Living With Physics

This essay was originally published in One Hundred Reasons To Be A Scientist, a collection of essays published by ICTP in 2005. We’ll be periodically sharing some of the best essays from that book. Here’s the first one:

By Michael Berry

Berry2If you get your knowledge of science mainly from the TV, you might have the impression that it’s a weird activity, very far from what most people care about. But science isn’t remote at all: the world is connected in strange and wonderful ways. Think about this: many of you have a cd player. You can take it anywhere–on the beach, up a mountain, through the forests, in the deserts, at the North Pole, even–and listen to music reproduced almost perfectly. That wasn’t possible before in all of human history. In previous centuries, if you wanted to hear music, you had to go to live performances. But now we have this fantastic freedom that anyone, in any part of the world, can share the experience. In a way, it’s the ultimate democracy: making available to many what could previously be enjoyed only by a few. How has this come about? Strange as it seems: through a physicist’s dreaming.

Inside every CD player is a laser. Its light bounces off the bumps and pits on the disk, and electronics converts the signal into sound. The laser wasn’t discovered by accident. It was designed, by applying our understanding of waves and particles of light that comes directly from quantum physics, which gives our deepest understanding of the strange tiny world inside atoms and smaller. The laser works on a principle discovered by Einstein nearly a hundred years ago. It was pure theory–dreaming while you’re awake. He never dreamed that fifty years later other scientists would apply this principle to create bright pure light.

Is Earth Science Education Forgotten in Africa?

by Kenneth Muhumuza

students-377789_1280I had a rare opportunity to visit my old high school while I was in Uganda last year. I wanted to not only visit my old teachers, but also talk to students about my research subject and passion for Earth science. During my conversation with students doing science subjects at A-level, I was surprised that no student knew the approximate age of the Earth or even what causes earthquakes, floods and global climate change. As I tried to explain all this to them I was a little bit upset thinking about the future of these scientists, who do not understand the basic science of their own planet.

Unfortunately, it is a well-established fact that in lower levels of education (primary and secondary), Earth science has not gained the same status as mathematics, chemistry or physics. Earth science is an integrated science, bringing together biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics as they apply to the workings of the Earth.

In many African countries, Earth science appears for the first time at the end of secondary school, if not at university only. In fact, an assessment made by UNESCO in 2009 found that only 128 universities in the whole of Africa had a department of Earth sciences. This raises the question of whether Earth science education has been forgotten in Africa.

Economics And The Making of A Perfect Society

by Matteo Marsili

CC 2.0 NIH/NIAIDWe humans are the only species that makes the rules by which we interact. Animals don’t. They are subject to the law of the jungle, while we make laws that govern our behavior and design institutions with “laws of motion.”

So, in the same way as we can build airplanes and make them as efficient as possible, why can’t we also build efficient societies? Each of us has a different idea of what efficient means here, but there are minimal requirements we should all agree with. For example, a society should make collective decisions that are not self-contradictory and that cannot be manipulated by introducing irrelevant alternatives.

Sadly, there is no recipe for organizing a society in such a way as to achieve even these minimal requirements. The problem has no solution besides dictatorship. This is a theorem that Kenneth Arrow, the Albert Einstein of economics, proved in the fifties. Amartya Sen, another economist, argues that this is actually not a bad result. All it says is that individual opinion and interests are not enough to organize a society. You need discussion and a process by which people’s view converge on the common good. That’s democracy. The Greeks might have known this, because in times when they had no time to discuss, they used to turn to dictatorship.

If we can’t design a perfect society, maybe we can aim at understanding the ones we have.

Speedy Publication is Hurting Science Quality

by Alla Ditta Raza Choudary
 
Blog_Choudary_ImageSpeedy publication of relatively trivial, and often scarcely refereed research articles in mathematics (and probably in most other academic disciplines), in journals with so-called high-impact factor, has set a rather dangerous trend of research in most of the world’s developing nations.

These journals usually publish quite superficial research, sometimes for a not negligible article processing fee, the page-charge. They even ask the authors, directly or indirectly, to include extended bibliographies in their papers, obviously meant to boost the impact factor of the journal. This is a trend that may, in the long run, be a threat to the global research community, substituting “good research” with “popular research”. However this is not, at present, the most dangerous part of the system. The real threat is something more fundamental,associated with these kind of research publications.

Governments in numerous developing countries are now trying to encourage research in mathematics and other scientific disciplines. For this purpose, these governments give awards, prizes and various financial incentives to their researchers. But not knowing how to evaluate the quality of research, the government bodies in these developing countries have found a very easy way out. They just add up the impact factors of the publications of the researchers applying for some national award or prize. The persons with the highest sums of impact factors are declared to be the winners. This process provides strong encouragement for publishing a large number of trivial papers (there are examples of young researchers publishing 30 to 50 papers a year) in journals with positive impact factors. During the past decades the research performance in such countries has taken a very different meaning, a meaning that honors triviality, mediocrity and non-creativity.

Why Have a Workshop for Women in Physics?

By Shobhana Narasimhan

Womenphysics1“But what do you do in a workshop like this?”
“Tell me, do you really think that there is a need for a workshop like this?”
“I completely disapprove of activities that are segregated by gender.”
“I think it is wrong for ICTP to be involved in such workshops. ICTP is for scientific activities.”
“I am very curious to know what you women discuss…tell me, you sit there and criticize men, huh?”

These are some of the more puzzled or hostile reactions I have received (mostly from men in physics) about the two “Career Development Workshops for Women in Physics” that I have helped organize at ICTP, together with Liz Simmons and Erika Coppola.

Sometimes, I feel that the fact that I am interested in organizing activities for women in physics is like having a fondness for romance novels by Georgette Heyer, or actually liking Pizza Hut pizza …it is to be kept a dark secret, suggesting I am not to be taken entirely seriously as a physicist, and may even be…ai ai ai…a FEMINIST!

Welcome to Multiverse!

by Kelsey Calhoun

ictpflowersWelcome to the ICTP Multiverse! This blog is a home for all sorts of stories from the global community of physicists and mathematicians connected to the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics. ICTP has a dual mission: to promote research excellence, and to support the development of sustainable science in developing countries around the world, spreading opportunity and resources where they are needed.

Over more than fifty years, thousands of scientists have studied at, worked at, visited, collaborated with, or been supported by ICTP. Each of those scientists has many stories–about their science, cultures, challenges, and lives, stories that sometimes go untold because they don’t necessarily qualify as “news.”

Multiverse is a new home for those stories, to make sure they get told. Research doesn’t happen in a vacuum: scientists are human too, and humans are a storytelling species. This blog will provide a backstage look, a glimpse into the process and lives of scientists and the science they publish.

Most of the posts will be written by scientists or students from the ICTP community, so the stories will be in their own words. We hope these words will inspire you to learn more about physics and mathematics, to share your enthusiasm about science, to study physics and math, or to support physicists and mathematicians in your community. If a post sparks a thought, please leave a comment below the blog posts. We’d like to hear from you.

“Science is the common heritage of mankind,” said Abdus Salam, ICTP’s founder. We hope you enjoy the stories of this heritage, from a community using a global approach to tackle pressing problems of our time.


Kelsey Calhoun is a science writer in the Public Information Office at ICTP.