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By David Barnstone
Frances Hellman is a condensed matter experimental scientist, a professor in the departments of Physics and Materials Science and Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an APS Fellow, and a member of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and of the LIGO gravitational wave collaboration. She was elected to the APS Presidential Line in 2019 and this year serves as the Society’s President. APS News spoke with Hellman about her perspectives on the challenges and opportunities facing the physics community in the year ahead. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are your priorities for your presidential year at APS?
My role as president is to support and help develop the priorities of the organization. A primary focus of this year is working towards making APS an inclusive home for everybody who thinks of themselves as a physicist. That could mean someone working on foundational, fundamental physics—for which APS is well known—but also those working on applied, use-inspired research, like the half of undergraduate physics majors that go into industry. We also need to figure out how to better support our members internationally, whether they live and work outside the United States, come here from other countries, or are engaged in international collaborations, and how to better engage with the international scientific community. We’re called the American Physical Society, but APS is a global organization.
The lack of diversity in physics is an ongoing challenge that we need to address. It’s not enough to be personally not racist and not sexist. Defining yourself by what you’re not is abdicating responsibility. We need to dismantle the barriers that prevent people from participating in physics, including unethical behavior. Ethical behavior in physics traditionally meant giving proper scientific credit. Now APS has Guidelines on Ethics that hold physicists accountable for their treatment of other people, which is essential to creating an inclusive and effective physics community. In particular, it is critical that we focus on prevention of harassment by setting high standards and empowering individuals and bystanders to intervene to prevent unethical behavior. I look forward to continuing [APS Past President] Jim Gates’s important work on the DELTA-PHY initiative, which aims to change the culture of physics by engaging in open conversations about these issues.
Other major priorities include modernizing the structure of our publishing operation, developing strong and productive relationships with other scientific societies, building on the success of our education and outreach programs, and helping to make philanthropy an important part of the Society’s financial picture.
COVID-19 has created many challenges, as well as opportunities, for physics. How do you see APS emerging from the pandemic?
It’s too early to tell. We’re not through COVID yet, and we’re going to be living with it for the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t say it’s so much emerging as it is adapting. It’s clear there are things we’ve learned. Hybrid meetings are the obvious example. We’re all tired of Zoom—it’s an efficient but only moderately effective interaction tool. Conferences, poster sessions, talks, they’re all a very different experience done remotely than regular meetings. But there are plusses, too. The April Meeting usually attracts some 1,500 people and last year there were 7,000 people who attended online, which is a remarkable and important result. HOWEVER, the hallway meetings, the direct engagement, the ability to ask a question after their talk, all of that is absent when you do it by Zoom or even Gathertown. I don’t think we yet know how to do a hybrid meeting in a way that really works. But we’re going to have to learn. Think of people with small children, or a sick parent, or people who are sick themselves, or have a disability. Increased access was an important thing enabled by the pandemic.
I’m an experimental scientist and my lab shut down when COVID came along. Those first six months I worked incredibly hard to find a way to keep all of my students engaged and productive, including developing at-home computer-based projects for all of them. Then we were allowed to return to the lab on a reduced density basis, one at a time. We were all so happy to get back into the lab, BUT much of the lab equipment broke because people just weren’t ready to work on it by themselves. Experimental physics, and I think theoretical physics as well, it’s not well done by yourself. Students got frustrated. The young students did not learn how to work with other students. The postdoc wasn’t right around the corner. One of my senior students left grad school. It’s not their fault, it’s just what happened. Now we’re all back in the lab, vaccinated, boosted, and masked. But students have to learn again how to work with each other.
The APS Council recently adopted a revised Statement on Earth's Changing Climate. What is the significance of this new statement?
This is the third statement we’ve had on this topic and there’s been a clear evolution. APS is now clearly stating that humans are the dominant driver of global warming, because the evidence has become increasingly clear and the support of the physics community for this statement has gone way up. We are now in a strong position to advocate for necessary change. There’s a lot we don’t understand, but the fact that we don’t have all the answers doesn’t mean that we should not act. Years ago, when I was on [the Panel on Public Affairs] working on the previous statement, there were a lot of people saying that physicists should not be weighing in on this, this is not our purview. There are still those saying that, but very few.
The Physical Review journals are essential to the Society's mission to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics. How will APS journals maintain their preeminence in the face of increasing competition, open access mandates, and disruptive information technologies?
The journals are our jewels, completely essential to our mission. Despite my overcommitments, I’m on the editorial board of Reviews of Modern Physics, and I’m doing that because I believe so strongly in our society journals. They’re fundamentally committed to supporting our members and disseminating scientific information, not to selling publications. We answer to our members, not to a group of shareholders. That means we get to make the journals be anything we want. But our preeminence is getting chipped away at and it’s in part because we have an obsolete structure that dates back a hundred years. There are proposed changes to the governance of APS publishing that are under consideration right now. There will be a greatly re-energized publishing committee and stronger oversight by the Editor in Chief, who will become a member of the Board Executive Committee, responsible for the quality and relevance of our journals. We’re attempting to modernize the structure in a way that will leave us more nimble and better able to publish the preeminent journals in the world.
How is APS progressing on the actions laid out in the 2019 Strategic Plan?
The Strategic Plan is a remarkable document and underlies everything we do. Its mission and vision statements, as well as its plans and calls for action, are powerful and inspiring. I’m struck by its opening lines about increasing the participation of the next generation of physicists, increasing public appreciation of the power of physics to transform our world, advocating for a robust research enterprise, and strengthening our publications enterprise. We have to engage with the next generation. They’re tired of things not changing. They’re tired of the older generation thinking that things are okay or at least good enough. They’re not good enough. We’re making progress but there’s much more to do.
I’m committed to making progress on the publishing, diversity, and ethics issues, and activities are already underway. We’re also addressing the issue of public trust in science with our initiative to counter misinformation. By and large the public does appreciate and trust science, although it has been weakened by politics in recent years. The question is whether they’re willing to take action based on science.
Interestingly, both democrats and republicans think that science should be better funded, but neither put it at the top of their list.
How did you get started in physics? What drew you to APS and prompted you to become a member?
I had an amazing high school physics teacher. She was actually getting her master’s degree in biology. There were only six of us in the class. She taught us in an utterly non-mathematical way. So I learned none of the traditional intro physics stuff. We spent all our time learning about general relativity, how the universe began, black holes. I loved it! It was fascinating. She encouraged us to think. Creativity was really valued.
When I got to Dartmouth, I knew I wanted to major in physics and I was also deeply involved in ski racing. The standard introductory physics class started in the winter, but there was an advanced class that started in the fall. So I took a placement test and the professor, who was later my advisor, called me in and said “I don’t quite know what to do with this. It’s clear you haven’t had any introductory physics. But I see a lot of really good insight and I think you’re going to make a great physicist.” He gave me the opportunity to try the class. So in the first class he started by writing the equation for a spring on the board. I had never seen an equation in physics before; I couldn’t figure out how you could solve anything when there were three unknown variables in one equation. I had no idea how it related to a spring bouncing up and down. I was grossly underprepared, but he helped me get through it. Freshman physics, in my opinion, was both hard and boring. I didn’t care how fast the spring oscillated, I didn’t care how long it took a block to slide down an inclined plane. I wanted to learn about black holes and galaxies and quantum mechanics and superconductors. Fortunately, I had great advisors, and with their help, I hung in there long enough to get back to the parts of physics I truly loved and still love.
In the end I do have a knack for physics. It’s something I love and do well. I’m an experimentalist andI’m not one of those who subscribes to the idea that math is the underpinning of physics. To me what defines physics is insight into the underlying nature. That insight provides the essential principles, although you are not done until you also have the mathematical description.I joined APS back when I was a graduate student and I probably made the world's best financial investment when I signed up to be a life member when I was about 28.
What message would you send to APS members in these turbulent times?
This is a challenging time for everybody. We’re not through this yet, and there’s a lot of ramifications that we don’t even understand. So my message is this: Be kind to yourself and others. When you feel frustrated, go for a walk. This is a shared experience that we’ll get through together. And, we’re lucky to do physics as a career!
The author is APS Head of Public Relations.
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