written of the fun and heady times that they had in Los Alamos while solving the technical problems connected to developing the atomic bomb, and also of the sudden shock that they experienced when they realized, after the atomic bombings of Japanese cities, the full consequences of their work. Here is an extreme case of how the pleasure of isolation, and immersion in great collaboration on problems of extraordinary interest, subsequently led to soul-searching. For some participants of that dramatic project, the world of humankind, in August 1945, knocked on the doors of consciousness and said, " Here we are, here you are, and these are the consequences of how you have chosen to relate to all the rest of us."

While the vast majority of us will never experience the thrill of mid-1940's Los Alamos, nor the agonizing questions of some of its participants in the face of their spectacular success, most of us do have important psychological characteristics in common with that historically important group: we experience pleasure in our professional work, and we have a kind of inadvertent passivity in the way we relate the consequences of our work to the rest of humanity. Tom Lehrer put it this way more than 30 years ago in one of his songs:

"Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down
That's not my department!", says Werner von Braun

Neal Lane is challenging us to reject and to resist the narcotic pleasure that we find in our exclusivity and isolation, to reject a passive role in determining how our work effects our society, and to take a very active role in steering the consequences of our efforts. He challanges us to participate in a much messier world than most of us have become accustomed to working in, even though we have always, in fact, lived in the midst of it.

How can we, the scientific establishment, go about changing our relationship and attitude to the society in which we live and which supports our science? In the April 1995 issue of Physics Today, I published a letter in which I proposed that graduate physics departments, as a standard part of graduate training, "have graduate students present, annually, a talk about their work to students at public schools." I then went on to describe the multiple benefits from such activity, e.g., increased public awareness of scientists' contributions to the solution of our public education ills, exposure of many students and scientists to each other, the enhancement of communication skills in graduate students, etc. Herewith, I wish to make another plug for this idea, and to emphasize yet another benefit that derives from its implementation: Scientists would thereby receive rigorous, real world training in the communication of the importance of their work, starting very early in their careers.

There is much anecdotal evidence that the scientific career as a kind of priesthood is over (e.g., SSC). Neal Lane exhorts us to get off the pulpit (i.e. out of our labs) and to mix with the congregants. If for no other reason than that we have no choice, it would behoove us to follow his lead.

Jeffrey J. Marque