Fermi and the Scientific Method

In his letter “Correcting an Omission in the Timeline of Fission” in the June APS News, Frank Tangherlini indicates that Fermi did not follow the scientific method.

I recommend chapter one in David Goodstein's “On Fact and Fraud” as a good explanation of how the scientific method actually works, as it might differ from the way it is taught in books. After reading that, I recommend reading the rest of the book for actual examples of the scientific method in use, or misuse.

Otherwise, I do not disagree with the timeline or its conclusions.

Glen Herrmannsfeldt
Seattle, WA

Anti-Iranian Cartoon was Ill-Advised

As we know, there is a very strong propaganda campaign in the US against the Iranian government. From the cartoon placed with a report in the June APS News on APS member Omid Kokabee being sentenced to ten years in Iranian prison for “cooperating with the Mossad in Israel,” the Iranian judiciary is depicted as a faceless, malevolent force convicting humble chained prisoners who are guilty of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe that is true, but no evidence is presented in the article. Rather, it appears that the APS is joining in the propaganda campaign. Obviously, the Mossad coopts many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza into being spies, resulting in missiles raining down on suspected “terrorists” and anybody else who happens to be standing around. Similarly for the US drone program, supported by an extra-judicial executive kill list. At least Mr. Kokabee is given a trial. Instead of following the stereotypic US media position, the APS could have published a balanced article which contrasts the Kokabee ten year sentence with the random assassination of five nuclear engineers and scientists in Iran, evidently through the efforts of Israel/US. 

Bob Harvey
Del Mar, CA

Advanced Labs Must Receive Necessary Resources

I wholeheartedly agree with Jonathan Reichert's excellent Back Page “Is There a Future for the Advanced Lab” in the June 2012 edition of APS News, but an important point is missing in his discussion.

The “Advanced Lab” is indeed a critical bridge between introductory demonstration experiments and working in a research laboratory. Nothing compares with the experience of watching a student suddenly understanding something they read in a textbook when they see it happen in real life, in an environment they control. I applaud Reichert's suggestions for how to maintain and strengthen this part of the physics curriculum.

Unfortunately, cost is a serious obstacle. The experiments themselves may be costly to purchase or assemble, but more important is the cost in personnel to maintain the experiments and to teach the course. It will always be necessary to have a sufficient number of competent faculty and staff dedicated to such a course, who have a presence in the laboratory and are generally accessible to the students.

Recently, there have been calls for more attention to the undergraduate STEM curriculum at major research universities. One example is the American Association of Universities (AAU) Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative <http://www.aau.edu/policy/article.aspx?id=12588>. Another is the Engage to Excel (E2E) report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) <http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ostp/pcast/docsreports>. The stakeholders in these reports are prime candidates to lead the way in their own educational institutions, to reaffirm the necessity of a strong Advanced Lab component in physics curricula as well as other disciplines. Their setting the example would help aspiring institutions convince their own administrations to make this important STEM education component a priority.

Jim Napolitano
Troy, NY

Ed. Note: Jim Napolitano has co-authored the second edition of “Experiments in Modern Physics” with Adrian Melissinos.

Back Page Misinterprets the Data

The Back Page by Nina Byers in the July APS News contains a massive disconnect between the data contained in an illustration in the article and the prose describing the illustration. In the article Professor Byers states that the decrease in the total of nuclear weapons in the world in the early 1960's (principally held by the US and the then USSR) was the result of the test ban treaty. The cited figure however shows that while the US indeed decreased the weapons in its possession starting in the mid 1960’s, the number of weapons in the possession of the USSR continued to increase dramatically. One could argue that the test ban treaty was but one of many factors at play affecting the numbers of US weapons. However it is indisputable that while the US reduced its nuclear arsenal from the late the 1960's through the mid 1980’s the Soviet Union kept increasing its arsenal. In the words of Harold Brown, former Director of DDR&E, Secretary of the Air Force and Secretary of Defense at that time of the Cold War ...“we build they build we stop they build.”

George Paulikas
Palos Verdes Estates, CA

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Editor: Alan Chodos