APS News

November 2009 (Volume 18, Number 10)

Letters to the Editor

You Can’t Teach Physics by Preaching

Joseph Ganem should be commended for his Back Page article in the October APS News. I don’t have his experience but I sense he is on the money. I find much of science and math education and outreach is misguided–force feeding of information to young people unable or unready to receive it. In the biographies of great scientists and inventors we continually read of them seeking out knowledge to answer questions of their own formulation–not being proselytized by an army of missionaries. You don’t learn how to play baseball by going to Cooperstown or watching ESPN–you learn out on the playground with your peers. We need more critical insight as in this article to move physics ahead.

Tony Loomis
Ridgefield CT

Universe Remains Beyond our Ken

I read with some amusement the two letters about religion in the June, 2009 APS News. I recall the admonition of the ancient Hellenes (“Greeks”) who said that “When pride blossoms, it reaps a harvest rich in tears.” We would do well to avoid stridency or even primacy when it comes to claims that science can inform religion. We are merely creatures who are speculating about the unknown and perhaps unknowable. At present, we can’t even predict when some future asteroid or comet will threaten our civilization. (I will drolly add, maybe December 23, 2010). Anyway to paraphrase Haldane and Eddington, the universe is not only stranger than we suppose, it is stranger than we can suppose.

William A. Mendoza
Jacksonville Beach, FL

Carbon Dioxide is Not a Pollutant

I was glad to read that APS is considering a revision to the statement on Global Warming. In the Council’s deliberations, I would encourage them to consider the following:

Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, no matter what the Supreme Court says.

The main greenhouse contributor to the global temperature is atmospheric water.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already high enough to absorb almost all the infrared radiation in the main carbon dioxide absorption bands over a distance of only a few km. Thus, even if the atmosphere were heavily laden with carbon dioxide, it would still only cause incremental infrared absorption over current levels.

James McDade
Janesville, WI

Current Climate Statement Moderate, Accurate

I support the current APS Statement on Climate Change. It is a moderate and accurate statement. The proposed statement by Robert Austin et al is a blatant, and political statement, that obscures the issues, and removes the focus from what to do, to whether climate change is occurring. It plays on politically based myths, and prevents a scientific discussion.

The 2007 APS statement is moderate, and does not support unfinished models and analysis, that a different political extreme supports.

Charles Jackson
Huntington Beach, CA

Evidence for Climate Change is Overwhelming

Councillor Robert Austin suggests that APS replace its statement on climate change with a new one. Let’s take a look at the proposed alternative:

“Greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, accompany human industrial and agricultural activity.  

While substantial concern has been expressed that emissions may cause significant climate change, measured or reconstructed temperature records indicate that 20th/21st century changes are neither exceptional nor persistent, and the historical and geological records show many periods warmer than today. In addition, there is an extensive scientific literature that examines beneficial effects of increased levels of carbon dioxide for both plants and animals.”

No climate scientist I know would argue with this paragraph. The problem is that it completely misses the point! Yes, climate is variable. Yes, it has been warmer in the distant past. But CO2-caused warming is a completely understood, predictable, additional effect. It might be beneficial in certain geographical regions, but the majority of serious scientists rightly worry that large-scale short-term climate change can be dangerous.

They go on:
“Studies of a variety of natural processes, including ocean cycles and solar variability, indicate that they can account for variations in the Earth’s climate on the time scale of decades and centuries.  

Current climate models appear insufficiently reliable to properly account for natural and anthropogenic contributions to past climate  change, much less project future climate.”

This paragraph is in direct conflict with state-of-the-art climate models. Solar variability is easily measured and the effects of a variable solar constant are reliably incorporated in all modern climate models. Furthermore, we know how much CO2 is in the air (direct measurements), that it comes from burning fossil fuel (isotope measurements), and what its warming effects are (measurements and observations of CO2 absorption levels). It beggars the imagination that serious scientists can ignore this overwhelming evidence.

The possible dangers of a warmer world are serious issues, not to be negated by obfuscating and confused deniers.

Eric Swanson
Pittsburgh, PA

Helping Individuals Matters Most

In her Back Page in the August/September APS News, Nina Fedoroff calls on us to help poor countries develop through our expertise in science and technology and by considering ourselves citizens of the world. In 1970, motivated by similar considerations, I went to teach physics in one such country. I’m still sympathetic to this goal, but I doubt that the physics profession can do nearly as much as suggested. Instead, we do well if we help a few individuals from developing countries develop themselves.

One good thing the physics community in rich countries can do is to continue to welcome good physicists and promising physics students from abroad, without consideration of religion, class, race, or gender. Providing an environment that allows individuals to reach their fullest potential, with freedom of speech and thought, is obviously much better than having them remain in countries where their lives would be at risk for one characteristic of good physicists, independent thinking, or where lack of funding or being a member of the wrong group leaves no other choice than to vegetate.

The same issue of APS News had one example, the Albanian Blewett-scholar Klejda Bega, but other examples abound. Two famous ones are Einstein, persecuted for being Jewish in pre-war Germany, and Salam, declared heretic in Pakistan for being Ahmadiyya. Their scientific accomplishments were ignored in their countries.
One of the suggestions in the Back Page that I can second without reservation is the free sharing of expertise, by open publication and the web. Such open information sharing is equally useful for scientists in the developed countries themselves; the marginal cost is zero, so scientists in poor countries can share for free.

Of course, physicists can make contributions to developing countries the same way as any citizen, by supporting people who do useful work, by funding their projects, or by political involvement (in your own country). But, I fear that scientific diplomacy as advocated has only a marginal effect, certainly compared to diplomacies that reach many more people such as those associated with music or sports.

Nino R. Pereira
Springfield, VA.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos