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 
April 2006 
Vol. 35, No. 2



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Re: The Hydrogen Economy by Jeremy Rifkin Reviewed by John L. Roeder. (P&S, January 2006, pp. 17--18)

The idea of numerous small hydrogen fuel cells powering small electric generators delivering power to the network instead of large power plants feeding a distribution network has the drawback of lowered energy efficiency.

It is well-known that the percentage of energy losses of electrical machinery decrease proportionally with the fourth root of the rated power. For example: a transformer rated at 100 kVA has losses amounting to about 3 percent of the rated power. On the other hand, a transformer rated at 100,000 kVA has losses under one percent of the rated power. One thousand of 100 kVA transformers will thus have losses of 3,000 kVA while a 100,000 kVA transformer would have losses of only 1,000 kVA. This holds quite generally for electric power equipment. Small electric power aggregates are, accordingly, less efficient than the large ones. This is something of which promoters of a distributed power plant seem to be unaware.

Vladislav Bevc
Synergy Research Institute

Education in Evaluating Theory: E.g., Evolution and Gravitation

It is amazing how much trouble one gets into trying to define a simple term like theory, because, although the word is perfectly good for describing gravity, electric fields, or quantum mechanics it seems to turn into a totally different creature when applied toward the life sciences and biology in particular. What is different between Darwin’s theory of evolution and Newton’s theory of universal gravitation? The answer is simple and may amaze; there are no differences in epistemology between the theory of evolution and the theory of universal gravitation, they are both valid theories supported by the structure of the scientific method.

Richard Feynman may best have put the debate to rest when he, although not talking about the debate between evolution and creationism or intelligent design but rather society in general, stated that “No government has the right to decide on the truth of scientific principles, nor to prescribe in any way the character of the questions investigated... Instead it has a duty to its citizens to maintain the freedom, to let those citizens contribute to the further adventure and the development of the human race.”(1) However, it would seem at times that governments are trying to prescribe what is and what is not science; despite what scientists themselves have agreed upon.

Albert Einstein once stated that “A theory is the more impressive the greater the simplicity of its premises is, the more different kinds of things it relates, and the more extended is its area of applicability.”(2) It is the sort of critical thinking required to arrive at this scientific point that may get to what is more at the heart of the issue; the ability of people to think critically and abstractly. Thinking critically and defining a term is often normal for those who are currently in universities, and perhaps even more so for those who study the sciences. There is very little ambiguity in the term theory when looked at through the eyes of the scholarly, and there is no reason why that scholarly individual must be the holder of a college or graduate degree. There is no reason to say that the holder of a high school diploma should not be able to make this kind of recognition.

In a recent article written by the Associated Press and published on www.cnn.com, the question of when another Einstein would be born was posed, and a chief point made distinction of the difference in educational training which Einstein received. “One crucial aspect of Einstein's training that is overlooked… is the years of philosophy he read as a teenager -- Kant, Schopenhauer and Spinoza, among others. It taught him how to think independently and abstractly…”(3) Sadly the educational system that appears to be in the works in several states, would most certainly stifle any possibility of producing the quality independent and abstract thinkers that we as a country claim to be so essential to our future.

Which begs the question, are those who make the policies of education failing the youths of our nation? The answer unfortunately appears to be a resounding ‘yes.’ If we would like the citizenry of this nation to be able to look at problems and examine every side of the issue before arriving at a conclusion, we certainly must start teaching our children the basics of philosophy, critical abstract and scientific thought. While it is my personal belief that nothing short of a total overhaul of the education system in this nation featuring a curriculum based on the liberal arts is the best solution that one could arrive at, I am realistic. I understand the long held beliefs and logic behind local control of public education. However, I also think that we as a nation can provide the kind of education that would help shape such ability as illustrated by the liberal arts.

The kind of basic education that all people deserve is not simply a delusion, but is something that as the wealthiest nation in the world we surely must be able to muster. There is no reason why we should not be able to provide our children with the educational background to be able to critically read the works of Popper, Duhem, Hemple, Aristotle, Plato, or Poincaré. After all, does not the study of logic help in the study of mathematics? Does not the ability to describe and quantize what one knows help in the study of science? An education based on asking questions and seeking answers, central ideas to science and philosophy, is possibly the best way to enjoy the ultimate pleasure that lies in finding things out.

Since we as a society claim that we want the populus to be able to think critically, and demand that our children develop these skills early on, we should not allow the arguments of those who have not themselves thought critically to be overshadowing. We say time and time again that we need more art and music in our schools, yet these fall woefully by the wayside. And if we would like children to be able to know and appreciate science, the possibility of gaining that knowledge and appreciation must not be hijacked by those with agendas other than providing education.

1.) R. Feynman, The Meaning of it all: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist, Addison Wesley, Boston, MA (1998).

2.)P.A. Schlipp ed., Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, Open Court, LaSalle, IL (1973).

3.) Another Einstein? Perhaps not for a very long time, Associated Press, New York, NY (2005), accessed May 6, 2005 from http://www.cnn.com/2005/TECH/science/04/18/einstein.future.ap/index.html.

Thomas Hanlon
Sr. Physics Major Ripon College

Should Physicists be Defending Evolution?

In criticism of Ronald Mirman's, "Physicists should be Defending Evolution" (FPS Letter, Jan 2006), I don't think the details of the approach suggested should be adopted.

To get a disbeliever in evolution to believe, one must respect their beliefs: Attributing a "prefrontal cortex" to God, or similar nonsense, would be revealing ones ignorance of religious beliefs and ruining ones credibility.

Also, stop calling it "evolution": The correct theory is "natural selection", or "Darwinian evolution". There are any number of known incorrect theories of "evolution", including of LeClerc, Lamarck, and Lysenko.

To convince someone that evolution by natural selection is the best explanation of living species, one must (a) understand natural selection and (b) be able to present it without precipitating hatred,contempt, or ridicule.

Yes, physicists should be defending evolution by natural selection. But it isn't part of physics. Does Noether's Theorem imply the Hardy-Weinberg Law?

An understanding of evolution isn't necessarily in the skill set of a physicist -- any more than good police work is in the skill set of a soldier.

John Michael Williams
                 Senior Adjunct Faculty
            Silicon Valley Technical Institute

The Question of Evolution Versus Religion Should be a Non-issue.

It is abundantly clear that life forms have evolved through the ages. Everyone is aware of the survival advantages of good genes. A religious believer must interpret the bible in a way that is consistent with scientific evidence. To do otherwise is to do a great disservice to religion as it implies that God has designed the world to deceive us.

On the other hand, a scientist who implies that the methodology of science has the potential to answer the ultimate questions of why things are as they are does a great disservice to science. This is contrary to the experience of scientists and contrary to the intuition of the general public paying for our laboratories.

For example, in the last forty years we physicists have taken great pride in "understanding" the weak interactions through the addition of a few brilliant terms to the Lagrangian of the world. Why nature has chosen to implement this particular Lagrangian is ultimately beyond the scope of physics although we can admire its symmetry and relation to other theories.

  In the case of evolution, religious believers cannot prove that there are gaps in the theory that will never be closed by future scientific investigation. On the other hand, from a scientific point of view evolution proceeds through mutations which are quantum events. The timing and occurence of individual quantum events have no cause within the physical systems themselves. Even if it could be shown that all mutations leading to the evolution of man were within a few standard deviations of expectation values one can note that the physical laws that predict these expectation values were in place long before life evolved and, if they had been very slightly different, the evolution of life would have been impossible.

  The current friction between science and religion could be resolved if all religious believers were willing to incorporate the results of science into their worldview (as most do) and all scientists were frank about the limitations of their methods (as most are).

Louis Clavelli,
 Univ of Alabama

P&S Editor Has a Closed Mind

   Your Ed's comment in Jan. 2006: "Anybody willing to look beyond the point of their nose will recognize that the question of supplying sufficient energy for a growing world, hungry for universal prosperity, without choking that world on the byproducts of the production and use of that energy, is the major problem at the interface between science and society." Such pointy language shows that you are exhausted and your mind is closed on this topic. You go on to mention problems associated with the use of non-greenhouse-gas-producing nuclear energy. Then you state that letters in the issue address the relation between science and religion, but seem unaware of the direct connection between this relation and the US nuclear energy program.
    Nowhere in P&S have I seen mention of the fact that the mean atmospheric temperature was higher 6000 years ago than now, then cooled, and has been gradually increasing again during the last three centuries, recovering from the mini ice age of the 15th to 17th centuries. There are many articles and web sites on interglacials, and on the oscillating climate during the last hundred thousand, and hundreds of millions of years. We are now in an interglacial period. The current natural warming might continue for several centuries more. The case for human contribution to the average rate of temperature increase is based on "IT STANDS TO REASON!" arguments (steadily increasing combustion of fossil fuels, which also led Europeans to predict in the 1880s that there would be a “carbon dioxide catastrophe” by 1900), and massaged data. Support of the greenhouse model is amplified by the political availability of research grants to study it. There are two kinds of scientists, those who want to understand and solve a problem, and those who want a research grant to study it.
    Reduction of the rate of consumption of petroleum will prolong the availability of petroleum, which is worthwhile, but will have negligible effect on the rate of global warming, according to unmassaged data available so far. Instead of spending billions of dollars on trying to reduce "the manmade greenhouse effect," billions should be spent on figuring out how our institutions (food and water supplies, coastal communities, . . ) could adapt to higher mean temperatures and higher sea levels. For two decades I have been proposing this to governments and major industries, but nothing is done so far along these lines.
    Your articles on nuclear waste and letters on science and religion are so unbalanced that none mention the fact that Yucca Mountain is an ancient sacred place that should not be desecrated. There is more than one way of knowing. Religion is a universal characteristic of human societies. Science and spirituality are equally valid areas of enquiry. But effective methods in one of these areas cannot yet contribute to understanding in the other. Biological evolution is simply part of the much larger state of evolution in nature. In both the Big Bang and Steady State Theories of Cosmology the clock is started after Creation. There is not much left of the BBT other than its name. The SST needs more work, including a mechanism for the long-term (greater than quadrillions of years) recycling of mattergy.  P&S is a narrow advocacy publication, rather than a place for discussion toward understanding problems in science and society, and possible contributions from physics toward solutions.
    It's time for a change in editorial policy, to display the open mind that characterizes worthwhile scientists.

                 Gordon Freeman
Tel: 780 492 3468
Chemistry Dept, University of Alberta 
Edmonton   T6G 2G2



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