APS News

October 2010 (Volume 19, Number 9)

Letters to the Editor

Internationalization Insults Professionalism

As discussed in the June 2010 APS News, the recently proposed constitutional amendment seeking to address the alleged problem that the APS has a governing body which is “overly domestic” certainly seemed to solve a problem. Unfortunately, it struck me that the problem being solved was a perceived “political correctness” issue and not a problem of intrinsic deficiency in the structure of the APS governing body. The society is, after all, the American Physical Society. Moreover,  a key element in the Society's mission statement clearly mandates that we “... cooperate with international physics societies to promote physics, to support physicists worldwide and to foster international collaboration.”

I see absolutely no point, except perhaps from some artificial politically-correct optical perspective, to internationalize our governing body any more than it already is. The logical conclusion seems to be that we are unable to sensibly cooperate with other national or international entities because our governmental structure isn’t sufficiently international.   Frankly, I find that insulting to the professionalism that our Society has historically displayed.

Robert G. Lanier
Livermore, CA

Bury, Don’t Burn

Many promising high-tech methods for carbon sequestration are presently being developed, but one low-tech method is as simple as deciding to bury discarded wood rather than burn it. Cleared brush, old pallets, wood from demolished buildings, etc., are commonly burned worldwide as a means of disposal. When wood decomposes or burns, short-term sequestered carbon is returned to the atmosphere. Nothing is more low-tech than digging a hole, and if it is deep enough and/or capped to stay dry, approximately 50% of the buried wood would represent long-term sequestered carbon.  The industrialized world has been inadvertently sequestering carbon for some time by including discarded wood in dry landfills.  As a complement to the present scientific and engineering efforts, encouraging people everywhere to “bury, don't burn” discarded wood would be a relatively cheap and easy way to sequester carbon.  

Philip Ugorowski
Manhattan, KS

Carbon Tax Unrealistic

Roger W. Cohen’s letter in the July APS News suggests that there are two reasons for favoring a carbon tax over a cap-and-trade system. Cohen first cites a Yale study into an optimal economic policy for reducing CO2 emissions, which favors a progressively increasing carbon tax, and secondly calls cap-and-trade schemes "wasteful and corruption prone". This second point is disingenuous; to attribute these two adjectives solely to cap-and-trade proposals prevents a serious and honest comparison.

If not simple and prepared well, taxes (carbon or otherwise) are also wasteful and corruption prone. The number of businesses and individuals involved in tax fraud or avoidance is evidence enough of a system susceptible to dishonesty. Even if properly designed, poor implementation and enforcement of a carbon tax would open the scheme to further corruption and exploitation. In short, there is no guarantee that the carbon tax will be any more efficient than the current tax system with its multitude of rebates, refunds, and loopholes. Let the two suggestions win or lose (or even co-exist) on their own merits, such as the economic study Cohen cites.

Misleading adjectives aside, all proposed policies to mitigate CO2 emissions must necessarily be viewed in light of the ability of Congress to pass them. Could you convince everyone, in today’s economic climate, to accept another tax?

Tomasz Kott
Silver Spring, MD

Column Displays Faulty Reasoning

In his Inside the Beltway column “The Passion of Politics” in the August/September APS News, Michael S. Lubell asserts that Republicans’ opposition to the extension of unemployment benefits (without incurring new spending) contradicted their desire to keep the Bush tax cuts in place–and therefore was based on “emotional” thinking. After all, he reasons, “both inject money into the economy.” According to this logic, cashing my paycheck and stealing someone’s money after beating him to death should rationally be considered on the same footing–both “inject money into my pocket.” Of course,this ignores the morality of obtaining the money and the long-term consequences of either action, while just connecting similar sounding strings of words, out of context.

In the case of the unpaid-for benefits, yet more money is taken, by government force, from people who earned it and given to those who did not earn it. In the case of keeping the tax cuts, the people that produced the wealth keep it.

Frank Loreti
Pittsburgh, PA   

Business Majors Need to be Seduced

I would like to add to the beautiful article by Sacha Kopp [Back Page, August/September APS News] that another attraction of a physics education is that physics is arguably the most quantitative discipline of the natural sciences.

He should however not try to lure away prospective biology and engineering majors, but rather the all too many future business majors. No need to tell them anything else, but that many of the “quants” on Wall Street are PhD’s in physics, making piles of money (and having neatly contributed to the financial meltdown).

Maria Ronay
San Francisco, CA

Ed. Note: A discussion of whether physicists contributed to the financial meltdown can be found (online) in the December, 2008 Back Page by H. Eugene Stanley.

Need to Cut Back on Production of Physicists

I would like to offer a contrarian viewpoint regarding Sacha Kopp’s interesting Back Page article on enlarging physics programs. I completed my PhD in High Energy (Neutrino) Physics in 1998. I elected not to stay in academia and instead pursued a career in private enterprise. While in school I initially sympathized with the goals of the academic community to increase interest and enrollment in undergraduate and graduate physics. As I’ve become older and hopefully wiser (and started educating my own children) my perspective has come full circle.

There are far too many physics programs & physicists (both undergrad & grad) being produced that are pursuing too few job opportunities, and sustained efforts to increase enrollment only serve to make matters worse for both graduates (at all levels) and faculty.

To alleviate this problem, and greatly enhance study in the field, the physics community would be better served by adopting a model similar to the medical profession, where there is no undergraduate equivalent degree (or perhaps some loosely coupled “pre-physics” degree), application to the graduate level is highly competitive, and accrediting new graduate PhD programs is deliberately constrained by the community.

Consider the pre-med student.  They know a priori they cannot practice in the medical field unless they pursue some form of post-graduate work. Similar facts hold true for the physics undergrad, yet the departments feel compelled to contrive a message as to why it's worthwhile–rather than address it for what it frankly is in reality: a pre-physicist degree.

With respect to faculty and staff the current push-for-numbers mode undermines them at every turn. Churning out new graduates and PhD’s at a rate 10-15x greater than the community requires them has driven down real remuneration, job satisfaction, and willingness to promote physics. The tenacious and fortunate who have stable positions have paid very dearly to get them–be it at university, national lab, or otherwise.  This only fosters that lack of passion that the author so eloquently touches on in his article.  

In short, this get-the-numbers game has not benefited physics nor physicists. I am certain ALL of your readers have colleagues who have yet to find job satisfaction after 10, 15 or even 20 years in the field.

So how realistic is it to expect them to sincerely recommend a degree (not to mention a career) in physics? We physicists are throwing sand in the wind by increasing enrollments. We should be DECREASING them for the betterment of all.

Jean George
Austin, TX

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