BQ7: How can we use physics to benefit society?

The specialized expertise of physicists is taming complexity. We build on an ever-growing foundation of what we understand, establishing the theoretical and experimental methods to explore what we do not. This drives our understanding of what it means to educate in Physics, from nonmajors who might take only one or two courses at Duke, to our undergraduate majors, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows.  It also drives the unique opportunities for Physics to contribute to a national and international conversation, serving the greater good.

Duke physicists embrace the service and teaching roles of the Department, both within the University and in the broader society.

  • TUNL is one of very few places in the country where students can get hands-on, regular experience in the wide range of activities which encompass modern nuclear science. About 8% of the nation’s PhDs in experimental nuclear physics are educated at the TUNL consortium universities. In addition to basic research, the TUNL accelerator facilities enable applied research in the area of national nuclear security.
  • Modern physics has become truly international, particularly for those components which must be explored at large-scale facilities, as has the make-up of our student body and our collaborative efforts. Duke Physics has developed excellent relationships with Nanjing, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Wuhan and Shandong Universities; between those four, about thirty Chinese undergraduates per year are here for various terms (some as long as two years). In addition, Duke Physics has been heavily represented at Duke Kunshan University (DKU), Duke’s groundbreaking experiment introducing an American-style curriculum at a university in China.
  • Physics faculty members are well represented in leadership roles on campus, at the American Physical Society, and in various national and international collaborations.
  • Diversification of the physics workforce is a central goal of the department and is aligned with the foundation of the new University strategic plan. We believe it is important for society that outstanding people feel welcome and supported in Physics, without regard to color, disability, gender, gender expression, gender identity, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation. Duke also makes good faith efforts to educate, recruit, hire, and promote qualified women, minorities, individuals with disabilities, and veterans.

Today, the Duke Physics faculty includes six women (17%), including the former chair, and two African-Americans (6%), including the former director of TUNL. Also important is our graduate education and postdoc mentoring of underrepresented minorities that feed into faculty positions. For example, two Hispanics have been hired as Assistant Professors (Yale and Georgia Tech) from Warren’s group during the last few years (one of those is female, another woman from that group is now an Assistant Professor in Physics at UNC), and two female postdoctoral research associates from Bass’ group were hired into faculty positions in Frankfurt, Germany, and Nantes, France.

We believe one of the important limitations is the pipeline challenge. The American Physical Society membership is only 15% female, and US PhD recipients are 20% female. APS has low confidence in their statistics for ethnic minorities, but only 2% identify as Hispanic and 1% as African-American. So the immediate challenge is to get more outstanding women and minorities interested in majoring in Physics.  In the traditional Physics curriculum, students start classes in the first semester of the first year, knowing they will be competing with classmates who were also very accomplished in high school, and almost all of them start in the same class independent of background.  This approach has important drawbacks. For example, minority students (who disproportionately come with weaker high school backgrounds for socioeconomic reasons) are entirely correct to be concerned about this situation, and to pass on taking Physics early in their time here if they are interested in physical science but uncertain about their ultimate goals. In fact, premedical students can and usually do postpone exposure to physics until their junior year, when it is far too late to major.

We are pursuing two important new directions that establish sustainable structures with the aim of improving this situation. The first is the recently awarded $1 million Sloan Foundation grant proposal to establish a University Center of Exemplary Mentoring at Duke. The second is a novel rearrangement of our undergraduate curriculum. We now start our standard, calculus-based physics sequence for majors in the spring, which gives students one semester to adjust to college life and to consider their mathematics preparation for physics courses. We have also created a non-calculus “Introduction to 21st Century Physics” for the fall semester, which has received outstanding reviews. This gives a more enticing (and less terrifying) introduction to physics for potential majors; and just as importantly, gives an opportunity for the broader student body to acquire the skills needed to analyze complex physical systems.

These skills are also critical for understanding almost all of the technological issues facing society, and partly explain why so many physicists have been involved in science policy at the highest levels. Almost all policy decisions must be made with limited information. Understanding the differences between anecdote and data, the limits of extrapolation, and the fundamental weakness of untestable models is complicated, but critical.