FPS-Hosted Sessions at the APS April Meeting

Charles Ferguson, FPS , with contributions from Cameron Reed & William Happer

The annual APS “April” meeting was held in Washington, DC, 13-16 February 2010. The Forum on Physics & Society hosted or co-hosted six sessions on a variety of topics including art and physics, secrecy and physics, nonproliferation, physicists inside the “beltway,” energy education, and the awarding of the Burton Forum Award. The following paragraphs briefly summarize the papers presented. The complete scientific program of the meeting can be found at http://meetings.aps.org/Meeting/APR10/Content/1786. Unfortunately, due to weather conditions, some speakers were unable to make the meeting. Brief biographies of speakers who are new Forum-sponsored APS Fellows appeared in the January edition of P&S.

Session A5: Art and Physics. This session was chaired by incoming FPS Chair Charles Ferguson. Jim Sanborn led off, speaking on the perspective of an artist inspired by physics. Using digital images and video, he presented thirty years of science-based artwork from 1970s-era museum installations to a series of large format projections on the landscape in the western US and Ireland which emulated the 19th century cartographers hired by the United States Government to map the western landscape. He discussed Kryptos, his commissioned work for CIA Headquarters, in which he has embedded a coded message that still has not been fully deciphered after more than 20 years. In the past ten years, he has achieved growing recognition from physicists for his work, Critical Assembly, in which he recreates aspects of the Manhattan Project, including facsimiles of the cores of the first nuclear bombs. His current project, an installation titled Terrestrial Physics, is a recreation of the particle accelerator used in the experiment that fissioned uranium in 1939 at the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC. This will be shown in June 2010 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver.

Felice Frankel of Harvard University then spoke on “More Than Pretty Pictures: How Translating Science Concepts into Pictures Advances Scientific Thinking.” Her talk addressed how the judgment and decision-making required to render science visual can help to clarify thinking. She argued that in a visual presentation of science one must decide on a hierarchy of information: what must be included and what might be left out? Thus, as in writing an article or responding to a question, we must understand and then plan what we want to “say” in a drawing or other forms of representation. Since a visual representation of a scientific concept is a representation and not the thing itself, interpretation or translation is involved. The process tends to transcend linguistic and educational barriers and so attract and communicate to students and teachers of all backgrounds, rendering the images, in essence, as more than “pretty pictures.” While her collaborator, George Whitesides of Harvard University, was not able to attend the meeting to speak on “Using Art to Teach Science,” Frankel concluded her talk by discussing this research, in which students supplement their learning of science by drawing pictures of concepts. For example, she showed a student’s cartoon sketch of bumper cars colliding to try to illustrate Brownian motion. Frankel asked the audience to discuss what is wrong with the picture. One misconception is that the picture did not depict the underlying “sea” of jostling molecules that cause the Brownian “bumper cars” to move the way they do. Frankel’s demonstration underscored that “picturing to learn” techniques quickly allow teachers to understand and correct students’ misconceptions. Frankel and Whitesides have an archive of more than 3,500 student drawings.

Session B5: Secrecy and Physics (jointly sponsored with the Forum on the History of Physics and AAPT). This session was chaired by Peter Galison of Harvard University, who also gave the first paper, “Secrecy and Physics.” He pointed out that while secrecy in matters of national defense goes back far past antiquity, our modern form of national secrecy owes a huge amount to the large scale, systematic, and technical system of scientific secrecy that began in World War II and came to its current form in the Cold War. He reviewed this trajectory and then discussed some of the paradoxes and conundrums that our secrecy system offers us in the Post-Cold War world.

Steven Aftergood (Federation of American Scientists) then spoke on “Secrecy and Physicists: Intersections of Science and National Security.” He began by reminding the audience that physicists have been both proponents and critics of government secrecy: Enrico Fermi wrote in Physics Today that “… secrecy was not started by generals … but was started by physicists …”, while scientists such as Edward Teller and Frederick Seitz argued that secrecy in science and technology could be reduced by 90% or more. He then reviewed the current landscape of secrecy in science and recent controversies involving publication of nuclear weapons physics, the infrastructure of nuclear research, and prospects for secrecy reform.

William Happer of Princeton University then spoke on “How Much Secrecy?” Happer argued that the need for some secrecy to optimize the well being of societies has been recognized since antiquity, but that it is also clear that too much secrecy is counterproductive and that the right balance depends on how pluses and minuses of secrecy are weighed against other important values. Too much secrecy tends to be a more common problem than too little. The only real quality control of secret programs, review by impartial committees with all the appropriate clearances, is often ineffective because committee members are not fully independent of the program they are reviewing, a situation which leads to a violation of James Madison’s precept: “no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause.” He went on to say that misuse of secrecy is not exclusively a disease of governments; it can also be misused by agenda-driven, non-governmental organizations, and that here are many regrettable examples of the misuse of secrecy by the mass media. The credibility of all of science has been seriously harmed by the recent misuse of secrecy by some parts of the climate-change community.

Session D5: Nonproliferation. This session was chaired by Ferguson. Frank von Hippel, the Leo Szilard Lectureship Award winner and a physicist from Princeton University, started off by discussing the work that he and the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) has been doing in recent years. The IPFM has been raising awareness of the many hundreds of metric tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium in both the military and civilian sectors. Von Hippel presented many tables of data illustrating the amounts and locations by country. Although President Obama has made securing all vulnerable nuclear material a priority, von Hippel emphasized the numerous challenges remaining in securing and reducing fissile material. For example, the high cost of burning up military plutonium in reactors has stymied reducing this stockpile. Adding to this problem is the ongoing separation of plutonium from civilian spent fuel in France, India, Japan, and Russia. South Korea has expressed interest in pyroprocessing, which some have claimed is a proliferation-resistant form of reprocessing of spent fuel, but von Hippel presented technical arguments for why there remains concern about this activity. The potential for major expansion of nuclear power worldwide may lead to more countries’ reprocessing spent fuel to reuse plutonium. Thus, von Hippel urged governments to form better policies now to head off the potential for more proliferation.

The next speaker was Pavel Podvig from Stanford University. He discussed the complexities of the renewed nuclear arms control talks between Russia and the United States. The two countries are trying to conclude a follow-on treaty to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). START expired on December 5, 2009. Podvig explained that festering concerns blocked the negotiating teams from concluding a new treaty before that date. One concern is how to count the number of warheads attributable to each delivery system. For example, the United States has a large upload potential for the Trident missiles on ballistic missile submarines. The United States is worried that Russia has far more tactical nuclear weapons. But Podvig argued that the disparity is not as big as it may seem because many of Russia’s so-called tactical nuclear weapons are dedicated to air defense and naval weapons such as torpedoes, which are unlikely to serve an effective military role. Podvig pointed out that the tactical nuclear weapons issues will have to be dealt with separately from the strategic arms treaty. Two other concerns that he discussed in detail are U.S. missile defense and conventionally armed Trident missiles. In both areas, Russian military planners have expressed fear that these systems could eventually give the United States a advantage. But as long as the U.S. missile defense system is directed at the Iranian and North Korean missile threats and is not capable of shooting down Russian ballistic missiles, and as long as the United States only deploys relatively few conventionally armed Trident missiles, Russia should have reassurance that these U.S. capabilities will not upset the potential for deeper nuclear arms reductions.

Concluding the session, Siegfried Hecker, co-director of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and a 2010 APS Fellow, gave a talk titled “In Search of Plutonium: A Nonproliferation Journey.” One of the world’s leading experts on plutonium, the most chemically complex element, Hecker led listeners through his life experiences as a metallurgist and former Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory who has made seminal contributions to national and international security. Toward the end of the Cold War, he helped launch the lab-to-lab program that brought together American and Soviet scientists working in their respective countries’ nuclear weapons complexes. This program was instrumental in facilitating implementation of improved security of weapons-usable materials. Since Hecker has been with Stanford University, he has reached out to North Korea and India. Having made six visits to North Korea, Hecker has helped to increase outsiders’ understanding about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. For example, the North Koreans showed Hecker plutonium that they had made; the message was that North Korea had a nuclear weapons capability. This demonstration occurred prior to North Korea’s first nuclear test in October 2006. Hecker’s main message was that the scientists with expertise in nuclear issues have a responsibility to correct misconceptions of politicians. Returning to the case of North Korea, he underscored that a risk-based approach should prioritize three goals: no exports of North Korean fissile material or nuclear bombs, no more production of bombs or bomb-usable fissile material, and no improvements to their bombs. He concluded his talk with a display of images from North Korea depicting the human side of that pariah country. His message was clear that we must refrain from vilifying North Korea and focus on improved security for all nations.

Session P5: Energy Education (jointly sponsored with Forum on Education).  This session was chaired by Ferguson. Richard Wolfson of Middlebury College and a 2010 APS Fellow, led with a talk on “Energy Education: The Quantitative Voice.” A renowned educator with many books and public teaching to his credit, Wolfson captivated the audience with his everyday examples of how to teach students about energy. To illustrate the amount of work needed to light a light bulb, he asked a volunteer to turn a hand crank that could be connected to three types of bulbs: 60-watt incandescent, 100-watt incandescent, and a compact fluorescent rated equivalent to 100-watt incandescent. The volunteer had to exert considerable effort to keep the 100-watt incandescent lit while with relative ease the compact fluorescent could stay lit. Wolfson used this example to talk about the number of “energy servants” a typical American needs during the day. Because such an American demands about 10,000 watts of power, in effect about 100 energy servants would have to turn hand cranks. In comparison, a typical European only uses about half as much. Wolfson concluded his presentation with some back of the envelope energy calculations to show how to lead students through such calculations concerning important energy concepts.

The second and third invited speakers, Alan Meier and Mary Spruill, were not able to attend. To partially fill this gap, Charles Ferguson stepped in to talk about the work he has done in collaboration with Spruill of the National Energy Education Development Project and Frank Settle of Washington and Lee University. They have been partners on the “Nuclear Energy Education in the 21st Century Project.” This project has reached out to different audiences: middle school and high school teachers, college professors, policymakers, non-governmental analysts, and nuclear industry officials. The project team has produced curricula and numerous publications. Two forthcoming products are a multimedia guide to nuclear energy and a book titled Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Session H5: Physicists Inside The Beltway (jointly sponsored with AAPT). This session was chaired by Ferguson. The first speaker was Alan Sessoms, whose topic was “Perspective from Academia and Government.” He discussed his more than four decades of experience as a physicist who had served in government and in recent years as president of the University of the District of Columbia. In the State Department, he worked on a variety of issues, including assessments of the potential for increased nuclear proliferation and analysis of the ability to detect nuclear tests. A main message was that government needs talented physicists. He concluded by discussing other job opportunities in non-governmental organizations such as think tanks and by describing his efforts to reform the University of the District of Columbia.

Sessoms was followed by Brendan Plapp (2000-2001 APS Congressional Science Fellow, currently with the Department of State), who spoke on “A Decade in DC: The Congressional Science Fellowship and Beyond.” Plapp reviewed the APS Congressional Science Fellowship program, arguing that it presents a remarkable opportunity for individuals to make the transition from practicing science to developing public policy. He presented a sampling of his experiences in this career path, including in the legislative and executive branches and in the non-profit sector, along with some perspectives on the similarities and differences between doing physics and doing policy.

Peter Lyons, a consultant, who recently accepted the position of Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy for Nuclear Energy , who spoke on his “Perspective from Capitol Hill and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.” Lyons talked about how he had become a senior adviser to Senator Pete Dome nici of New Mexico and the work he did for the senator on nuclear energy and national security. Having devoted much of his career to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lyons brought the skills of a practicing physicist to his government service on Capitol Hill, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Department of Energy. He encouraged younger scientists to consider work in public policy.

Session X5: Burton Forum Award. This session was chaired by Ferguson. This year the Joseph A. Burton Award was shared by Pervez Hoodbhoy and A.H. Nayyar, both from Pakistan. Hoodbhoy, the chairman and a professor of the Department of Physics at Quaid e Azam University, traced his awakening to his life’s mission of helping to reform Pakistan’s educational system to his education at MIT, where he was inspired by Philip Morrison and Victor Weisskopf. Around that time, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos television series showed Hoodbhoy the power of television to educate the public about science. Using this model, Hoodbhoy created numerous science education broadcasts for Pakistani television. This activity was only a small part of his educational work. Pakistani students have suffered from a system that emphasizes rote learning and bows to Islamic fundamentalism. Hoodbhoy said that he believes in science  as a means to open minds.

Like Hoodbhoy, Nayyar has devoted his life to stopping the nuclear arms race in South Asia. Similarly, he served on the faculty of the Department of Physics at Quaid e Azam University. He is presently working at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad. Nayyar focused his talk on his and others’ efforts to inform the public about nuclear issues and on the complexities of halting the arms buildup. Through displaying images and texts, Nayyar demonstrated how the Pakistani government has used propaganda to mythologize the bomb and make it a national symbol of pride. He then discussed how the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, which is Pakistan’s largest scientific society, has squashed dissenting voices. Analyzing current challenges, he explained that nuclear weapons issues are low on the list of public priorities because of the ongoing war on terrorism, the dismal state of the economy, and political crises. Moreover, the United States and other allies have eased up on pressure for Pakistan and India to pursue nuclear disarmament. Instead, the United States has worried about the threat of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons, and this concern has caused Islamabad to fear that Washington wants to seize Pakistani nuclear assets. Furthermore, anti-American sentiment is growing in Pakistan. He outlined the tasks ahead: push for nuclear arms restraint; prevent internal breakdown in security; move to resolve the festering bilateral conflicts in South Asia; and press for global nuclear disarmament.

This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.