F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
October 2003



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Forum "Hijacked" by Moralists?

After reading the "commentaries" … by Fay Dowker and Daniel Amit in the July, 2003 newsletter, I must express my concern about the potential for our Forum to be hijacked by fringe elements more interested in polemics than physics.  These writers, and others of their ilk delight in expressing their personal outrage at the "bad" properties they perceive in fundamentally good countries and organizations.  Dowker's righteous indignation is provoked by unintended civilian deaths (in the range of a few thousand according to best current estimates) in the recent war in Iraq.  I searched in vain for any similar outcry from her about Saddam's intentional slaughter of many times this number.  Likewise for the new low he established in human conduct and child abuse in the outright purchasing Arab youths to strap bombs to their bodies to go blow themselves up together with civilians riding buses.  She is hardly alone; very few of those currently venting over American behavior have spoken out about the behavior of Saddam.  The same can be said for Daniel Amit -- now happily residing in the country most responsible  (together with Germany) for bequeathing to the world modern fascist ideology.

I am unconcerned about whether or not these … moralists find an outlet in Physics and Society.  We do, however, have a obligation to our Forum not to allow it to become an uncritical pulpit for a ,,, Dowker to attack a well-regarded physicist like Garwin; or for a … Amit to attack the foreign policy of the nation which (in our own generation) liberated with its blood the country in which he now resides.

Bernard H. White, Ph.D.

Dallas, Texas


Threats to Scientific Collaboration Questionable?

I thank you for sharing with members of the Forum the views of two colleagues from Europe (Physics and Society, newsletter July 2003, vol32, No. 3) In the Commentary section it is expressed and I quote "Now, it seems we  have the possibility of threats to scientific collaboration and trust among scientists from presumably friendly nations".

Do I have to interpret that Fay Dowker's criticism of the Forum is a "threat to scientific collaboration"? I profoundly differ with that implication; one of the tenets of democracy, we value so much, is the right to dissent. In fact, as put by L. Krauss (APS News, June 2003, vol12, No.6, pag.4) "[we] scientists have a special ethical responsibility at this particular time to QUESTION ( my editorializing) our government's action" and so much so our own organizations.

Fay Dowker, in my view, does not "threats ... trust among scientists from presumably friendly nations"; on the contrary, she is embracing the highest values of freedom and democracy. In any case, I do not know what to do with the "presumably friendly nations" paragraph; are we "friend" only with others if they adopt a supine position and assent to our views? I do not think so!

Juan C. Gallardo

Physics Department

Brookhaven National Laboratory


Foreign Opinions Not Unique

There is no reason to think that the regrettable opinions reported in the July "Commentary" from two foreign physicists are unique to, much less typical of, foreigners.  I have no doubt that there are many US readers of the newsletter who tend to agree with an anti-war, anti-Bush position, albeit with (I hope!) less emotion and more substance.  Still, it is a rare observer who can so easily damn (my old friend) Dick Garwin as a war-monger or worse.  In spite of his long record of patriotic service to the country, many right-wing hawks have long ago consigned him to the lowest levels of anti-American behavior.

Robert Myers

60 East End Avenue

New York, NY 10028



A Reply

I reply to the Commentary by Fay Dowker, published in P&S of July  2003.   She characterizes my talk at the Forum session on "Nuclear Weapons and Missile Defenses" in April  2003  as "the most shocking ... outrageous."

In  general  she  criticizes  all  five talks for two shared assumptions,

1.  "The U.S. government is sincere when it claims  to     want to safeguard the security of the U.S. population.

2.  "What  critical  scientists  can  contribute  is an     assessment of whether or  not  particular  technologies    can achieve specific objectives demanded by government. The  objectives  themselves,  and wider government aims     served by those objectives, are not to  be  subject  to     scrutiny and criticism."

I have often written about  insincerity  on  the part of government officials (and supporters) and continue to do so.  But I do believe that most people in the government are sincere in wanting to safeguard the security of the U.S. population.  Some of them believe that to do so requires limiting individual freedom, denying information, and in other ways going against the judgments expressed by the majority of the population or which would be assessed by the majority of the population.  But a scientist, as scientist, gets nowhere by a blanket accusation of insincerity.  Anyone can  read  my  papers  at  www.fas.org/rlg,  where  I  often criticize individuals and programs.

As for (2), I quite agree with that assumption.  I think that this is the proper goal for a scientist, as scientist.  Physicists are entitled and encouraged, as citizens, to differ with specific objectives and wider government aims.  But I do not believe that is a matter for the American Physical Society or American Physical Society meetings.

I did not say that I had "worked enthusiastically on many types of nuclear weapons."  I worked willingly, but I doubt that I used  "enthusiastic."    I still work on nuclear weapons.

But what  I  can  add to the public debate is my considered judgment  (backed  up  by  unclassified  analysis,  and   by experiences  which  I cannot fully disclose) summarized (for the United States) as "Who Needs Nukes?"  I also went on to say  that  we  still  need  nuclear  weapons  for  strategic deterrence, but that an immediate  decrease  to  1000  total nuclear  warheads  (including  weapon usable material) would more than satisfy U.S.  strategic needs.

On the nuclear weapons front, my continuing assessment of the U.S. nuclear weapons Stockpile Stewardship Program persuades me that we do not need nuclear explosion testing to maintain  a  stockpile  of  safe  and  reliable  nuclear weapons, and that there is little to be  gained  by  nuclear weapons  of new design which would require nuclear explosion testing.   For some other people, there  are  benefits  to resuming  testing-- the general freeing of the United States from external  constraints;  the  training  of  new  weapons designers;  the  exercising of manufacturing capability.  To me, as a physicist and a worker  in  international  affairs,  the  peril  this  poses  to the Non-Proliferation Treaty far exceeds in damage to the United States the  modest  benefits that would be achieved.

I don't celebrate the destructive capability of weaponry.  I have had a lot to do with bringing conventional weapons and systems for using them  to  the  level  at  which  only  one percent  as  many  bombs  are  required  to  achieve a given objective, and that even concrete-filled  bombs,  guided  to their  target  by  laser  or  GPS,  will demolish a building without much damage to its neighbors.

War is physically destructive and kills people.    I don't join  in  "radical  opposition" but I am opposed to programs and actions which are not justifiable for the net good which they accomplish.   There are  "good"s in addition to  the national security of the United States.

We should have intervened in Cambodia to stop the killing.  Also in Rwanda.

My opposition to the war in Iraq  at  the  time  arose  from clearly inadequate planning for the aftermath of the war and security  in  Iraq  (which  was evident last Fall), and also that Iraq posed no threat to the United States with its  WMD  (nuclear programs and biological weapons).

To a large extent, this was because even if Iraq possessed some capability in BW, it was deterrable.  As stated by CIA, Saddam Hussein would be likely to use WMD if his regime and his life were in danger, but not until that point.

So my  own  feeling  was that the United States should work more effectively with the United Nations in order to  pursue U.N.  inspections programs,  with  the  commitment to mount military operations in the Fall of 2003 if  the  inspections and  other  activities  did not provide assurance that there were no significant WMD or programs to produce them.

I did not credit the  claim  that  Iraq  was  a  threat  in potential sharing of its BW with terrorists.  Unfortunately,  as  proved  by  the  anthrax letters in the United States, a little bit of BW is well within the capability of terrorists groups, or of individuals involved with pathogenic organisms in non-terrorist states.

I encourage Dr. Dowker to pursue her political  goals,  but unless they involve her special knowledge as a physicist, to leave the physics profession out of it.

Richard L. Garwin                   

IBM Fellow Emeritus            

 Thomas J. Watson Research Center                       

 P.O. Box 218, Yorktown Heights, NY  10598-0218                     

 (914) 945-2555, FAX: (914) 945-4419            

 INTERNET: RLG2 at watson.ibm.com

How much Should be Covered Inquiry-based Physics Teaching?

Two cheers for Daphne Burleson’s article in support of inquiry-based teaching of physics.  I’ve been involved with this kind of teaching for quite a few years now, mostly in college courses for non-scientists, and I agree that it’s the right thing to do.  Alfred North Whitehead coined the term “inert knowledge” for what you get when you’re not active in learning something.

But how much can you cover?  Advocates of inquiry-based teaching, including those who prepared national standards for secondary schools, recognize that it takes more time to treat a given subject in an inquiry-based manner, and so some coverage of material has to be sacrificed.  But how much?  Physicists often say, following Kelvin, “If you don’t understand something quantitatively, you don’t understand it at all.”  Why abandon this principle when it comes to education?  We also know that order-of-magnitude estimates are better than no estimates at all.

Let R be the ratio of the amount of subject matter students can learn in an inquiry-based program (per unit time) to the amount of subject matter present in a typical course (per unit time).  What is R, and how does it vary with the level and grade of the course?  In my experience in courses for the non-scientist major, I estimate R = 0.2.  How much coverage are we prepared to give up?  At meetings, when the question of “coverage” is raised, I have heard the response, “Less is more!”  As if argument by slogan is appropriate for a scientist.

It’s not that I oppose inquiry-based teaching.  In fact I support it vigorously, and practice it (sometimes).  But it demands that we face up to the question, What do we really need to cover in, say, a calculus-based introductory course, a middle school physical science course, a college course for the non-scientist.

One more point:  Inquiry-based teaching doesn’t only mean labs.  Complex mathematical analysis, of the kind that’s traditional in good introductory college courses for science majors, is inquiry, in that students are asked to solve problems that are not rehashes of the problems in the textbook.  It’s something that has been part of physics, and typically not part of teaching in other sciences.  It’s the reason physics is seen as “hard”.  But we’ve given it up in physics at lower levels, and we might want to find appropriate ways to put it back.

                                                                        Michael I. Sobel

                                                                        Prof. of Physics

                                                                        Brooklyn College




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