What Would a Physicist Do?

Rep. Ehlers (February APS News, Back Page) has shared his thoughts on having a physicist (or other scientist) as president of the country. While I certainly would not argue with his points on education, innovation and analytical thinking, I otherwise find his discussion narrow and parochial.

As a physicist who has a son in his FOURTH tour of duty in Iraq, I would want to know:

What would a physicist do about the Iraq War? We know Rep. Ehlers voted for it, that’s not a good start for recommending physicists as political leaders.

What would a physicist do about the US military/industrial/university complex that costs the taxpayers $750B to $1T per year, more than the rest of the world combined spends on its military establishments?

What would a physicist do about the American Empire maintained by its military strength exerted through 11 carrier battle groups and more than 700 military installations in over 70 countries world wide, and by its economic strength exerted through the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO?

What would a physicist do about global warming? About an economic model that does not price in war, subsidies, world wide ecological damage, public health, and failed/failing states, and other externalities into the cost of fossil fuels?

What would a physicist do about the new Golden Age of income disparity that threatens our middle class, and hence our democracy? Or about universal health care? Or about our aging infrastructure?

Given that physicists have played, and continue to play, such a key role in development and maintenance of our nuclear arsenal: What would a physicist do about our stockpile of some 8000 warheads? About counter proliferation?

There is much, much more for a physicist, or anyone, to do. 

Gerard Bricks
Kennett Square, PA

Not Dumb Enough to Run

I read February’s Back Page with interest and agreement with the author, but Dr. Ehlers forgets one thing: no physicist is stupid enough to run for President.

Stephen C. Bennett
Boulder, CO

Physicist Not the Best Choice for President

Regarding Congressman Vernon J. Ehler’s Back Page (APS News, February 2008): I cannot recall a more stimulating call from the Oval Office for more intense study of science and technology at American schools and colleges and advanced research and related development in schools and industry alike than the one made by President Kennedy with the challenge to place a man on the moon and bring him back safely within a decade. The overwhelming response to the call and the economic boost has lasted almost forty years. We all know that President Kennedy was not a physicist.

It is my considered belief that a Sputnik-like era has dawned on us again now calling for a similar spark from America. Global warming and all related human efforts to control the predicted devastation such as alternate sources of energy are issues and challenges that America, as before, can accept and solve. Can a candidate for election or a President in office make the call and should he or she be a physicist? My answer to the first part of the question is YES and to the latter part, NO.

A person willing to respectfully listen to divergent suggestions and capable of developing a feasible solution to the problem from the inputs should be the right choice rather than a specialist who knows more and more about less and less.

P. Mahadevan
Fullerton, CA

Needed: Young Physicist to Run for Senate

While I agree with the suggestion of Congressman Ehlers (Back Page, February APS News) that a physicist might make a great President, I think it is more practical and feasible that physicists try for the US Senate. I did try, perhaps for the first time in our history, in the Republican Primary in Texas in 2002, with strong endorsements of the late Prof. Milton Friedman and Congressman Ron Paul. With virtually no effort beyond creating a web site (www.lawrencecranberg.org), and at age 84, I gained only 3 percent of the voters in Texas, but I strongly encourage others younger than I to make the effort.

Lawrence Cranberg
Austin, TX 

Better to Build Schools Than To Run for President

The “Physicist for President” idea discussed by Representative Vernon Ehlers in his Back Page article (APS News, February 2008) would not succeed politically.

As the Republican candidate for Congress in the 8th district of Massachusetts in 1962, I found that my slogan “Put a Scientist in Congress” flopped! Of course I lost for many other reasons, like running against a skilled ten-year incumbent Democrat. To help science in America and spur our economic competitiveness, Representative Ehlers could submit a bill for the Federal Government to fund and build 435 special public High Schools of Science, 63 per year, locally controlled, (like my own very successful Stuyvesant H. S.), one in each Congressional district, to which any Congressperson could point with pride. We can afford this investment in financially poor, but really bright American children.

Howard D. Greyber
San Jose, CA

Physics Major Finds Fame as Cartoonist

The Profile in Versatility in the February APS News on Michael Long’s career in the Funny Business (and in Speechwriting) prompts me to call attention to another college physics major who has had great success in a related somewhat surprising career, albeit in the Funny Papers rather than as a standup comedian. Faithful readers of the comic strip FoxTrot have no doubt long ago deduced that its creator, Bill Amend, has more of a scientific background than do most of his colleagues. Amend was an Amherst College physics major in the class of 1983, probably our most famous physics alumnus. (This is not a secret; you can read it on his website.) Many of us on the faculty have seen our names and caricatures appear in FoxTrot. If you choose to go looking through back files of FoxTrot to find me, for instance, a clue is that when Amend was an undergraduate, I had a great deal more hair on my face than I have generally worn since that time–and about the same (small) amount on the top of my head. Some of the wording from lab notes I wrote nearly three decades ago appeared almost verbatim in one of his sequences. (No, I never received any royalties–pride of authorship was more than adequate payment.) I never would have dared to peek at Bill’s notes that he took during my classes; I fear that instead of recording my equations and my words of wisdom about James Clerk Maxwell, he may have been making sketches of the professor, sketches that he saved for later use. He tells me now that whenever he puts an equation about projectile motion or a sequence of prime numbers into his strip (his editors urge him to go easy on the math and physics), he does so somewhat nervously, knowing that his former professors will be watching, ready to email him in case of an error.

In 2000, Amherst College presented Amend with an honorary degree for his creation of FoxTrot.

Robert H. Romer,
Amherst, MA

Rowland Spinning in his Grave

On the Back Page of the January APS News the editor reprints the presidential address of Henry A. Rowland, the first president of the American Physical Society. In the closing paragraphs of his address Rowland laments “the sins of the past” “because our ancestors dissipated their wealth on armies and navies” “designated to kill” instead of spending only “one percent of this sum to save our children and descendents from misery and death.” Today, one hundred and eight years later, it is apparent that nothing has changed. It is particularly ironic that the institution that Rowland was addressing, the American Physical Society, now has a large, and growing, number of its members employed directly or indirectly in the military establishment. Perhaps this is an ominous sign that the human species is firmly on the road to its own self-annihilation. Henry Rowland is surely not resting in peace. Have we, as physicists, failed APS’s first president and humanity in the bigger picture?

Karo Michaelian
Mexico City, Mexico

Heisenberg Article Found Appalling

I was appalled by the portion of the article about Heisenberg (APS News, February 2008) that read: “...he was a patriotic German citizen, and he became a leader in the German fission program, which failed in its effort to build an atomic bomb.” The comprehensive and well-known book “Heisenberg's War” by Thomas Powers, published in 1993, is not that forgiving.

Louis Costrell
Rockville, MD

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff