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President's CommentaryHarvey S. Leff

Harvey S. Leff
April 16, 2007


Time Keeps on Slippin', Slippin', Slippin'

Musician Steve Miller wrote the words, "Time keeps on slippin', slippin', slippin'…into the future" in his song, "Fly Like an Eagle." Comedian Groucho Marx expressed a similar, albeit silly, sentiment with "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana." But seriously, it is stark reality that the overriding limiting factor for all of us is time. We are unlikely to live more than 100 years, and it is not uncommon for physical and mental abilities to decline with advancing age as time keeps on slippin' into the future. Unquestionably time limits us regardless of our desires and ambitions.

Time plays a critical role throughout physics, being one of the dimensions in our four-dimensional relativistic world. It limits the speed at which material objects can get from one spatial point to another. Evidence supporting the big bang theory indicates that our universe has existed for a finite amount of time, about 13.7 billion years. Radioactive dating of rocks provides lower bounds on the age of Earth. Some people have related the second law of thermodynamics to "the arrow of time." A variety of books have been written about time, focusing on its implications in science, philosophy, and religion. The concept of time is fascinating not only to scientists, but to humans generally, for time clearly affects just about everything we do.

In physics teaching, we all know well that time is a significant limiting factor. Our courses span well-defined terms, typically 16-week semesters or 10-week quarters. We must cover, or better yet uncover, all the topics in our course syllabi during that amount of time. Our students must find the time to study enough so they learn what we teach, and they must be innately able to learn the topics in the allotted time. When our students choose their majors—and ultimate careers—they begin travels along life paths that could last 40-50 years. Given these time implications, we have the responsibility to do first-rate advising that helps our students choose wisely. And that takes some of our valuable time.

In AAPT, time plays a major role in many ways. AAPT publications are issued at well-defined times. Reviewers of submitted articles are asked to respond within specified time intervals to enable timely publication schedules. Committee members serve for well-defined terms. Time spent at national meetings is limited by how long meeting participants can be away from their jobs and families. Speakers have strict time allotments and posters can remain up only during specified time intervals.

As 2007 President, my impact (if any!) on AAPT will be limited by my one-year term of office. The first quarter of my term passed very quickly, with my limited time seemingly vaporizing. Although some of this was spent on routine AAPT business needed to keep the association functioning well, much of it was aimed at making AAPT a stronger association. Will I have enough time to see visible effects of my efforts before I leave the Executive Board? I can only try hard and hope for the best.

The kinds of progress I would like to see will indeed take time. I would like to see a larger fraction of physics teachers become involved in AAPT. As it stands, only about 14% of U.S. high school teachers are members of AAPT. Not all the remaining 86% were physics majors in college, and these crossover teachers are less likely to become members. Yet they might benefit as much or more from AAPT than those who majored in physics. How can we make inroads with such teachers to help them become more knowledgeable and effective physics teachers? Similarly only 31% of two- and four-year college physics teachers and 32 % of university physics faculty are AAPT members. I would like to see more teachers in these groups join AAPT. Membership in AAPT would likely help them become better teachers. Equally important, a larger AAPT membership would give AAPT more clout to affect public policy on issues that impact science and science education. Expanding our member base requires a good deal of that invaluable entity, time.

AAPT's activities are not limited to the United States. We have Canadian sections in Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario, and a fledgling section in Puerto Rico. Without question, AAPT could further help improve physics teaching in other countries, not only via its publications but also by offering online workshops. AAPT has not yet entered this arena, but I very much look forward to seeing this happen. AAPT membership rates are daunting for teachers in countries with relatively low teacher salaries. Perhaps AAPT membership rates could differ among countries, being normalized to the local consumer price index. We need to sort out the pros and cons of such an approach. Again, this all takes time.

I would like to see stronger coupling between AAPT and its sections. For years I have questioned the rationale for and implications of having autonomous sections. Would it not be sensible for all section members to automatically be members of AAPT, and for every AAPT member to automatically be a member of a section? AAPT should consider instituting a new membership category, perhaps called associate membership for section members, enabling them to become part of AAPT for the cost of a modest section membership with limited, but well-focused benefits. For those who join AAPT directly, their assigned section would be the closest one to where they live. If no local section exists, they would be assigned to an “at-large” section that communicates electronically. I believe that some such type of membership unification would benefit physics teachers, AAPT, and physics education generally. AAPT should debate such an approach. Are there hidden pitfalls? Would substantial benefits accrue? Sorting this out will take—you guessed it—time.

AAPT does an admirable job doing what it now does. Its publications are excellent and improvements in them will likely be through small evolutionary changes. AAPT's national meetings are also very good. A variety of other valuable AAPT events and programs exist, including the PTRA initiative, physics bowl, physics olympiad, new faculty workshop, apparatus competition, photo competition, and diverse special topics symposia. By and large, I believe AAPT's activities are of high quality and offer much to members. Of course, some tweaking here and there is likely to lead to small improvements.

But among the time-consuming efforts I see as paramount to AAPT's long term health and effectiveness in support of physics teachers and in strengthening physics education are: 1) expanding the member base within and outside the United States, 2) increasing the number of vibrant AAPT sections abroad, and 3) strengthening the ties between all sections and AAPT. I am pleased that AAPT is now engaged in a careful examination of these issues at various levels, by various member committees and AAPT staff.

As I enter the remaining three quarters of my term, I am anxious to see advances in these and other areas. Will progress be evident by January 2008, when my term as President ends—or by January 2009, when my term as Past President and service on the AAPT Executive Board are over? Rationally, I know that just as time passes second by second, significant improvements in AAPT will build step by step. Still while writing this, I am keenly aware that the clock is ticking, and "time keeps on slippin', slippin', slippin'…into the future."

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