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2009 Physics & Society Student Fellows
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APSThe American Physical Society Forum on Physics and Society (FPS), in partnership with the Society of Physics Students and the APS Forum on Graduate Student Affairs, proudly announce the 2009 recipients of the Student Fellowships in Physics and Society.

The primary goal of the Fellowships is to provide research and project opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students interested in physics and society, and to raise the awareness of applying physics to problems in society as a career and as an important undertaking by members of the physics community. 

Kevin ThomasKevin Thomas, University of Central Florida
Replacing Superstition, Paranormal, and Pseudo-Science with Logic and Science

Interim Project Report   Final Project Report

Project Description
Various polls [3] have shown a significant increase of public understanding of science articles in newspapers. American citizens also express a sincere interest for science and technology [3]. However, at the same time, there has been a rising support of pseudoscientific beliefs. The National Science Foundation conducts biannual surveys about public literacy and other related issues [1]. In the most recent survey, there seems to be a small decline in the pseudoscientific beliefs of the public relative to the previous all-times-high survey. However, they still remain at dangerously high levels. Figure 1 shows the percentage of believers for ten pseudoscientific items. About 75% of Americans believe in at least one of the ten survey pseudoscientific items. Moreover, 57% believe in two, 32% believe in four, 22% believe in five or more of the items! About 1% believe in all ten items!

Pseudo-science, [6] describes any theories, assumptions, or methods erroneously regarded as science. It may not only negatively impact science, but may posses a continuous, in fact, increasing threat to our society as it might harm (financially or otherwise) innocent and trusting citizens [5]. Possible ways people can be harmed are through the misguidance of psychic readings, and horoscopes. However, a more serious threat may lie in the perpetuation of untruths and brainwashing by fanatic cults such as Heaven's Gate.

In 1991 a Gallup poll showed that 47 percent of Americans believed that God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last ten thousand years. This is a major controversy, as 99 percent of scientists share the view taken by only 9 percent of Americans in the same poll: a strict naturalist view of evolution not involving God [2]. A direct problem is not the belief, but the anti-evolution legislation believers attempt to pass, along with other anti-science sentiments. These legislation and ideas, should they be incorporated into the scientific community, could constrain scientific progress. It is failing to see long term effects of accepting untestable claims with no logical or reasonable backing, that challenges the idea of critical thinking, and demands that topics like pseudo-science be addressed.

There are many social, economical, and psychological reasons that explain why pseudo-scientific beliefs are adopted by believers. However, there is only one reason that explains how they are accepted in the first place: they were never scrutinized using logic. Unfortunately, our educational system has failed to properly teach critical thinking. Many people, though intelligent, may lack these critical thinking skills--the mental process of analyzing and evaluating to form a solid judgment that reconciles both scientific evidence and common sense [7]. In addition, they lack a clear understanding of the scientific method that aims to separate science from nonsense.

We are all responsible for this state of affairs, and we are all obligated to repair it. This proposal is thus my personal contribution towards the eradication of superstition, paranormal, and pseudo-science from our society and their replacement by logic and science. I am not so naive to believe that, through my little project, I will succeed where so many other people have failed. However if my effort motivates more people to also launch their attacks to fraud and nonsense, I will consider it a great progress. Perhaps the people motivated by me will motivate others; and by the use of the exponential function, maybe one day our society will succeed to really live free.

[1] Science and Engineering Indicators,
[2] Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2002.
[3] Americans sending mixed signals on science." The Associated Press 17 Feb 2007
[4] Bauer, Henry H. Science or Pseudoscience. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001
[5] Ethimiou, C., Llewellyn R. Is Pseudoscience the Solution to Science Literacy?"
[6] Pseudoscience." Def. Merriam-Webster Online.
[7] Sagan, Carl. Boca's

Kevin Thomas will complete his Bachelor of Science in Physics from the University of Central Florida (UCF) in the summer of 2009 and will start teaching high school physics while getting his Masterís degree in Education. Mr. Thomas and fellow student Sohang Ghandi (currently at Cornell University) were the group leaders of the UCF team, which was awarded the 2006 Sigma Pi Sigma Undergraduate Research Award on the Double Cone Project. He has also worked collecting data for the UVIS Cassini Rings Research Team, under Professor Josh Colwell, and as an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant in Physics during the 2007-2008 school year. However, Mr. Thomas has worked more extensively with Professor Costas Efthimiou, starting in Spring 2006. His research with Dr. Efthimiou focuses on combating the dangers of pseudoscience and advancing individual critical thinking through science literacy and quantitative numeracy. Mr. Thomas hopes to use the information of his research as part of his own curriculum and to develop his students' critical thinking skills. Mr. Thomas plans to continually improve the quality of his research and hopes to always enrich his own education with new experiences and knowledge.

  Zhenyuan Zhao (right), and his project mentor Dr. Niel F. Johnson (left).
Zhenyuan Zhao, University of Miami
Complex Systems Approach to Controlling Carbon Emissions

Interim Project Report   Final Project Report

Project Description

There is widespread agreement that carbon emissions need to be reduced-- however, there is little agreement on how this should be done. Setting aside the long-term goal of creating new emissions-friendly technologies, the crucial immediate issue concerns how to globally control existing emissions. Despite many international summits on global warming, and its high profile in the media, there is very limited quantitative understanding of the extent to which institutions or governments can in principle control total emissions without having to continually intervene to micro-manage daily quotas, and hence lose their free-market ethos. It is this issue that my project addresses, building on a novel theoretical Complex Systems framework developed in part by my supervisor, and the very promising preliminary results that I have already obtained.

Specifically, my project will explore the extent to which free competition, linked with minimal global control, can lead to a self-organized capping of the global emissions. I will study a model in which a population of competing, adaptive emitters make decisions on when to emit based solely on the behavior of some shared public information. My preliminary work shows that within this simple framework, the emitters can organize themselves in order to collectively hit their emissions target, at the expense of some quantifiable fluctuations in the total volume emitted. Most importantly they achieve this without the need for any external regulation or manipulation of the market.

Zhenyuan Zhao is currently working toward his Ph.D. in the Department of Physics, University of Miami (UM). His doctoral research is in the field of complex systems, focusing on agent-based modeling, the dynamics of groups, and complex dynamical networks. He is supervised by Professor Neil Johnson. He received the M.Sc. and B.Sc. degrees in physics from UM and Nanjing University, China, in 2007 and 2005 respectively. His masters' work focused on fluid dynamics. He was awarded the Peopleís scholarship during his undergraduate years. In 2007, he received the Award of Academic Merit from UM.

His research on complex systems focuses on the physics of collective behavior and emergent properties in real-world systems. In the past few years, he has been working on several interdisciplinary projects with applications to biochemistry, economics, and sociology.

The primary goal of the Student Fellowship in Physics and Society is to provide research and project opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students interested in physics and society, and to raise the awareness of applying physics to problems in society as a career and as an important undertaking by members of the physics community. 

There are three objectives of the program. 

  • First, some students who are exposed to issues where physics impacts societal issues will choose to make careers in this area.  These students will provide a badly needed younger generation of technically literate policy researchers, analysts, and leaders. 
  • Second, there are many more technical issues on the interface between physics and society than there are physicists working on them.  Putting talented young people to work on these problems will help society and the physics community. 
  • Finally, students involved in projects applying physics to social issues will communicate their excitement to fellow students and faculty members in their institutions and nationally, thus raising the awareness of the entire physics community.

The Fellowships are open to undergraduate or graduate students in physics who will be awarded up to $4,000 each to support a project that applies physics to a societal issue.

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