Director's Matters

For this week's issue, I've asked Greg Good, director of the Center for History of Physics, to offer some insights on Charles Darwin.

Greg Good Discovering our roots with Darwin
Why should physicists mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th of On the Origin of Species? Of course we recognize the critical importance of Darwin's ideas for biology in the last century, but how is this relevant to physics? I submit that this is the wrong question. To my mind, we should instead be asking: Why would one think Darwin is not important to all science? I will answer these questions with a story.

Darwin attended university (Edinburgh for one year, then Cambridge) and struggled, as undergraduates still do, to choose a future occupation. He considered medicine, law, and the clergy, while taking the usual classes of the time in mathematics and classics. Scientific training was not yet specialized into disciplines. He discovered his love of nature in the field, outside of his studies. He collected beetles and plants with bug lovers and botanists. Adam Sedgwick recruited him for geological fieldwork in Wales, likely as much for his broad shoulders as for his aptitude. Charles Darwin

Then, as now, however, Darwin discovered his lifework during "graduate school"—in his case, sailing around the world on the HMS Beagle. He devoured the travel writings of Alexander von Humboldt, the physics of John Herschel, and the geology of Charles Lyell. He modeled his questions and his methods on their works. He avidly collected both fossils and living organisms, mapped strata, and formulated theories on mountain building and coral reef formation. He considered ocean currents, climate, and human prehistory. His curiosity knew no boundaries.

Likewise, the impact of Darwin's central idea, natural selection, has known no boundaries. Today its tendrils reach into every science. The journal Nature Physics dedicated its March 2009 issue to Darwin. One article examined On the Origin of Species as a model of careful, clear scientific exposition, which it is. Another applied natural selection to quantum states, and a third pondered why evolution rather than, say, gravity provides the locus of so much social-political-theological controversy.

Yet we know some people deny the validity of radioisotopic dating, of scientific cosmology, or of climate-change research. The new book by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future (Basic Books, 2009), underscores the ubiquity not just of scientific illiteracy, but of a deeply antiscientific attitude in the American population. As "science communicators," we must recognize that Darwin and modern physicists are in the same boat. We both rise and fall with the same tide.


Virtual journal series expands coverage
Virtual Journals logo As of August, the AIP- and APS-sponsored series Virtual Journals in Science and Technology (VJ) now includes two more journals—EPL and Physics-Uspekhi—both made available through IOP Publishing. EPL, formerly Europhysics Letters, is published by the EPL Association; Physics-Uspekhi is copublished by Uspekhi Fizicheskikh Nauk and Turpion Ltd. With the addition of these two scholarly journals, there are now four participating publications in the VJ series from IOP Publishing. Overseen by a distinguished group of editors, Virtual Journals in Science and Technology has proven to be a valuable resource for researchers by gathering topically related content from a broad swath of publications from a variety of publishers. First launched by the AIP and APS in 2000 and drawing from 90 scholarly publications from 19 participating publishers, the VJ series now comprises six titles, providing convenient access to the latest papers in atomic quantum fluids, biological physics, nanoscale science, quantum information, superconductivity, and ultrafast science. Learn more about the VJ series—including the newest, the Virtual Journal of Atomic Quantum Fluids—by visiting the VJ gateway.

Funding for education
AIP helped Member Societies and the science community to support a bill that funds the first increase to the Department of Education's Mathematics and Science Partnerships program since 2006. The program works to enhance the content knowledge and teaching skills of K–12 teachers by creating partnerships between high-need school districts and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) faculty at colleges and universities. AIP helped determine a realistic financial goal for the funding increase, and garnered support in Congress through visits and phone calls. Congressmen Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Vern Ehlers (R-MI)—both physicists by training—led the effort to increase the funding for this program by $5 million, as opposed to the slight decrease suggested by the Administration. The bill has been approved by the House of Representatives and is currently under consideration in the Senate.

PT staffers attend SPIE, tour cancer center
Tom Potts and Bonnie Feldman Physics Today publisher Randy Nanna and Physics Today Career Network manager Bonnie Feldman were in San Diego August 2–6 for the annual convention of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics. The multidisciplinary technical conference hosts sessions, workshops, and an exhibit hall, covering topics in optics, photonics, nanoscience, and solar energy and technology. Nanna and Feldman also visited Tom Potts of the Eisenhower Lucy Curci Cancer Center in Rancho Mirage, CA. Potts is a member of AAPM and also serves on the Advisory Committee of the AIP Physics Resources Center.

ACA logo ACA national meeting
The annual national meeting of the American Crystallographic Association (ACA) took place July 25–30 in Toronto, Ontario. Over 900 attendees submitted 620 abstracts spanning 40 poster and oral sessions in macromolecular, small molecule, powder, and solution diffraction scattering, and new technologies, techniques, and instrumentation.

CN Tower in Toronto, Ontario Each day began with a plenary lecture from a distinguished individual, including talks by the recipients of ACA's Warren, Buerger, and Etter awards. Shih-Lin Chang (Warren Award) presented his results employing coherent multiple diffraction and crystal cavity resonance; Svilen Bobev (Etter Early Career Award) discussed the synthesis and characterization of new rare-earth intermetallics; Ted Baker highlighted the evolution of diffraction and structural research from minerals and small molecules to proteins and viruses; Philip Coppens discussed photo-induced and time-resolved experiments, and Michael James (Buerger Award) presented an overview of some of his research on bacterial serine proteinases, proteolytic enzymes, inhibitor design, and infectious disease.

Several speakers and posters highlighted new facilities, research programs, and advances in software and hardware. Paul Adams presented an overview in the "Green Biochemistry" session on the research being conducted at the Joint BioEnergy Institute at the University of California at Berkeley, Matthias Zeller discussed advances in the STaRBURSTT (Science Teaching and Research Brings Undergraduate Research Strengths Through Technology) Consortium, and John Westbrook detailed the PSI-SGKB, a resource for biologists interested in protein structure. Two well-attended sessions for young scientists, "Would You Publish This?" and "Professional Directions," were followed by lively discussion. Two workshops were held before the meeting: one on using JANA as a package for refinement of incommensurate crystal structures, and another on handling twinning in macromolecular structures.

The ACA Council and US National Committee for Crystallography used this venue as a setting to meet with the Canadian National Committee for Crystallography, the Executive Committee of the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr), and the organizing committee for the 2014 IUCr Congress to be held in Montreal. The next ACA national meeting will be held in Chicago, July 24-29, 2010.

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