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President's Commentary (Fall 2003)
Charles H. Holbrow
Announcer, Vol. 33, Iss. 3

Across a Bridge to Cuba

Some of the bridges that AAPT helps to build between different parts of the physics community are longer than others. I experienced this when I went to Cuba in July for the VIII Inter-American Conference on Physics Education (IACPE).

Because of our embargo against Cuba, I had to have a U.S. Treasury license to spend money there. The trip took two days because one must travel by chartered plane, and to catch mine I had to be in Miami the day before it left. Once in Havana, I couldn’t use my credit card or checks — the embargo does not allow U.S. banks to have such dealings with Cuba. In response, Cuba has made the dollar legal currency, posts prices for tourists in dollars, and deals in cash — lots of cash.

My Cuban visa was inspected very carefully at the end of a long, slow line in the José Marti International Airport. I correctly answered the questions — What is your name? What do you do? Why are you here? — and was admitted without further delay. But ask John Fitzgibbons what happens when there is a typing correction on your visa.

It would have helped to speak Spanish. While I waited for Liz Chesick, Patsy Ann Johnson, and Lillian McDermott to come through even longer and slower lines, I talked with our shuttle driver. His English was “muy poquito,” but my one year of high school Spanish from 1950 was “muy, muy poquito.” He taught me that a bus is a “guagua,” and a van is a “guaguajito.” His “guaguajito” was a spiffy new vehicle built by Mercedes in Korea. It took us through the small amount of Cuban countryside that I was destined to see, past billboards proclaiming revolutionary slogans, through the Plaza of the Revolution, down streets lined with once glorious, now decaying, buildings, to our hotels in the Vedado district of Havana.

Our Cuban hosts, led by Eduardo Moltó of UPEJV (the Pedagogical University “Enrique José Verona”), put on an excellent conference. Moltó showed appreciation for the AAPT’s contributions to the conference in several ways. He invited me as AAPT President to make some remarks to the opening session and to represent AAPT in a roundtable discussion, along with Fred Stein from APS and Deise Miranda from the Brazilian Physical Society. He also persuaded me to contribute a paper, Some Ways the AAPT Helps Physics Teachers Improve Physics Teaching, to the conference proceedings. Eduardo expressed his gratitude to AAPT for our part in sending Harry Manos, Teddy Halpern, and Gordon Aubrecht to Cuba last year to help start planning the conference. Aubrecht does an outstanding job as executive secretary of the Inter-American Council on Physics Education, the body that initiates the conferences.

The conference meetings were held in the Havana Libre hotel and on the nearby campus of Havana University. The hotel opened in March 1958 as the Havana Hilton, but after Castro took over nine months later, it became the Havana Libre. Its great height makes it visible from every alleyway and avenue of the Vedado. The walk up the hill to the university was through the Havana ambience so vividly shown in Wim Wender’s movie The Buena Vista Social Club. Old American cars, Russian Ladas, and an occasional Moskvy chug through the streets in clouds of badly combusted petroleum. There are some new cars to be seen — Fiats, Hyundais, an occasional VW, and some sleek new Mercedes. But the fun is spotting the old ones. In less than five minutes I saw two Cadillacs, a Plymouth, half a dozen Chevrolets (one with fully evolved tail fins), two Oldsmobiles, and several Pontiacs, all from the early 1950s. My best moment was when a DeSoto went by.

Havana’s cars may be old, but the conference’s physics and physics pedagogy were up-to-date. Physics teachers from 14 countries in the Western Hemisphere and 12 in Europe, Africa, and Asia presented more than 200 talks and posters. The major topics were much the same as those at AAPT national and sectional meetings. One problem is universal and perpetual: In his plenary lecture Marco Antonio Moreira (Brazil) noted that after 40 years of inter-American effort to make things better, teachers are still poorly paid and low in status. Professional isolation, however, has been much reduced by email and the web.

Osvaldo de Melo (Cuba) and Victor Fájer (Cuba) gave plenary lectures underscoring what the conference itself showed: Cuban physics is organized, energetic, and ambitious — remarkably so for a poor country the size of Tennessee and with a population of only 11 million. Physics was established in Cuba thanks largely to help from the Soviet Union in the 1960s and ’70s. Now Cuban physicists face severe shortages of funds and equipment, but they are working with ingenuity and determination to improve matters while maintaining high professional quality. For example, read “Josephson junctions in a magnetic field: Insights from coupled pendula” by Ernesto Altshuler and his student Reinaldo García in Am. J. Phys. 71, 405-408 (2003). This lovely paper shows how an active Cuban researcher has used his expertise to help an undergraduate do some interesting and significant physics.

I visited Cuba across a bridge that we — you, and I, and our colleagues in all the Americas — have built over the past 40 years. This bridge, of which the Inter-American Council is a major part, connects physics teachers all over the Western Hemisphere. Our Association can be proud of helping to build it. I feel privileged to have used it, and I hope my trip strengthened the ties that make the bridge strong. These days we need strong bridges to withstand the forces acting to divide us from one another.

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