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 
July 2004



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Ivory Bridges - Connecting Science and Society

Gerhard Sonnert; The MIT Press, 2002; 239 pages, $30.00; ISBN: 0-26-219471-6

The lofty goal of this book is to evaluate "the contract between science and society." Two ivory bridges between science and society are described; the first between science and state, where the justification of basic curiosity-driven research is studied, and the second between the scientists and society in conjunction with concerns about the implications of scientific research.

The volume is divided into four chapters and four appendices. Sonnert opens in Chapter 1 by introducing the concept of the ivory tower as a metaphor for an idealistic, and egoistic, struggle for knowledge. The supporting voices of those, such as Vannevar Bush, in favor of science for the sake of science clash with those advocating greater social relevance, such as Joseph Rotblat. These contrasting views lead us to a third category of scientists that endeavour to "have their cake and eat it, too," by building bridges from the ivory tower to society. This third category of scientists is divided into two subgroups, scientist-administrators and citizen-scientists.

The efforts of the scientist-administrators are detailed in Chapter 2, by following the development of science policy in the United States after the Second World War, a period of unparalleled scientific advance. The two familiar research camps, namely basic (curiosity-driven or Newtonian) research and applied (mission-oriented or Baconian) research, are complemented with a third Jeffersonian camp, which advocates basic research tied to a societal need.

Sonnert chronicles the "Press-Carter Initiative" as an example of science policy within a Jeffersonian framework. The evolution of this initiative is followed in some detail, from pre-natal events during the 1950’s, such as the establishment of the National Science Foundation, the domination of big science, such as the Apollo program, and the discussions of a Department of Science. Sonnert describes the enormous task of studying the case for federal funding of basic research given to Frank Press from the Carter administration. Part of this task entailed contacting the various departments in the government in order to gather basic research questions whose pursuit could be of vital interest to the United States. The answers of each department are presented with comments concerning the posed questions, as well as the willingness, or lack thereof, of the department to answer Press’s request. The second appendix presents a concentrated list of fundamental questions gathered by Frank Press in conjunction with the Press-Carter Initiative, while the third documents the master list of questions with references to the department of origin. This bank of questions offers an exceptional artefact of this time period. It also inspires us to ponder the great questions of today. The intricate political dance that Press performed in order to execute this assignment is not only impressive, it educates those of us without experience from these spheres of power, in the ways of influence.

The third chapter concerns voluntary public-interest organizations, which constitute the second ivory bridge. Once again the focus is on the period after World War II and three distinct waves of activism are identified. The first wave of citizen-scientist activism had its cradle in the Manhattan Project. Sonnert describes the development of scientist organizations, such as the Association of Los Alamos Scientists and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists of Chicago, and the growing struggle between collaboration and dissent with respect to the government. Sonnert continues to the 60’s and 70’s and portrays the growing interest in social movements for peace and environmental protection. Issues were more loosely connected to science, resulting in scientists reaping a less prominent position in the larger movements of this era. The third wave put forward by Sonnert is set in the Cold War years of the 80’s. Scientists regained some of their expert status in the questions du jour, namely environmental effects of nuclear energy and societal implications of research in biotechnology. Sonnert describes an increasing professionalism of special-interest groups that may endanger the influence of citizen-scientists. The fourth appendix represents a compilation of profiles of approximately ninety scientists’ public-interest associations.

Sonnert ends his book with a brief social systems discourse into the area, where the transformation of science into an autonomous subsystem of society is described and evaluated.

For an early stage researcher, such as myself, this book offers an interesting, although perhaps not exciting, view into the complex relationship between science and society. What can and should be expected from scientists, with their unique technical knowledge, in societal activism? How should science justify itself and its public funding in the eyes of the public? The Jeffersonian framework, which the author puts forward as a viable and desirable mode of research, is indeed attractive. The question is whether it is novel or not?

A very positive facet of this book consists of the extensive referencing to other works and authors. Actually reading the seminal papers of Vannevar Bush or the Nobel Prize acceptance speech of Joseph Rotblat provided some of the most rewarding reading.

Gustaf Mårtensson

Department of Mechanics

Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan

Stockholm, Sweden


Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil

by David Goodstein. W. W. Norton & Company, New York (2004). 140 pages, $21.95, ISBN 0-393-05857-3(hard cover).

David Goodstein is vice provost and Distinguished Teaching and Service Professor at the California Institute of Technology. In his slim and simple book, he claims that the supply of oil will probably reach its peak by the end of this decade and will decline thereafter. Unless the world can learn to live without fossil fuels, he foresees the end of civilization, as we know it, some time during this century.

The Introduction calls attention to the work by M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist working for the Shell Oil Company. In the 1950s, Hubbert predicted that oil production in the United States would peak around 1970 and decline thereafter. Hubbert was right. Oil production in America reached a maximum of about nine million barrels a day in 1970, and today is down to around six million barrels a day. Hubbert reached his prediction by extrapolating new finds of oil reserves and finding that around 1970, the United States would have used up around half of the oil. When that happened, he said, peak production would be reached.

This analysis has been applied recently by geologists to the world's oil reserves and has led to the prediction that the world will have used up around half of its oil by the end of this decade. But even if the geologists and Goodstein are wrong in detail, it is unlikely that they are wrong by more than a few years. The decline in the world's oil production is more likely to begin in ten years than in forty. 

What can take the place of oil? Goodstein discusses a number of possibilities, including natural gas, coal, shale oil, solar energy, nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion. Other fossil fuels, especially coal, can be converted to oil at high cost, but although coal can prolong our dependence on fossil fuels, even coal production will decline before the end of the century. Moreover, turning to coal from oil will continue to cause an increase in the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, with consequences that cannot be foreseen.

As to the use of shale oil and nuclear fusion, Goodstein is pessimistic. He remarks, "It has been said of both nuclear fusion and shale oil that they are the energy sources of the future, and always will be." He is more optimistic for nuclear fission, although he states that if we go that route our available uranium supplies will decline in about twenty-five years unless the world turns to breeder reactors with the added risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Goodstein doesn't think that hydroelectric power or wind power can do much to solve the world's problems. He discusses the hydrogen economy, and rightly points out that the use of hydrogen is not really a source of energy because it takes energy to produce hydrogen.

Goodstein likes to shock. For example, he says it is a myth that the "greenhouse effect and global warming are bad." What he means is that if it were not for the global warming caused by the greenhouse effect, Earth would be much colder than it is today, perhaps too cold for human beings to have evolved. He does not mean that the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by burning of fossil fuels is OK. In fact, he states that we do not know the long-term effects of continuing to depend on fossil fuels. The result may be worse than bad---it may be catastrophic. 

The book is not only about oil and its substitutes. The equilibrium of Earth in absorbing and emitting radiation is explained, and it is pointed out how fragile that balance is. There is a discussion of electricity, magnetism, and light. An historical approach is taken, from Franklin to Oersted to Faraday to Maxwell.

The first and second laws of thermodynamics are explained in simple ways without the use of any formulas, again from an historical perspective. Goodstein may not entirely succeed in making the concept of entropy easy to understand. I am not criticizing him on that account, because the concept of entropy is probably inherently difficult for the lay person.

 Various kinds of engines are briefly discussed, including the standard gasoline engine based on the Otto cycle, the diesel engine, and the turbine. The theoretical Carnot engine, which gives the maximum efficiency that can be obtained in a heat engine operating between two given temperatures, is mentioned. Goodstein points out that the use of electrical energy is not limited by the Carnot efficiency, but if electrical energy is obtained from a turbine, the efficiency of the generation of the electrical energy is so limited. The alternative, of directly converting solar energy into electrical energy, is limited by the low density of solar energy.

 In discussing alternative sources of energy, Goodstein does not omit remote possibilities, such as placing a huge device in outer space to catch solar energy and beam it to Earth in microwave radiation, which is not absorbed by clouds. He even mentions the possibility of cold fusion, although he does not really believe in the experiments purporting to have discovered it.

 On the whole, Goodstein is correct in his discussion of physics principles, although he oversimplifies in some cases. Occasionally he makes a mistake, as when he says that after a few years tritium "fissions spontaneously." It actually decays by beta-decay. Mistakes like this do not affect the main thrust of the book, which is to give us all a warning that time for the solution of our energy problem is running out much faster than we think. Whether the book is basically right depends crucially on whether Hubbert's method of analysis is valid when applied to the world's oil reserves. Goodstein argues impressively that it is.

Don Lichtenberg

Physics Department, Indiana University


The Discovery of Global Warming, Spencer R. Weart, Harvard University Press, 2003, 228 pages, $24.95, ISBN 0-674-01157-0 and the associated web pages located at http://www.aip.org/history/climate/

The Discovery of Global Warming is a well-written, concise history of the science of climate change and the resulting discovery of global warming. From Arrhenius in 1896 breaking with the assumption of an unchanging Earth climate through to the politics of the Kyoto accords and New York Times headlines, Spencer Weart’s book traces how science, often esoteric science, combines and builds a consistent overall view. Climate can and does change, and not merely over geological time scales but over the scale of a human lifetime. Understanding both the data and the models required to connect the data with natural processes has not been easy. The subtlety of data from ice cores, lakebeds, stratospheric winds, and local weather stations ultimately yields the punch line of “global warming” but it’s the chase, not the capture, that is the heart of this book.

This chase has turned out to have far more twists, turns, and blind alleys than most would have guessed at the time. What controls the climate? Is it the variation of the Sun, as noted by Herschel in the eighteenth century? Is it the stability of the cold deep waters of the ocean? Or the transformation of old growth forests to grazing land? Greenhouse gases trapped in tropical forests? Or hidden away in blue-green algae? And what of the petrochemical haze of Los Angeles and the killing fog of London? What is a symptom and what is a cause? And further, what do the symptoms truly imply?

It might be glib to talk today about the good that might come of global warming—perhaps my Minneapolis winters won’t be quite as harsh—but that is just one more lesson that we have learned, or are learning. Advances in modeling and in analyzing the data proceeded hand-in-hand. Atmospheric CO2 measurements (the “poster child” for global warming is the graph of Keeling's Mauna Loa CO2 measurements, see http://cdiac.ornl.gov/new/keel_page.html) could be explained by sufficiently complex simulations, but those computer models had to incorporate atmospheric methane, deal with the changing solar illumination, correct for the aerosols from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, and be written by increasing large and sophisticated (and better funded) groups of scientists.

Combining information from disparate fields such as meteorology, vulcanology, atmospheric chemistry, and planetary science made the discovery of global warming difficult, and probably also prevented the history of the discovery from culminating in one single, glorious epiphany. Instead we find the gradual accumulation of knowledge and understanding with the occasional misstep or red herring, and with the background of political reluctance to act. There is no Moses, and no Newton, in this tale. Instead we have a succession of interesting characters, for instance Ed Lorenz and his butterfly wings, Nick Shackleton’s million-year old deep-sea core, and Spencer Weart pulling it all together onto the page for you.

Weart, the director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics, has also made sure that the book will not quickly become out of date by producing a set of web pages (see top of article), which both go into additional depth and allow for updated information to be added. In fact, the web “book” adds many more layers, including technical ones, to the paper book. The online text is searchable and very well referenced through bibliographies sorted by both author and by year. The contrast between the two works, and the two media, is considerable. The 200-page (plus chronology and notes) book that I read on a couple of domestic airplane flights is a beautifully written, smooth narrative while the web pages have had me jumping around, following interesting leads, for several evenings in my office. It’s hard to think of a pairing of book and web material that more clearly illustrates the relative advantages of the two media. Although the book is readable on its own, I suspect that the Physics and Society readership will feel the need to track at least a few of the historical or scientific developments through the web pages.

As physicists, the details of the history of climate change studies are likely to be as interesting as the broad storyline. These details, which make The Discovery of Global Warming a wonderful exercise in the “how science is actually done” school of the philosophy of science, also make for entertaining reading. The pumping of greenhouses gases into the atmosphere is, after all, a very human story and one whose importance will only grow with time.

Michael DuVernois

School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Minnesota




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