AAS Meeting #194 - Chicago, Illinois, May/June 1999
Session 25. HAD II: Celebrating Other Centennials
Historical, Oral, Monday, May 31, 1999, 10:00-11:30am, Marquette

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[25.02] Tales from the hundred year history of the American Physical Society

H. Lustig (Dept. of Physics and Astronomy, U. New Mexico)

The tale to be told on this occasion - a tale only slightly out of school - is that of the punctuated evolution of the APS in pursuing its hundred years old mission, "the advancement and diffusion of the knowledge of physics". For long periods this goal was pursued, singlemindedly and impressively, through scientfic meetings and the Society's journals. However, within a year of its founding, the APS,in concert with other scientific societies, had already "lobbied" successfully for the establishment of the Bureau of Standards. But then all was quiet on the public front until after World War II. Since that time there have been three waves of forays into the public arena. The first, which spanned the "McCarthy period", was in defense of the freedom of scientists to practice their profession across national boundaries; of the right to announce the results of their research even if they trod on powerful toes (the Astin case); and of individual physicists, such as E.U. Condon and J.Robert Oppenheimer,who had been unfairly accused and badly treated. The second wave occurred in the late sixties and early seventies when, initially much pushed by activist members, the Society's leadership came to grips with broad social issues, such as segregation in the South, the Equal Rights Amendment, and, eventually, arms control and nuclear weapons. The third immersion in public affairs, which is still very much in progress, can be characterized as worrying and speaking out on what physics can do for the country (provide authoritative studies on nuclear energy, renewables, directed energy weapons, etc.) and what the country can do for physics (provide more money). Although lobbying for better funding is still a relatively minor occupation of the Society, it raises the question how physics -an elitist pursuit -can be truthfully and effectively "sold" in a democratic and egalitarian society.

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