Referees Can Be Ignorant, Arrogant

Regarding the front page article (APS News, March 2008) on “outstanding referees,” the APS editorial office should try to exclude ignorant, arrogant referees that tend to dislike, not comprehend, and reject, sometimes with venom, any new concept in physics.

As Cornelius Lanczos wrote: “How fortunate that someone of the calibre of Planck was editor of Annalen der Physick (in 1905)– Today none of these papers would see the light of day.” Lanczos is, from my experience, absolutely correct.

Howard D. Greyber
San Jose, CA

Germany’s Chancellor Holds Physics PhD

Concerning the thoughtful Back Page essay by Rep. Ehlers [APS News, February 2008], it might of interest to note that the current chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, holds a doctorate in physics and had worked in the field until re‑unification led her to enter politics. One clearly notes her scientific background in a number of her policies, but this does not mean that there is a golden age of science in Germany. On a more cautionary note, one should recall the former leader of the German social democrats, Oskar Lafontaine (M.S. in physics), who as minister of finance could not face up to the numbers telling him that there was no money for the many “presents” he wanted to make, and thus resigned leaving his government in trouble (resulting in a lost first year of the new social‑democrat+greens government in 1998). Similarly, in the US the most highly placed PhD in physics that comes to my mind was Admiral Poindexter, who was at the heart of the Iran‑Contra scandal in the Reagan administration. I sometimes fear that our ability to model the world can lead to a cognitive dissonance such that people end up being treated like numbers, too–a danger any scientist should be aware of when entering the political arena.

Christian Schoen
Stuttgart, Germany

Education Courses Don’t Help

I would like to add some data to the debate on the relative importance of training in “how to teach” versus knowledge of the subject. I am a retired physics professor here. For years we have been fighting with the school of education about the requirements for teaching certification. The state of Indiana gave them authority to make rules for certification, and for years they have been requiring 60 credits of education courses. Compare this with about 40 physics credits, which a physics major takes (out of 120 total in 4 years)! Recently, under lots of pressure, they relaxed the rules, so that a science graduate can get a teaching certificate by taking education courses full time for one year, including summer! (The so-called fast track, 30 education credits!) During that year, it is almost impossible to take a job. Very few of our students are willing to put up with this. Such a system has worked only when the student wanted to be a high school teacher from the first day in college and started taking education courses right away. It is hard to believe that, by taking some education theory courses, a bad physics teacher would suddenly become a good one. I came to know about one case recently where a biology major, who had barely taken two physics courses, was assigned physics teaching. This person had difficulty with inclined planes!

Also, I am surprised at the letter from Rick Moyer in the January APS News, which asserts that “ most schools that there are too few students taking physics to justify full-time physics teachers.” But an article in the February 2006 Physics Today by Jack Hehn and Michael Neuschatz showed that “fully one-third of recent high-school graduates have taken physics.” A suburban school, with which I am familiar, has about 600‑700 students (out of a total of 3500) taking physics courses each semester. Quite a few of these are in AP classes. A student responded to my question about the reason for taking physics with “Physics looks good on my transcript! Competition for getting into good colleges is very stiff!”

But whatever the reason for taking physics, we have to provide good physics teachers in high schools. At least around here (and perhaps in the whole Midwest) there is a shortage of qualified high school physics teachers. In spite of this, it is unlikely that Prof. Ketterle (Zero Gravity, APS News, November 2007), with his current qualifications, would be hired by Indiana high schools!!

Kashyap Vasavada
Indianapolis IN

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