Monday, December 14, 2009

H. Frederick DyllaDirector's Matters

Scientific integrity

With the controversy over hacked e-mail messages from climate scientists, scientific integrity has been in the news—and for some people it has been deeply in question. 

Richard FeynmannArguably the fundamental issue boils down to something described in a comment from a colorful physicist and teacher: the late Richard Feynman. He spoke of "a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked.... Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them.... If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it." 

This Feynman quotation (from his lecture, Cargo Cult Science) appeared the other day in a Wall Street Journal letter to the editor from someone who sees it as a reminder of what climate scientists have forgotten. What I think, however—despite the lapses revealed in the hacked messages—is that it shows what climate scientists have remembered. 

Science works the same in all its fields. If the integrity of science in general weren't assured to a very high degree—in the laboratory, in scientific publications, and in the practical consequences to which science leads—then neither the critics of climate scientists nor the rest of us could be using transistors, lasers, optical fibers, or pharmaceuticals. We couldn't fly with only a one-in-a-million chance of mishap, and our bridges and skyscrapers could fall down, and polio would still be feared. 

Science is by its very nature an exploratory, trial-and-error venture which is also—sooner or later in every case—a self-correcting exercise. Ukrainian agronomist Trofim Lysenko’s failed agricultural theories of the 1930s and 1940s and, more recently, such concepts as polywater, cold fusion, and human clones are examples of scientific pronouncements that were eventually proven wrong or fraudulent by the step-by-step process of examination, review, and repetition. 

It’s true that scientists are human and that the science enterprise can suffer from the frailties of any other human endeavor. I would rather think that scientists are less corrupted than are people in other professions by jealousies, excessive ego, and the desire for fame and fortune. But these human faults do also affect scientists, which means that science sometimes suffers. Nevertheless, science recovers quickly because of its well-proven correction mechanisms that apply universally across disciplinary, political, and cultural boundaries. 

The current attack on the integrity of climate science is based on the proposition that this particular field somehow operates with a special, deep disrespect for the skepticism principle that Feynman advocated in the comment quoted above. 

I don’t believe it. 



Publishing Matters

Physics of Fluids makes a splash in Minneapolis

Physics of Fluids and Physics Today coversContinuing a long-standing tradition of attending the annual meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics (DFD), the staff of Physics of Fluids manned a journal-branded booth at DFD’s 62nd annual meeting in Minneapolis last month. The journal’s editors, professors John Kim (UCLA) and Gary Leal (UCSB), were often seen at the booth talking with authors and reviewers. Authors were pleased to see the fluids-themed October issue of Physics Today, which highlighted work published in Physics of Fluids. Editors Kim and Leal gathered the board of associate editors to discuss the journal’s direction and opportunities to broaden its service to the community. Several DFD meeting attendees submitted images and videos for the Gallery exhibit, a feature started at the 1983 annual meeting. Entries are judged based on artistic value, scientific content, and originality. Experience the winning video entries from 2008 and prior years at the Gallery of Fluid Motion website.

Co-editor Gary Leal and assistant to the editor Marjorie Hayes (UCSB) at the Physics of Fluids booth.

Led by editors John Kim (2nd from right) and Gary Leal (right), discussion was lively at the November meeting of the Physics of Fluids associate editors.


The Einstein Fellows—all about education

The 2009–10 Einstein Fellows

Since 1995, the US Department of Energy has been charged with designating distinguished K–12 science educators, who then spend a year in a congressional office, the Department of Energy, or a federal agency. The fellows contribute a practical understanding of the classroom consequences of agency actions to the decision-making process. Pictured at right are the current Einstein Fellows; this year there are a record 24 fellows.

Einstein Fellow Mark Greenman (center) ponders which of two cans will roll fastest down the wooden ramp.

On 9 November, the AIP Education Division hosted the Einstein Fellows at ACP. The visit provided a unique opportunity for the fellows to learn of the roles of scientific learned societies and professional associations. They interacted with staff from AIP and the resident Member Societies, who informed them about a myriad of our programs and resources available to teachers and students. AIP Education staff led the fellows through physics demonstrations from the 2010 SPS Outreach Catalyst Kit (SOCK), including the science of rolling objects experiment, and presented each fellow with a Galileoscope.

Following the visit, the fellows expressed their appreciation:

  • "I was unaware of the facility…."
  • "I have already sent information back to my district and my state about resources I learned about, including: IYA2009, the Galileoscope, Portal to the Universe, LaserFest, PhysicsQuest, and the online history exhibits."
  • "I wanted to sincerely thank you and everyone in the office for the best professional development day I have had as an Einstein Fellow."
Around AIP

The season for giving

Holiday drives abound this month at AIP, in both Melville and College Park locations. The Melville Publishing Center has again teamed up with the Marines of Alpha Company, 6th Communications Battalion, for the annual Toys for Tots campaign. To make wishes come true for needy children in Suffolk County, NY, AIP employees can place new toys in the lunchroom receptacle. Donations will be accepted through December 18.

In College Park, the ACP Events Committee is working with the College Park Youth and Family Services (CPYFS) to organize donations of gifts and basic necessities to local families. The CPYFS is a community organization that provides counseling to families who are having difficulties with everyday living. If you wish to participate, see the pantries on each floor for the sponsored family’s “wish list.” Select an item to donate, and remove it from the list to avoid duplicates. Please bring your donation to the Events Committee representative on your floor by the morning of December 21.

Thank you for your generosity.

Happy Holidays!