As usual, all letters published in Physics and Society are edited and/or shortened by the Editor.

Cuban Exchange

The International Union of Pure and Applied Physics [IUPAP] and other scientific organizations are up in arms because some Cuban nationals were denied US visas to participate in a scientific meeting here.[1] Freedom of scientists from totalitarian countries to travel to the United States is considered essential to the conduct of science. Presumably this applies only to those scientists that totalitarian governments allow to travel abroad while, at least in some cases, leaving members of their families behind as hostages. The fact that only persons whom the communist regime finds acceptable can work as scientists at Cuban universities and research institutions and that others, who are not communists or fellow travellers, have virtually no civil rights, cannot be appointed to university faculties, and cannot even leave the "people's paradise", appears to be of no concern to IUPAP or APS for that matter.

The Department of State publishes annually reports on how various countries observe human rights. As a rule, authors of these reports bend backward to find anything positive they can concerning the countries in question but in case of Cuba the most recent human rights report is devastating.[2] I believe it is appropriate to send a message to oppressive governments by, at the very least, denying visas to their officials and servants whenever practicable. The message is that they do not belong on the soil of a free country and in company of free men.

[1] Physics Today, July 1997, p.55

[2] Report on Human Rights Practices -- Cuba, United States Department of State, January 1997. Also available on <gopher dosfan.lib.uic.gov>. The report opens by observation: Cuba is a totalitarian state. President Castro exercises control over all aspects of Cuban life through the Communist Party and its affiliated mass organizations, the government bureaucracy, and the state security apparatus. The party is the only legal political entity, and President Castro personally chooses the membership of the select group that heads the party. The party controls all government positions, including judicial offices.

Vladislav Bevc

Synergy Research Institute

P.O.Box 561, San Ramon, CA 94583

(510) 837-7612


The letter above, protesting the defense, by American physicists, of the scientific rights of individual scientists coming to professional meetings from totalitarian countries, is quite understandable. Its sentiments are not uncommon among people who have lived and suffered under such regimes. However, it puts those who don't share the State Department's characterization of the Cuban government as a totalitarian state in the same boat as those of us who believe that scientific exchanges should be pursued, even with totalitarian regimes. We believe that the APS, and other representatives of American (and world) science, should make it clear to all that: (1) We are fully aware of the violation of human rights by the Castro regime and are against all such violations. (2) The international freedom of scientists should be above politics. We defend that freedom, independent of the politics of the scientist. Otherwise, we commit the same violations as do the dictators. (3) If we were to behave like dictators, we would weaken our own position in our fight against all violations of human rights. For example, if we refuse the visa of a party hack, then it would be extremely hard for us to fight for the dissident whom we wish to invite. (4) The way to help the deserving and yet oppressed is to keep the door open to all while at the same time inviting the deserving and yet oppressed. (5) In the shrinking global village to which totalitarian regimes must open their doors, they will be weakened if we behave consistently with our belief in the sanctity of human rights. Self-consistency is a non-negotiable cornerstone of science!

Ke Chiang Hsieh


Editor's Comment Should Iraqi physics students be invited to study in our universities, older physicists to our scientific conferences and laboratories, where they may learn or brush up on the newest paradigms of, e.g., nuclear physics? But that may help that "outlaw" state in its presumed quest for nuclear weapons to use against its "peaceful neighbors". (The same question applies to other "renegade" nations and to scientists of other disciplines who may help further the development of other weapons of mass destruction - or even conventional weapons which we don't wish them to acquire.) Raymond A. Zilmakas, in a 30 January 1998 Science editorial (vol. 279, p.635), advocates just such invitations. He would open up our universities and international forums to "science students from nations suspected of pursuing ... weapons", presuming that such invitations would open these students to "discussions of ethics in science." "Scientists imbued with a strong sense of ethics will be more inclined to slow the progress ... weapon-related research or alert outsiders..." Here we have a typical policy conundrum - both good and bad may follow from the same policy and we have no validated theory enabling us to choose so as to further desired ends, hinder undesired outcomes. All we can do is search the historical record for presumed similar dilemmas and examine their outcomes.

It is certainly true that American scientists, presumedly inculcated with American ethics, had no trouble (on the whole) in contributing to our developments of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. The same can be said for scientists in Hitler's Germany, Stalins's Soviet Union, and other countries of varying socio-political outlook. Could it be that these past scientists were not "imbued with a strong sense of ethics" and that future formal "discussions of ethics in science" would make a difference for our visitors from potentially hostile countries? I have my doubts. But would barring such outsiders from our forums and institutions contribute to the lessening of such hostility? Again, I have my doubts. It seems to me that this problem is a manifestation of the question of which comes first in the development of a human scientist: science or society? Our Forum should be a catalyst and home for examining this fundamental problem. I eagerly await further contributions on this topic from our readers.

The AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility (co-chaired by Irving Lerch of A.P.S.)) is organizing a seminar in April in DC concerning these issues--with a focus on Cuban scientists. They intend to have representation from the State Department, other government agencies, various organizations, etc. A.M.S

Physicists Haven't Done Much?

In his letter in the January 1998 issue of Physics and Society, Bernard Cohen makes the astonishing assertion that nuclear and high-energy physicists "have contributed virtually nothing to technology for several decades, nor have we done much else of a practical nature for Society".

One of the most important "spin-offs" from all of science during the last decade is the World-Wide-Web. Although the value of the Web is certainly subject to hyperbole (no, it probably isn't the most important breakthrough in publishing since Gutenberg), it is clear that the Web will contribute much more to the Gross Domestic Product than all federal support for basic research combined. The Web began in a high-energy physics experiment at CERN in the late 1980's.

In fact, high energy physicists have been at the vanguard of the information revolution for decades (the preprint archive at SLAC will soon celebrate its 25th anniversary), and have been crucial in shaping its development. Many feel that the information revolution will have a bigger impact on Society than any "revolution" since the Industrial revolution, and thus Cohen's claim that we haven't "done much of a practical nature for Society" seems inaccurate, and detracts from his other, important points about nuclear technology.

Marc Sher

Physics Dept.

College of William and Mary

Williamsburg VA 23187


1319 words