Volume 27, Number 3 July 1998


The letters are dedicated to free expression on societal topics of interest to the physics community. As a forum for all physicists we welcome all views, but of course the Forum on Physics and Society does not necessarily endorse any particular view found in these pages. Readers are most heartily invited to respond to letters, comments, or others items in Physics & Society. Letters should not be longer than 500 words.

Do Lay Science Books Help Lay Science Knowledge?

I read with great personal interest Al Saperstein's review of Science and Religion: An Evolutionary Perspective, by Walter Isard, in Physics and Society, Vol. 27, No 2. I am personally acquainted with persons who have been seriously mislead by such books. Usually, a superficial resemblance between physics and other disciplines is presented as profound, or a superficial explanation is presented as complete. I believe that there may be serious consequences which should be investigated.

As anecdotal evidence I offer the following: At least one person has wasted 20 years believing that the derivative of t with respect to t proves that time goes in one direction because the answer is +1. A Unitarian minister believes that all elementary particles are made of love. He presented this to his congregation and to the larger community in an interview on local television news. The worst example was the presentation of Margaret Wheatley's book, Leadership and the New Science, as a source of insight about the latest developments in science and their application to leadership issues by the Kentucky Department of Education. This book implies, among other things, that an experimenter can choose the outcome of experiments in quantum mechanics (in the Schrodinger Cat example). I took the initiative and debunked the KY DOE in a formal presentation to about 100 people, but the material had probably been recommended to 10 or 50 times that number of professional educators and parents in the state.

So I want to challenge the Editors to take seriously the objective of the APS: "... the advancement and diffusion of the knowledge of physics." Let's find out if popularizations are working. Create and fund a group to formally study the knowledge of physics and its presentation to the public. Let's make real measurements. Who reads these books? What do they get from them? Is there a noticeable improvement in their knowledge after exposure? Is there a measurable change in their behavior after exposure? What needs to be done to effectively communicate to the public? What does it mean to be educated well enough in science to participate meaningfully in our society? Do these books help or harm the public in a democracy like ours?

I have seen investigations of whether people know what Evolution and the Big Bang mean. I want to know if they understand enough about their car or furnace to evaluate claims made by sales persons or service representatives. Do they understand that physics has something fundamental to say about biology and that biological organisms, including humans, are subject to physical laws?

Robert M. Riehemann
Cincinnati Bell Information Systems

Editor's Comment (MS): Editors do not do studies; individual members do; POPA does. We've often wondered what the impact of books such as those relating quantum mechanics to Eastern mystesism have on the public understanding of physics; it may be significant and detrimental. So studies by our readers are very welcome. But what can we do about such books, aside from some sort of APS rating system (after all there is the First Amendment to worry about)?

Low Level Radioactive Waste Repositories

In the April issue of Physics & Society John Ahearne suggests that a solution to the building of Low Level Radioactive Waste (LLW) repositories might be to not build them for nuclear reactor wastes. In coming to this solution John quotes the anti-nuclear opposition, and wonders if they would then allow repositories to be built for non nuclear reactor radioactive wastes.

Is Dr. Ahearne too narrow in his approach? Would not a broader solution be to shut down all nuclear plants and outlaw nuclear power? And with organizations such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, and non technically knowledgeable politicians such as Senator Barbara Boxer, who Ahearne quotes, we could go even further in the energy field by supporting them in eliminating hydroelectric dams and fossil fuel burning. With one exception we would then have solved the world's energy problems and would likely get the support of the anti s for living in a wonderful world of conservation, solar, and wind power.

Of course, the one exception would be the deaths and devastation in the world due to lack of needed energy!

We in the technical community have done a poor job of bringing technological information on energy to the public in a sound manner. All technologies from gas lighting to steam heat to electricity have had problems, and have scared the public at their initiation. But with time, the public was educated about their risks and benefits. In the case of nuclear energy we haven t done this. Even our President and Vice President appear ignorant when they express great concern over global warming while ignoring, or opposing, the only available solution - a major expansion of nuclear energy. It might in passing be noted that nuclear energy, meeting U.S. and Western standards (Chernobyl did not), has not harmed a single member of the public.

The Ward Valley LLW repository has been studied by California State organizations, by federal organizations, and by the National Research Council in a 15 month study. It s safety and suitability have been upheld. And indeed, if one reads the articles on low level radiation in the same Physics and Society issue as Ahearne s article, then one can conclude that Ward Valley risks may be a thousand or more times smaller than the negligible risks projected by the past studies.

If this nation surrenders to the irrational objectives of the anti-technology, anti-nuclear organizations we will be failing our generations to come. This is an irresponsible course. We have reached the point where those with scientific and technological knowledge and expertise, and their organizations, should work aggressively to provide lawmakers and the public with the information needed to allow them to choose a sound, vital, energy course. On our present course we threaten the future of our nation s children, and the welfare of the world.

Bertram Wolfe
Retired VP & General Manager of GE Nuclear Energy
15453 Via Vaquero,Monte Sereno, CA 95030
Phone and Fax: (408) 395-9039

John Ahearne suggests that opposition to development of new low-level radioactive waste disposal facilities might be muted if use of thesefacilities were restricted to non-reactor wastes. ("A Partial Solution to LLW Siting?", Physics and Society, April 1998.) Ahearne writes, "...it would be useful to find out if those objecting to current siting do so because of opposition to nuclear power or because of fear of radioactivity of any kind."

Exploration of opposition attitudes for the purpose suggested by Mr. Ahearne would cost years of additional delay while implementation of state and federal laws was held in abeyance. And for what?

Opposition groups act on the theory that if they can block safe disposal of low-level waste, they can block all uses of radioactive materials. The opposition to the proposed Ward Valley disposal facility in California, and to proposed disposal facilities in other states, is driven by ideological opposition to any beneficial use of radioactivity by society - not by a concern for safe disposal of the waste byproducts. Some opposition groups admit to this objective. For example,Greenpeace, in a solicitation letter from its Executive Director in the spring of 1995: "There is only one answer -- turn off the faucet; stop producing nuclear waste. Period."

The Washington, DC based Nuclear Information Resource Service, in a fundraising letter from its Executive Director dated October 1994: "We've helped stop every proposed radioactive waste dump for the past several years. Federal law said that every state should have had a dump to send itswaste to by December 31,1992. Federal law was wrong and grassroots activists were right. No new dumps are operating, and, as long as radioactive wastegeneration continues, forever exacerbating the problem, we will work to ensure that no new dumps ever operate."

And Greenpeace, again, in a handout distributed while picketing a Cal Rad conference in San Diego in 1992: "Developing alternatives to radionuclides currently used in medicine and industry must be a priority."

Actions also reveal motivations. Groups opposed to the Ward Valley project tried to convince California's Courts that the California Department of Health Services followed inadequate procedures when licensing organizations to use radioactive materials. Fortunately, the Courts rejected this argument. Had these efforts succeeded, not only would the Ward Valley license have been invalidated but so would over 2,000 radioactive materials licenses in California for hospitals, universities, industries, etc.

Opposition groups might profess agreement with the Ahearne proposal. But if it were ever seriously pursued, we would soon hear demands for yet anotherrestriction based on the wastes' institutional pedigree -- creating another category of orphan waste.

Mr. Ahearne eloquently presents sound arguments against his own proposal! It enables a public policy issue -- supposedly settled by Congress, state legislatures, and federal and state regulatory agencies -- to be dodged. It increases disposal costs for the non-reactor users of radioactive materials (universities, industries, medical centers, etc.). And it merely postpones decisions about disposal of the LLW generated by reactors.

The laws on the books are more than adequate; it is political will that is inshort supply. We should demand that federal and state officials have the courage to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed."

Alan Pasternak
Technical Director, Cal Rad Forum
P.O. Box 1638, Lafayette, CA 94549-1638
(510)283-5210; FAX 283-5219

Editor's General Comment (ES): Scientists and the technologically literate do themselves a disservice when,in their attempts to educate the public and enter the public debate on issues such as nuclear energy, they disparage the public for its very real fears. Whether the fears are based on facts, misinformation, or misunderstanding,they cannot be erased by assertions which might be interpreted as implying the stupidity of the people that hold and promote them. Perhaps compromise does not provide the most elegant solutions, but proof by assertion is similarly flawed.

Wanted: Interesting Memorabilia

At the March 1999 Centennial meeting of the APS, the Forum on Physics and Society will have a display reminiscing over our actions of the past quarter century. The Forum has done much to be proud of and we would like to tell the world (or at least the APS). We would appreciate your sending your interesting photos, or other items from our sessions, short courses, P&S articles, Forum books to D. Hafemeister, Physics Dept., California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, CA 93407. Thanks

David Hafemeister, dhafemei@calpoly.edu


Nominations for the Burton-Forum Award (formerly the Forum Award) and the Szilard Award are due July 1, 1998. The call for nominations has gone out to the general membership but has not yet resulted in any nominations. I would like FPS, which has been closer to the activities for which the awards were created, to think of possible nominations. Please send me any that you generate at the address below.

To remind everyone:

The Burton Award is to recognize outstanding contributions to the public understanding or resolution of issues involving the interface of physics and society. Previous winners can be found at http://www.aps.org/units/fps/fawards.html

The Szilard Award is to recognize outstanding accomplishments by physicists in promoting the use of physics for the benefit of society in such areas as the environment, arms control, and science policy. Previous winners can be found at http://www.aps.org/units/fps/szilard.html

Looking forward to some good nominations. Thanks!

Mark Sakitt
Department of Advanced Technology
Building 197C
Brookhaven National Laboratory
Upton, N.Y. 11793-5000
Phone (516) 344-3812
Fax (516) 344-5266

Members of the Forum are also reminded to think about, and submit, nominations for Fellows of the APS via our Forum. Contact our Fellowship Chair, Pricsilla Auchincloss, at the Univ. of Rochester,BITNET:PSA@UORHEP.