APS News

January 2013 (Volume 22, Number 1)

Letters to the Editor

Need to Communicate Science

According to the October Back Page, “Science can’t answer moral questions such as whether we should allow gay marriage...”. At least science can provide data whether a gay sexual relationship is healthy or natural or may provide more health risk to society, to judge whether such activity should be legally allowed. The same can be said about the problem of alcohol. However, society seems to prefer hiding some truth, to keep the usual way or pleasure of life. This raises the need to have a more science-minded society, hence the need of communicating science.

Pramudita Anggraita
Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Peer Review Can Perpetuate Dogma

The November Back Page, “APS and the Challenge of Open Access,” emphasized the importance of peer review journals and articles. Ordinarily, I would agree. But in light of the East Anglia email scandal and the campaign to paint as know-nothings all who disagree that “global warming” is established science, there is a danger of promoting a regime similar in many ways to that of Lysenko in the Soviet Union. If the peers doing the peer reviewing are all adamantly of the attitude of the East Anglia and similarly minded scientists, it will be hard to get any science published which doesn’t meet their dogma.

Arthur Cohn
Portola Valley, CA

The Problem of Collateral Damage

With reference to the letter by Michael Gerver in the October APS News, we know that war always involves more civilian casualties than military losses, as shown in World Wars I and II, and subsequent conflicts over the years. In addition, the rights of an occupying power have been discussed in UN documents, and invoking “self-defense” is an ironic notion. The British always invoked it during the Quit India agitation.

Is there a scientific, compassionate way of determining the proportion of acceptable collateral casualties which, to quote Gerver's letter, “are in proportion to the military goals to be achieved ?”

Bangalore, India

Preprints Are Not The Problem

I was disappointed to find that while nearly a page of the November APS News was devoted to a story about a scientist rushing to publish a result in order to claim precedence, the article made no mention of the greater underlying issue this story is indicative of. In today’s PR and instant communication driven rush for fame, recognition, and ever more scarce grant funding, we sometimes forget that as scientists our first and foremost goal should be to find, describe, and understand the underlying truths about the physical world around us.

Submitting a new paper every few weeks because we may have found another tiny bit of what we know is a much bigger puzzle cannot be the right path to get to the essence of the questions we are trying to answer. But that is what the pressures of trying to claim precedence and to publish as many papers as possible in as high profile journals as possible drives us to.

When, as indicated in the article, the topic of a paper published in PRL, one of the premier physics journals, is not considered serious enough to be discussed at conferences, something must be wrong with our publication system. When I hear my colleagues state that they think they understand a certain physical phenomenon but will not share their ideas until they are published, I know there is something wrong with our academic environment.

One of the biggest challenges we as researchers face today is not whether or not to put our papers on arXiv, but how to sort through and digest the avalanche of papers published by the world-wide scientific community on almost any topic of interest. That is, after all, what the scientific publications are supposed to be for: to communicate the essence of one’s results and ideas to the rest of the research community. Instead, too often the goal seems to be to pad one’s résumé with yet another publication.

I don’t know how to relieve some of the competitive pressures we feel in our academic and research workplace, but that is what I would like to read a page-long APS News article about.

Vyacheslav Lukin
Washington, DC

Einstein and the Presidency of Israel

In his letter in the November APS News, Walter Schimmerling writes that “[w]hen Einstein was asked to become the first president of Israel, the people who asked him had to worry about a worst-case scenario: that he might accept.” The first president of Israel was Chaim Weizmann, the renowned chemist. After Weizmann’s death in 1952, Abba Eban, then Israel’s UN ambassador, delivered to Einstein a message from Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, offering to Einstein to nominate him as a candidate for president. I am unaware that either Eban or Ben Gurion were worried that Einstein might accept. Had Einstein accepted and been elected by the Knesset, he would have been Israel’s second president, not the first. Interestingly, the reasons that Einstein gave for declining Eban’s offer, as appearing in his 11/18/1952 letter (Einstein Archive 28-943) would help Schimmerling make his case: Einstein argued that since he had devoted his life to objective matters, he lacked “both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official functions.”

Lior Burko
Normal, Alabama

Scientific Method Counsels Humility

In reference to the assertion, in my letter in the June APS News, that Fermi (and others) did not follow the scientific method, Glen Herrmannsfeldt recommended, in the August-September issue, that one should read the first chapter of  David Goodstein’s book, Of Fact and Fraud, to gain an impression of how the scientific method actually works. I found the first chapter of value, but for the case in question I found a statement toward the end of Chapter 5, dealing with cold fusion, more relevant. Goodstein says, “...the cold fusion saga offers a classic case of how scientists, bent as they are on deepening and enlarging their understanding of nature, may convince themselves that they are in possesion of knowledge that does not in fact exist.” In the case of nuclear fission, nuclear scientists, apart from Ida Noddack and her husband, felt that they knew that if they performed the experiment she had suggested, they wouldn’t find any elements lower down on the periodic table, indicating that Fermi had fractured the nucleus, so why bother to do the experiment? The scientifc method cautions us to be humble, and to do it anyway, if it is at all possible, and one can fund it.

Frank R. Tangherlini
San Diego, CA

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
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella