Reflections on the 2016 Congress Theme

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Elegant Connections in Physics

Reflections on the 2016 Congress Theme

Unifying Fields—Science Driving Innovation Thoughts on Innovation and the Human Spirit


Dwight E. Neuenschwander

‘What’s new?’ is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question ‘What is best?’—Robert Pirsig 1

Shelter Island Conference, June 1947 (Emilio Segrè Archive, AIP). The Shelter Island participants are our heroes, but we’re glad to see lively diversity today (bottom), such as these 2016 congress attendees touring SLAC. Photo courtesy of Tracy Schwab.

As we look ahead to the 2019 Sigma Pi Sigma Congress, I have been asked to “explore and expound” on the Unifying Fields: Science Driving Innovation theme of the last congress, held in San Francisco, California, in 2016. The events of the 2016 congress are well chronicled elsewhere,2 but I cannot resist adding that the meeting was fabulous. For instance, the dance party sponsored by the American Physical Society exploded stereotypes of the dour physicist in a rumpled suit (see above).

In fulfilling my assignment, hopefully my lack of profundity is offset by the 2016 congress being my seventh consecutive one. Being a geezer offers the advantage of experience. Experience means having a past to compare with the present. Most of my students today have never lived in a world without cell phones, word processors, or the Internet. For example, they never had the pleasure of typing a term paper on a mechanical typewriter—with the additional fun of inserting math symbols and Greek letters by hand. My old Royal typewriter still works, but now I prefer to use a word processor, which I deeply appreciate because I have an alternative for comparison. On the other hand, I still respect the Royal—it needs no software upgrades, it consumes no electricity, and by looking at it closely one sees the clever design of its mechanical action. There is something to be said for simplicity.

“Unifying fields” as a source of innovation was beautifully illustrated several years ago by Carl Sagan. He invited readers to imagine Queen Victoria commissioning in 1860 a cost-is-no-object “Westminster Project” to design and build a communication system that would, in real time, carry voices and pictures into every home of the British Empire—not through wires, but “somehow come out of the air.” However, Sagan said, “The Westminster Project would almost certainly fail. Why? Because the underlying science hadn’t been done.”3 A theory of the electromagnetic field did not yet exist. Maxwell’s equations in 1861 and 1862 unified electric and magnetic fields into one. Only by grasping that unity could radio and television be conceived as applications. Of course, they did not spring forth the moment Maxwell’s equations appeared but had to await the development of complex technologies such as vacuum-tube amplifiers and television picture tubes. That long road from initial concepts to marketable products took armies of highly skilled people solving tricky technical problems.4

Quantum mechanics was invented to unify our understanding of microscopic phenomena. Semiconductor electronics were among its serendipitous applications. The prototype transistor, built in 1948, had been envisioned since 1939 as a theoretical possibility, thanks to the concept of quantum mechanical tunneling. Turning that visionary idea into mass-produced transistor radios, personal computers, and cell phones was another long and difficult road. In Jon Gertner’s history of Bell Labs, he writes, “In later years, it would become a kind of received wisdom that many of the revolutionary technologies that arose at Bell Labs in the 1940s and 1950s owed their existence to dashing physicists such as Bill Shockley, and to the iconoclastic ideas of quantum mechanics … More fundamentally, however, the coming age of technologies owed its existence to a quiet revolution in materials. Indeed, without the new materials … Shockley would have spent his career trapped in a prison of elegant theory.”5 Gertner explains that in the flood of postwar technology, the term “innovation” came to mean “the lengthy and wholesale transformation of an idea into a technological product (or process) meant for widespread practical use. Almost by definition, a single person, or even a single group, could not alone create an innovation.”6 Innovation requires a deep bench of diverse skills and perspectives.

Ralph Brown, the Bell Labs research director when the transistor was invented, said that if the lab’s buildings, equipment, and records were destroyed but the people remained, the lab would still exist. But if the people left and the infrastructure remained, the lab would not exist. Gertner summarizes, “Bell Labs was a human and not a material organization. . . . Brown never explained whether the institution’s success was a result of thousands of engineers and scientists working together, or of the few exemplars who towered above everyone else.” After thoughtful consideration Gertner concludes, “Perhaps the most significant thing was that Bell Labs had both kinds of people in profusion, and both kinds working together. And for the problems it was solving, both kinds were necessary.”7 The technical and socioeconomic challenges facing the world today—for example, the wicked problem of transitioning fossil-fuel-based economies to clean energy—will require exemplars and deep benches. As the closest thing the physics community has to an alumni association, Sigma Pi Sigma provides a big-tent network for crucial players—our hidden and explicit physicists. With their technical competence and cultural perspectives, Sigma Pi Sigma members should lead the way in keeping innovation “a human and not a material” enterprise.

The 2016 congress theme of unity and innovation built on previous congress themes. The 2012 congress, held in Orlando near the Kennedy Space Center, emphasized Connecting Worlds Through Science and Service.8 In 2008 at Fermilab, with its inspiring legacy of neighborly citizenship,9 congress attendees discussed Scientific Citizenship: Connecting Physics and Society.10 The 2004 congress theme, Heritage and Promise, linked physics and society through discussions of scientific ethics.11

esolutions on ethical scientific conduct were passed—a fitting task when meeting in Albuquerque, halfway between Los Alamos and the Trinity Site, geographical reminders that innovations present their authors with ethical dilemmas, with results that are thrust onto society. The 2000 congress in College Park solicited member feedback through the working theme What Would You, As a Sigma Pi Sigma Member, Like to Tell the Physics Community?12 The 2000 congress expanded on the 1996 Diamond Jubilee Congress theme, Looking Back, Looking Forward.13 On that 75th anniversary of the Sigma Pi Sigma’s founding, the founders were honored and the value of the society to the larger physics community was emphasized, including such steps as introducing the term “hidden physicist”14 and a mission statement with an explicit “service” component.15 As a trial run before the 1996 Atlanta, GA anniversary event, the 1992 congress in Dayton (my first one) restored these meetings into the culture of physics.16 The Dayton meeting asked what Sigma Pi Sigma could do for its members, and subsequent congresses asked what Sigma Pi Sigma could do for society. The 1992 congress was the first after a long hiatus dating back to the 1967 congress held at Purdue University, when Sigma Pi Sigma and the American Institute of Physics created the Society of Physics Students.17 During the following two decades while the focus fell on establishing SPS, the congresses were never out of mind.

The 2016 congress theme celebrated innovation. As scientists, we are obliged to offer constructive criticism as well. The Diamond Jubilee gave Alan Lightman the opportunity to critique our sometimes over-reliance on technology. In his plenary talk “The Curse of Prosperity,” he offered examples of “technology overload18. For instance, if fussing over the video camera during your 10-year-old daughter’s birthday party prevents you from seeing that irreplaceable moment in real time with your own eyes, that’s technology overload.

For better and for worse, since the 1992 congress our innovations have grown more tentacles. Nowadays I increasingly find myself asking, “Do I own my technology, or does it own me?” Our brilliant innovations leverage what can be done, but they also bring unintended consequences, enhancing and potentially diminishing the human experience.19

Being fully human includes having time to reflect.20 During the first morning of the 2016 congress I went to the hotel café for a croissant and coffee. Ten large flat-screen televisions filled the span behind the counter, from one end to the other. Flat-screen TVs are elegant applied physics, and I enjoy describing to my students how they work, along with the equally interesting cathode-ray television picture tubes the flat screens are replacing. But these beautiful machines have become, by their omnipresence, invasive deliverers of technology overload. Evidently the café designers condescendingly decided for me that I cannot go five minutes without hearing the latest antics of the celebrities du jour21. Such intrusions have become the norm.

ow did we allow silence to become so difficult to find in modern society?22 Shouldn’t quiet be a protected resource? Shouldn’t the Bill of Rights contain an amendment upholding our right to be left in peace? The same innovations can send signals in reverse, as with data mining, GPS and keystroke tracking, digital spying by hacking, and so on,23 hastening the evaporation of privacy. Timothy Snyder, a historian of authoritarian regimes, commented in a recent interview, “Totalitarianism starts when the difference between your public life and your private life is effaced. . . . If we can’t have a private life then we are not a free people.”24 The leverage offered by recent innovations allows us to be steered from afar by anonymous forces. Efficiency should not be purchased at the price of individual serenity and freedom.

Being fully human also includes taking responsibility for one’s own well-being. Among the tours arranged for the 2016 congress attendees, I visited the Computer History Museum in the nearby town of Mountain View. The experience was well worth the hours of my life I spent there. The museum sits near Google’s headquarters. One of Google’s cute autonomous cars was on display. Its doors were open, so I climbed inside. There was no steering wheel. The promotional displays surrounding the little machine gushed the virtues of its self-driving abilities—reducing congestion and accidents, and so on, all genuine merits.25 People who loathe driving or are disabled should have one of these appliances. For them, a self-driving car means freedom. Not so much for me; a Miata roadster with a six-speed manual transmission is my preferred mode of four-wheeled transportation. The autonomous car’s display extolling the virtues of my not “having to” drive left me feeling like a skier who has been given the glorious news that ski lifts will henceforth carry me back down the mountain so I won’t have to suffer the “inconvenience” and risk of doing the skiing myself.26 When you stop and really think about it, smoothly driving a car is a marvelous thing to do! For those who care about their driving, the point is not merely transportation but the relationship between driver and machine. The car becomes an extension of your coordinated hands and feet, eyes and mind, as you choose braking and shifting points and your line through a curve. It’s not only about arriving safely at your destination. It’s also about making the journey interesting. Otherwise, something else dies.

A Safety Alert for Operators issued by the Federal Aviation Administration on January 4, 2012, encouraged airlines “to promote manual flight operations when appropriate.”27 FAA data suggested that human pilots had become excessively dependent on autopilots. When the computer failed or the aircraft encountered situations not anticipated in the programming, evidently some pilots had forgotten how to fly the plane manually. How ironic that at the very time the public started becoming aware of autonomous cars, the FAA had to urge pilots to maintain their manual flying skills! Technology offers marvelous tools, but it can also introduce an abdication of personal responsibility.28 Do I really need a refrigerator that will order a jug of milk for me or software that completes my sentences for me? Where is the boundary between accepting convenience and buying into my own diminishment? Will innovation’s ultimate legacy be smart machines and incompetent people?29

Let me give voice to my students who write weekly letters for our Science, Technology, and Society course. Riley B. wrote of a growing awareness30:

I don’t get out of my comfort zone, I stay trapped inside my lit up screen. . . . I began to think of the significance of the movie “Wall-E.” In this movie . . . the humans rely on technology for everything. . . . Our society is becoming that. We are becoming a society that wants everything done for us, to the point where we dumb ourselves from adults back down to babies, who have to have everything done and given to us. It’s scary to think where we will be in 2100.

Macy S. represents many others who have expressed similar doubts in recent years:

I must admit, I am beginning to challenge some of my own views on technology. . . . Our generation teaches us that technology is the only way of life. It teaches us that our careers are geared around technology. . . . There must be a way to find beauty in the world without my eyes being glued to a screen. . . . What happened to face-to-face personal communication? I am honestly getting frustrated. . . . I have never craved authentic humanity more in my entire life. . . . There’s something so suffocating about having to live under the control of technology. . . . The most freeing times in my life have been when I am out in the wilderness, camping, and have absolutely no connection to the internet or my cell phone. I find myself returning from trips like these and not being on my phone half as much. I also find myself looking around more. . . .

Robert Pirsig, who valued technology but could get along fine without it, concluded, “The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. . . . The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is—not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both.”31
Perhaps future congresses will build on the 2016 theme of innovation with themes along the line of Innovation that Respects the Human Spirit. Future congresses might discuss such questions as:

  • Are convenience and efficiency the ultimate values? Are they effective teachers?
  • How can innovations leave space for an authentic humanity of adventure and personal responsibility?
  • How can smart machines be prevented from seducing their users into states of infantile dependency?
  • As lifestyles change with new technologies, what features of human experience should remain constant?
  • Just because we can do something, does it follow that we should?

Fundamental scientific research finds motivation from values of aesthetics and adventure, “seeking unity in hidden likenesses.”32 Building on that unity, much of technological innovation aims to make life’s tasks easier and more convenient. Ease and convenience have their place, but they are not disciplines that develop capable human beings. In his last interview, Richard Feynman noted that sometimes life should be lived on a lower level. After all, he said, “Life is not about traveling on the freeway and staying at the Holiday Inn. The whole point is to have adventure.” 33


Thanks to the organizers and SPS/ΣΠΣ staff for a superb and significant 2016 Congress and for inviting me to write a reflective article about it. Thanks to Kerry Kidwell-Slak and other editors for useful suggestions, and Glen Dikes for sharing his knowledge of Bell Labs. I am looking forward to the 2019 congress.

  1. Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (William Morrow & Co., 1974), 16.
  2. See the Fall 2015, Spring 2016, Fall 2016, and Spring 2017 issues of Radiations.
  3. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Ballantine Books, 1996), 384–385.
  4. F.M. Smits, Ed., A History of Engineering & Science in the Bell System: Electronics Technology (1925–1975), AT&T Bell Laboratories (1985), ch. 3. These earlier technologies are as interesting as the semiconductors that replaced them.
  5.  Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (Penguin Press, 2012), 81. See also F.M. Smits, ref. 4, ch. 1.
  6. Gertner, ref. 5, 107.
  7. Ibid., 357–358.
  8. 2012 Congress: Radiations Fall 2011, Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Spring 2014.
  9. D.E. Neuenschwander, “Fermilab: Scientific Citizenship by Example,” Radiations, Spring 2008, 15–16.
  10. 2008 Congress: Radiations Spring 2008, Fall 2008, Spring 2009, Fall 2009.
  11. 2004 Congress: Radiations Fall 2003, Spring 2004, Fall 2004, Spring 2005.
  12. 2000 Congress: Radiations Spring 1999, Fall 1999, Summer 2000, Winter 2000.
  13. 1996 Congress: Radiations Fall 1995, Spring 1996, Fall 1996, Spring 1997. 
  14. “The Origin and Future of the Term ‘Hidden Physicist,’” Radiations editorial (Winter 2000), 18. The Spring 1996 Radiations solicits “Friends of Physics” contacts, p. 17, and the first installment of the “Spotlight on Hidden Physicists” column appeared in the Fall 1996 issue, p. 38. 
  15. For an abbreviated version of the Sigma Pi Sigma mission statement, see; for the full version see Radiations (Spring 1996), 20.
  16. The visionary individuals who urged restoration of the congresses in time for the 75th anniversary of Sigma Pi Sigma, and worked tirelessly with AIP staff to make it happen, include former Sigma Pi Sigma presidents Worth Seagondollar and George Miner, and Sigma Pi Sigma/SPS Historian Peggy Dixon. Marsh White, in his nineties, cheered everyone on.
  17. Peggy Dixon, Sigma Pi Sigma Historical Highlights 1921–2003 (American Institute of Physics, 2003), 8–11.
  18. Alan Lightman, “The Curse of Prosperity,” Diamond Jubilee Proceedings (American Institute of Physics, 1996), 21–27.
  19. Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (Penguin Books, 2009); Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015); Michael Rogers, “What’s Gained, What’s Lost,” Newsweek Special Edition (1989), 68; Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2011).
  20. Steven Levy, “(Some) Attention Must Be Paid!” Newsweek, March 27, 2006, 16; Anna Quindlen, “Doing Nothing is Something,” Newsweek, May 12, 2002, 76; Eric Weiner, “The End of Offline in Flight? Say It Ain’t So,” National Public Radio, Feb. 12, 2009 php?storyId=100558227.
  21. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin Books, 2005); Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, “Tube-Tied,” Technology, Feb. 1, 2015; Allison Wood, “Please Remove the Boob Tube,” Newsweek, Nov. 12, 2007.
  22. D.E. Neuenschwander, “Rattlesnake University,” SPS Observer, Winter 2002, 6–7, 14; D.E. Neuenschwander, Ed. Dear Professor: Twenty Years of Correspondence Between Freeman Dyson and Undergraduate Students About Science, Technology, Society, and Life (World Scientific, 2016), ch. 11.
  23. “Wikileaks Documents Detail Alleged CIA Hacking Tools,” National Public Radio interview on Morning Edition, March 8, 2017, with Jake Williams of the cybersecurity firm Rendition InfoSec recent “Quantum Information” poster produced by the Joint Quantum Institute of the University of Maryland, APS, and NIST announced, “Through massive parallel processing, quantum computers are expected to easily crack popular encryption schemes and offer faster ways of searching vast databases.” Quantum computing will give exciting insights into quantum mechanics, but are we expected to uncritically endorse this application? 
  24. Interview with Timothy Snyder on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, March 6, 2017; see also Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (Crown, 2016); “Every Step Tou Take,” The Economist, Nov. 16, 2013; “The End of Privacy,” Science Special Issue, Jan. 30, 2015.
  25. It was interesting that the display included no suggestion of any downsides or unintended consequences, such as the consequences of hacks into networked car computer systems, or operators forgetting how to drive.
  26. Jamie Kitman, “Car and Driverless: Save the Steering Wheel,” Automobile, Nov. 2011, 22–23; Mat Honan, “The Gadgetization of Cars is Kind of Ruining Them,”
  27. Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (W.W. Norton and Co., 2014), 1; National Public Radio All Things Considered, “Hands-Free, Mind-Free: What We Lose Through Automation,” Sept. 29, 2014.
  28. Evgeny Morozov, “The Perils of Perfection,” The New York Times, March 2, 2013,
  29. Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future (Penguin Books, 2009); Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (W.W. Norton and Co., 2011); Dave Schwartz, “Technology and a ‘Generation of Idiots,’” editorial in Technology, June 9, 2014.
  30. Riley B. and Macy S. are members of the spring 2017 STS class. For more letters see Dear Professor Dyson, ref. 22.
  31. Pirsig, ref. 1, 290–291.
  32. Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values (Harper & Row, 1965), 13–14.
  33. Documentary, “Richard Feynman: Last Journey of a Genius” (BBC Horizon, PBS Nova, 1988).

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