APS News

June 2013 (Volume 22, Number 6)

Letters to the Editor

In Which Physicists Lose Their Shirt

On the Back Page of the March APS News, James Owen Weatherall in a delightful article informs us about the influence physicists have had on economic theory. I did not know that towering economists like Jan Tinbergen, Irving Fischer and Paul Samuelson were trained as physicists. Lest our kind should burst from overconfidence in our abilities to master other fields, Weatherall notes that Isaac Newton lost his shirt in The South Sea Bubble, after which Newton delivered his famous remark about his inability to calculate “ the madness of men.”

Perhaps as another sobering-up for physicists tempted to get rich quickly it could also be mentioned that the brilliant theorist Irving Fischer fared no better than Newton. Back in 1929 Fischer assured the public that the great downturn on the New York stock market that fall was only a “shaking out of the lunatic fringe”, and that the prices of stocks would soon rebound. Among his reasons for optimism was that the market had not yet reflected the beneficent effect of prohibition on workers’ productivity. As described by John Kenneth Galbraith in The Great Crash, 1929, Irving Fischer put his money where his mouth was, and lost considerably.

Tor Laankan
Sparbu, Norway

Newton Beats Hooke–Again

The column “This Month in Physics History” in the April APS News credited Robert Hooke with making the first reflecting telescope, but I thought it was Newton, and I queried Mordechai (Moti) Feingold of Caltech, a Newton expert. He replied that it was indeed Newton, citing the Wikipedia article on “Gregorian telescope” as accurate. Gregory had his plans for a reflecting telescope before Newton, but Newton built his own before Hooke made a telescope from Gregory's 10-year-old plans.

Jay M. Pasachoff
Williamstown, MA

Teach Physics for Physics’ Sake

Regarding Meg Urry’s Back Page article in the May issue of APS News, entitled “Raising the Bar in Physics Graduate Education”:

We teach physics as subject matter and not as a means to indoctrinate students to believe “that they can solve the problems of the world.” Did Erwin Schrödinger develop wave mechanics to solve the problems of the world? Were his teachers educating Schrödinger to solve the problems of the world? Was Schrödinger envisioning, when he wrote, “What is life?” that in 1953 Francis Crick and James D. Watson would discover the structure of DNA? Was Michael Faraday concerned about the welfare of the world when he set out to discover the law of electromagnetic induction? I challenge any science fiction writer to conceive of a world without Faraday’s law of induction.

Richard Feynman’s scientific curiosity knew no bounds, which led to great achievements in physics. Feynman was also interested in flowers, music, strip clubs, etc., but it was the former rather than the latter that his advisor John Archibald Wheeler must have stimulated by the knowledge and vision that Wheeler taught him.

The teaching of physics must be directed purely at its subject matter. It is physicists, as human beings, who determine what sort of persons they become and how they interact with the rest of the world.

Moorad Alexanian
Wilmington, NC

Letter Could Discourage Women Physics Students

Regarding the letter by Jeffery Winkler in the April APS News: In mathematics, computer science, and other hard sciences, the ratio of men to women is much closer to 50-50, showing that women are not only interested in challenging fields, but also excel in them. I don't know if the letter was published for shock value or as a reminder of how far we need to come as a community, but either way it's entirely inappropriate for the year 2013. One can imagine a young undergraduate perusing APS News in her physics library, only to come across his letter–would she be interested in joining a community that gives merit to this way of thinking by publishing it in their newsletter?

Mark Limes
Salt Lake City, UT

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