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The Dayside : Venturing abroad

By: Charles Day
Thu Jul 03 12:34:00 UTC 2014

In 1964 Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson detected an excess contribution to the so-called noise temperature of their microwave antenna at Bell Labs' facility in Crawford Hill, New Jersey. Their measurement, made at 4.08 GHz, put the contribution's temperature at 3.5 ± 1.0 K.

The temperature was consistent with Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman's 1948 prediction of a relic manifestation of the Big Bang, the cosmic microwave background. But the Bell Labs' measurement could not confirm that the contribution's spectrum was a blackbody, as predicted.

Now, thanks to subsequent observations made on the ground and in space, the cosmic microwave background has become not just an established manifestation of the Big Bang, but also a means to study the cosmos itself. The precision with which NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe has determined the age of the universe (13.772 ± 0.059 billion years) and other cosmological quantities is stupendous.

Physics Today's Bert Schwarzschild wrote about the first set of WMAP results for the magazine's April 2003 issue. Although Bert's news story contained links to past coverage of the topic, I doubt many readers leapt from their chairs to reach for the corresponding back issues. Science news has a short half-life.

Even so, the Physics Today archive, which stretches back to May 1948, does contain decades-old articles that are worth reading because they can illuminate what aspects of physics and the physics community have changed and what have remained the same.

Digging out those archival gems is time-consuming. To spare you the effort, this blog will occasionally introduce and discuss articles from Physics Today's first three decades. And to spare you from eyestrain, the articles will be available in Web-friendly HTML format in addition to the original PDF scan.

Fundamental research in underdeveloped countries

To kick off the series, and to honor the 50th anniversary of Penzias and Wilson's discovery, I have chosen an article from 1964, "Fundamental research in underdeveloped countries" by Michael Moravcsik. The title is somewhat misleading. Although Moravcsik does cover the state of research in poor countries, the article consists of a carefully argued plea to US physicists, especially ones engaged in basic research, that they should spend a year working in one of those countries.

Lahore's central avenue, the Mall, as it looked in the 1960s when Michael Moravcsik spent a year in the Pakistani city.

Lahore's central avenue, the Mall, as it looked in the 1960s when Michael Moravcsik spent a year in the Pakistani city.

Much has changed since Moravczik wrote the article. One concern he addressed was the isolation a visiting physicist might feel in an underdeveloped country. Now, thanks to the internet, entire libraries of journals and preprints are available almost anywhere. Collaborators, friends, and family are a Skype call away.

Most countries have seen their prosperity improve since 1964. Then, South Korea—to cite a star economic performer—would have qualified as poor. Now, adjusted for purchasing power, its GDP per capita exceeds that of Italy. When US physicists visit South Korea, they collaborate as scientific and economic peers.

But much of what Moravcsik wrote in 1964 applies today. He explains why poor countries should invest, albeit modestly, in basic research and not just in applied research, which might seem more relevant to their technological needs. He explains the drawbacks of trying to build a poor country's scientific workforce through educating its students in Western countries. And he explains what a visiting scientist can bring to an institution in a poor country. Here's one of the benefits he listed:

One striking characteristic of science in the underdeveloped counties is the fact that the scientific population consists mostly of very young people. This is natural enough, but it carries the consequence that there is a crying need for research leaders and originators of ideas who can coordinate and guide the work of young scientists until they themselves, after five or ten years of experience, become scientific leaders. Thus a Western scientist with some experience in independent research can do wonders in making effective use of local talent that otherwise might relapse into aimless stagnancy.

Perhaps reflecting the time period in which he wrote the article, Moravcsik avoids acknowledging, either explicitly or implicitly, that any of his physicist readers might be women. Then, as now, the omission matters. Moravcsik based his article on the year he spent at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission's center in Lahore. Although the Pakistan Council for Science and Technology has set itself goals for training women in STEM fields, the council itself admits that the country's gender gap is among the world's worst. A 21th-century update of Moravcsik's article would advise women on how to ascertain how they'll be treated in potential host countries.

Moravcsik did not mention whether any family members accompanied him to Lahore. I couldn't ask him myself because he died in 1989. So out of curiosity, I looked him up in American Men and Women of Science. According to the 1966 edition—the earliest one in which he appears—he married in 1958; he and his wife had two children.

Living abroad for a year with one's family remains challenging even when the destination is a rich and familiar country like the UK. It's a pity that Moravcsik didn't reveal how or whether he and his wife met the challenge. Still, I urge you to read the article. To modern readers, one of the benefits of living abroad that Moravcsik cites could seem even more attractive than it did to his original readers:

If one lives at one of the busiest centers of physics, one sometimes feels that between going to seminars every day, and picking up tidbits here and there, there is real need for a more quiet and peaceful time when one can do some systematic and extensive work to catch up with developments in the field. I used part of my time in that way, and perhaps achieved more in Lahore than I would have in California.

Moravcsik remained committed to helping scientists in poor countries. The last of the more than 30 letters he wrote to Physics Today, in May 1986, urged the magazine to better publicize a program for donating surplus scientific journals to libraries in developing countries.

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