On the evening of the 23 June 2016, I was at an Awards Dinner for the Royal Academy of Engineering, which is held each year to recognise excellence in engineering of all varieties. Talking to colleagues around the table that night, the majority were sure that the UK electorate would vote to remain in the EU. Although only one person I talked to admitted to having voted to leave, I was not convinced that this was going to be such an easy victory for the Remain Campaign. I had been worried for some time that many people from “my generation”, who had voted to join the European Community in the last referendum in 1975, were coming out in force to reverse that decision.
Like many physicists in the UK, I spent the final Friday of June in shock. Voters in Britain had just opted by a margin of 52% to 48% to leave the European Union (EU) – and suddenly nothing in the world seemed to make sense any more. I’d never really thought a majority would want a British exit (Brexit) from the EU. As with the referendum over Scottish independence from the UK in 2014, I’d assumed voters would come to their senses at the last minute.
It’s now two months since I accepted the Presidency of the German Physical Society, the DPG: a great honour for any German physicist, but also a great responsibility. With over 60,000 members, the DPG is the largest society devoted to physics in the world. It binds itself and its members to advocate for freedom, tolerance, truth and dignity in science, and to be conscious of the fact that those of us working in science have a particularly important role in society, being to a large extent responsible for the development of society. To me, that means that organisations like the DPG, and indeed the European Physical Society, need to look very closely at education as the basis to both the progress of science and of society.
A round table on the theme “Physics for Development” was organised during the Council Meeting of the European Physical Society (EPS) on 1 April 2016. There is no doubt that science and technology are essential elements to meet the challenges for sustainable development. Fundamental and applied scientific research lay the foundations for new methodologies to identify, clarify and provide solutions to global challenges. Science contributes to social and technological progress, improving the quality of life through advances in medicine, agriculture, energy supply, education, communication, etc. Science is also in itself a way of crossing national, cultural and mental borders by fostering international cooperation.
The Nuclear Physics European Collaboration Committee [NuPECC] has just started the process for the preparation of a new Long Range Plan (LRP) for nuclear science in Europe. A new European strategy document is indeed needed since the last one dates from 2010 and because these documents are important references for research in the field over a period of 5-7 years.
In our role as researchers and teachers we work to increase the knowledge, use it and transmit it to new generations of scientists.
At the same time, our global citizenship is often confronted with technical, cultural, ethical and social issues needing scientific knowledge not available to the average citizen. Direct engagement with the public helps us to understand their interest for science and their doubts and concerns.
Born during the Cold War, the Pugwash movement gathers physicists who promote the peaceful use of science.
Many scientists were shocked by what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, even among those who had supported or taken part in the Manhattan project. In 1955 Einstein teamed with mathematician and Nobel Prize laureate in Literature Bertrand Russell to sign and promote a manifesto encouraging scientists to work for a peaceful use of science and attach more importance to the survival of the human species rather than political beliefs: …
An equitable gender balance in physics would be beneficial for the quality of research and education, which are key elements in the economic, social and cultural development of our Society. The under-representation of women in physics is very widely debated and is central for a Society caring about the well-being of its members.
Democracy relies on an educated population. High quality schools and teachers, classrooms open for all and interesting and exact teaching materials help to teach successive generations. The western world has known 70 years of peaceful co-existence. And although there is considerable turmoil in the world, parts of Asia, Africa and South America are also experiencing unprecedented growth. There are more people that are receiving a high quality education than ever before.
One essential question today is how much responsibility must scientists take in advising politicians on science policy issues and other society challenges.
In an article that appeared in EPN45/3 in 2014, entitled ‘Climate change can we afford to wait longer?‘ I expressed my personal view on the need to communicate on important and timely environmental issues. This was an easy process since this opinion was that of a single author. In the meantime, the EPS has published a position paper written by its…
What is the aim of fundamental science? We have all asked ourselves this question, and however naive it may seem, we often have to provide an answer. When the question comes from policy makers and funding agencies, we suspect ulterior motives. Therefore, rather than explain that the purpose is to gain knowledge and understanding, which is the essence of fundamental science, it is easier to raise an equally important aspect: most of the greatest technological advances are the direct or indirect consequence of not politically oriented research. One example that is often mentioned is the invention of the laser.
Twitter has over 280 million active users who send around 500 million tweets a day. These are impressive statistics, and we all hear regularly of some news or controversy that starts and spreads via a tweet. Given the extensive reach of the Twitter network, one would think that it might be useful for serious science. However, most scientists tend to think that Twitter is at best not especially relevant or indeed that it’s a complete waste of time! That said, there are a number of high profile scientists (e.g. Brian Cox, Neil de Grasse Tyson) and research institutes (e.g. CERN, NASA) with over a million followers, so there are clearly many people who wish to hear what scientists have to say.