APS News

October 2011 (Volume 20, Number 9)

Letters to the Editor

Scientists Should Get Active Now

Thank you for Michael Lubell's “Inside the Beltway” column in the July 2010 issue. I have noticed that many in the liberal-leaning world of academic physics tend to blame the problems facing the funding of scientific research solely on Republicans. The article emphasizes that the biggest challenge facing the funding of science is not enmity from Republicans or Democrats but rather bipartisan neglect. As scientists, we have a responsibility to the taxpayers that fund our research to engage the public in an honest discussion of what benefits come from our research. If we want to be a priority when federal funds are scarce and deficits are high, we need to vocally demonstrate how we can help to solve some of the challenges facing our country. Our work is extremely valuable and worthy of tax-payer funds, but, as Congresswoman Pelosi was quoted to have said “great damage will be done” to science unless we “get active now.” Opportunities to get active exist on almost every college campus and through nonpartisan organizations such as the Scientists and Engineers for America (www.sefora.org). If we don’t make a community-wide effort now there will be much less of a community to make such an effort in the future.

Nicholas Nelson
Lafayette, CO

Wrong Party Credited with Surplus

The heading “Lubell Column Brings Out Partisan Divide” under the Letters Section of the August/September 2011 issue is certainly illustrated by the letter from Felix Smith. He states, “As scientists it is our business as it is our natural inclination to look toward facts and to question common perceptions and sloganeering.” Therefore, I am sure he will appreciate the collegial correction that it was actually Clinton and the Republicans who left the treasury with a healthy surplus.

Chet Sullivan
Cordova, IL

Ed. Note: The Republicans controlled both houses of Congress during the last 6 years of the Clinton presidency.

Kelvin Undervalued in Poll

In response to the letter from Henry R. Lewis (May APS News), asking about rankings of physicists, I do not know of such lists in an APS journal circa 1949. However, in 1999, the Institute of Physics publication Physics World conducted a poll asking responders to rank the top five physicists. [Ed. Note: this can be accessed at http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/print/851].

Noteworthy is that Lord Kelvin, who was widely regarded as the top physicist at the end of the 19th century, did not receive any votes for the 1999 list. I submit most physics professionals today routinely use Kelvin’s many fundamental contributions unaware of their source. In contrast, Maxwell acknowledged his debt to Kelvin in his Treatise.

“O quam cito transit gloria mundi.” (Thomas à Kempis, 1418)

George R. Bart
Chicago, IL

Entrepreneurial Innovators in Tough Situation

“We should prepare entrepreneurs and not only good employees.”

This very important concept is the last sentence in a Letter in the August/September APS News from A. Christian Silva.

It was always clear to me that education was primarily oriented to teach students to OBEY and FOLLOW, even at the highest PhD level. But entrepreneurial innovators (not followers) have primarily driven modern society. Later, industrial research labs nurtured those innovators, but now that industrial research environment has mostly disappeared in the US due to extreme greed and incompetence by industrial leaders. Simultaneously, the US government (under fanatical influence from Tea Party folks and conservative Republicans) is also destroying its innovative research efforts. This pitiful situation is described in the same APS News issue on The Back Page by Rush Holt in “Developing a National Innovation Strategy.”

Meanwhile, other countries have been and are now making very substantial commitments to education, research and innovation that is paying rewards for them at the expense of the US. For the US to regain its leadership position will be difficult since modern hardware innovation and development requires substantial expensive equipment, money, time, manpower and resources. Individual entrepreneurial innovators face a tough uphill battle. What a mess!

Chuck Gallo
Lake Elmo MN

Scientists Need to Deliver the Message

The Back Page article on “Developing a National Innovation Strategy” by Representative Rush Holt in the August/September APS News delivered a much-needed message. It is good to have a physicist serving in the Congress. I am blessed with being represented there by the only PhD chemist, John Olver, and I welcome this much-needed scientific input to balance that from several who deny science and depend upon ideology. Unfortunately, many legislators and the public do not hold science in high regard, possibly related to their own inadequate science education provided by teachers who teach it as an abstract subject rather than stressing its importance to our lives. It is not widely appreciated how much of the quality of our lives arises because of past scientific developments and to how much our future may depend on those to come. More of us need to be involved in conveying that important message. Our future may depend upon it!

Richard S. (Dick) Stein
Amherst, MA

Stop the Political Rhetoric

The Back Page article by congressman Rush Holt in the August/September APS News is a naked political ad. Where Holt’s discussion is not partisan (“Tea Party members are calling for…”; “…hostility to the president’s vision…”; etc) it is outright self-serving (“I helped establish…”; “I offered an amendment…”; “I worked to address…”; “I successfully offered…”). Nowhere does he mention the overriding issue of trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see and the need for balancing priorities to get our fiscal house in order.

The physics community wants and needs articles that address its political interests. It has the right to expect those articles to rise to a level of intellectual honesty and rigor appropriate to the organ of a great and historic professional society. Whistle stop political campaigning doesn’t cut it.

Carm Catanese
Rocky Hill, NJ

Must Get at the Root Causes

In his Back Page in the August/September issue, congressman Rush Holt, a fellow physicist, appears to sometimes cite symptoms, not the root causes. It is not guaranteed that the United States will always be #1 in R&D. Knowing that, the question has to be asked if going back to yesterday’s way of doing business would assure being in a #1 position.

Like many politicians, Holt argues that political measures would assure things like jobs, a growing economy, top notch R&D, domestic contentment, etc. What is not realized is that prices are set by the pool of consumers, not by politicians. They are only affected, not set, by “regulation” (and other factors too).

Unfortunately, many politicians believe that wants, behavior and actual history are the same thing and are constant in time (until becoming obsolete). Real life is not that way, however. The congressman should know that the regulation of things (like light bulbs, R&D funding, money in general) only constitutes a “crutch” for improving things. Real progress can only be made when people are changed. Too many “benefit of hindsight” arguments are used by all politicians. If a factor for something undesirable is blamed that is not the root cause, little progress may be had from altering it. There remains the ultimate dilemma of science: Does one want to say what is acceptable or what turns out to come true?

Bolko von Roedern
Golden, CO

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Editor: Alan Chodos