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The Gift of Community

December 29, 2016

Shared experience may matter as much as scientific cooperation

AIP source—see also interview

Robert Marshak was on hand for Trinity, which was the first detonation of a nuclear weapon, ever. The test occurred at 5:29 am on July 16, 1945, as part of the Manhattan Project. Marshak was the son of parents who fled pogroms in Byelorussia. Witnessing the test, hearing the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and knowing his family history led him to become active in advancing peace. He soon co-founded and chaired the Federation of Atomic Scientists and was active in several other organizations promoting scientific co-operation as a vehicle of world peace. In 1992 he won the inaugural award of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for Science Diplomacy.

Today, the fifth day of both Chanukah and Christmas, we reflect on the gift of international scientific community.

International scientific co-operation is a theme of the movie Arrival and the story on which it is based. However, the key plot turn is a personal contact. A new example of the former is a vaccine for the Ebola virus. This item ends with words by Swati Gupta of the Merck pharmaceutical company:

“There’s been a lot of international partners that have come together in a real unprecedented effort.” The magnitude of the outbreak in West Africa, she says, made companies, governments and academic institutions push aside their own research agendas to come together and finish a vaccine.

There are countless other gifts from the former to be thankful for. We however will sing the latter, the personal side, while highlighting the role of shared experience and values in fostering research.

Marshak’s Work and Action

Marshak and his first student, George Sudarshan, worked out the “{V - A}” (vector minus axial vector) structure needed to describe certain fermion interactions. Recall a fermion is a particle that obeys the Pauli exclusion principle. They published in the proceedings of a 1957 conference in Italy, whereas its second discoverers, Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann, published in a major journal. This bio of Marshak speculates that uncertainty about priority warded off a Nobel Prize, but one can also point to the theory’s incompleteness in describing the weak nuclear force. First, it allowed models that conserve CP. The surprising discovery in 1964 that nature does not conserve CP won a Nobel Prize for James Cronin and Val Fitch. Second, its framework could not adapt to introduce a carrying particle for the weak force, obstructing the renormalization procedure by which predictions at high energies can be calculated. Still, the {V - A} concept is a standard building block and remains consistent.

Marshak became chair of the University of Rochester physics department where he had started before the war. The same bio credits him with elevating UR to the level of other top-10 physics departments but being unable to land the same caliber of students. Hence he specially reached out to the brightest of India, Pakistan, and Japan in particular. Sudarshan hailed from Kerala, India, and verged on a Nobel later as well.

Marshak was among “approximately six” US scientists who visited the Soviet Union after the death of Josef Stalin in 1953 made contact possible, and he made several return visits in the 1950s. In the 1960s many Rochester colleagues induced him to lead the faculty senate against conservative policies of the university administration. He then became president of CCNY to stir together tuition-freedom and open-admission policies leading to explosive growth and demographic change.

His final years as a professor at Virginia Tech from 1979 were no less active: as president of the American Physical Society he channeled scientific debate about the feasibility of Ronald Reagan’s SDI, and he brokered an exchange agreement with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He tragically passed away from a swimming accident on December 23, 1992, a day after completing the final corrections of his textbook Conceptual Foundations of Modern Particle Physics.

The Gifts

Sudarshan edited a posthumous book of essays in tribute to Marshak. Its title, A Gift of Prophecy, references both the many correct guesses about foundations of physics that Marshak made and the fruition of international science as he had envisioned it. Its publisher’s blurb begins:

Marshak devoted much of his life to helping other people carry out scientific research and gather to discuss their work.

From having attended many international conferences and workshops, Dick and I know that much else goes on besides “discussing our work.” We will discuss our families, our home towns, our local academic circumstances. We talk about culture and politics, usually treating culture as common and politics as comparative. We even talk about sports. There is time for discussing specific research problems, but conference excursions more often lend themselves to discussing big and general scientific questions. We have and give individual opinions, yes, but what emerges is the realization that we share a common frame of reference.

To say the shared frame is Rationality—versus whatever—would be facile. To me the frame is distinguished most by the absence of negotiations compared to some other kinds of international contacts. Negotiations at their best are non-zero-sum, but at our best the thought of zero-sum never arises. Instead we are all builders, not only of our field but of common understandings.

Within our departments there are negotiations over resources, but they are between subfields not polities, and our students are shielded from them as much as possible. For instance, nothing is vested in whether the Buffalo CSE graduate student association is led by an American or Chinese or Indian or Iranian (or more) and nobody cares because we have built shared experience and know the common work to do. The similarity of academic life in many locales helps us see humanity first and region afterward. Having advanced to the level of international contact makes us de-facto leaders in our fields, and of course we should pursue international initiatives when opportune, but we submit also this thesis:

A robust international “go-alongishness” may prove more enduring and valuable than any one initiative.

I have also been happy to interact some with students in departments abroad, most recently while teaching a short course at the University of Calcutta last August. I was struck by the similarity of the basic outlook also when speaking at a one-day workshop in Pune, India. Is our communality robust enough to stand up to changing political winds? We fervently hope this for the years ahead, as it was Marshak’s hope.

Open Problems

What are your views on the value of community? For one axis of value, conferences basically all no longer have face-to-face program committee meetings since using Internet and e-mail and spreadsheets is so convenient and cost-effective as to outweigh the sometimes-remarked loss of deliberation. But is there any move toward promoting remote participation in the conferences themselves, and what more would be lost in doing so?

We are thankful for our many friends in our community and wish all of you the best in the coming New Year.

[Added 1/18/17: This was my 100th or 99th singly-authored post on this blog, depending on which WordPress count one believes…]

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