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Commentary: More than conformality lost at APS March Meeting

26 April 2022

“If physics thought its observer-independent subject matter shielded it” from concerns such as the war in Ukraine, says physicist Philip Phillips, “this meeting proved otherwise.”

As I live in central Illinois, the 2022 American Physical Society (APS) March Meeting in Chicago was essentially in my backyard. Yet a certain unfamiliarity permeated the meeting, ultimately making it like no other. That unfamiliarity came not from the fact that the conference was undersized and had a regimented COVID protocol. What stood out was that this meeting seemed unavoidably sociopolitical. If physics thought its observer-independent subject matter shielded it from such concerns, this meeting proved otherwise.

The first day featured a session on Russia’s invasion and ongoing unjust war against Ukraine. In all the years since my first APS meeting in the mid 1980s, I don’t recall attending a session prompted by the invasion of a sovereign nation. The session included testimonials of Ukrainians who do not know the fate of their relatives back home. Some do, and the news is not good. It was the first time I teared up at an APS meeting. There were calls for the US to send weapons, for letters to be written to Congress, and for APS to support Ukrainian high school students, some of whom have been enlisted in the military.

A Belarusian scientist talked eloquently about the police state that is his homeland and said that the war cannot be understood without dissecting the complicity of Belarus. One speaker cautioned us not to be lulled by the leftist bubble that is physics and said it was more than likely that a sizable minority of Russian scientists side with Vladimir Putin. The diversity of opinions in the room was on full display when an attendee asserted that there is blame to go around and cautioned APS against importing the anti-Russian hatred in Ukraine into the US. At that point, a previous speaker held up a picture on his cell phone of a recently deceased relative. Much shouting ensued, and APS CEO Jonathan Bagger and Frances Hellman, the president of APS’s Board of Directors, stepped in as referees.

Before the Ukraine session, I had a chance meeting with a former University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign graduate student, Victor Vakaryuk, who is now an editor at the Physical Review journals. As our paths were about to cross, it hit me that Victor is Ukrainian. I expressed my regrets about the war. We talked about his family in Ukraine, and then he said, “You know they bombed the universities, including the theoretical physics institute in Kharkiv where Lev Landau worked.” We talked for a while, and I asked what I could do.

Against the backdrop of such global turmoil, the meeting’s prize session convened that evening. One of the Onsager Prize recipients, Russian native Boris Altshuler of Columbia University, began his acceptance speech by calling Russia out: “I am feeling extremely ashamed for what is going on . . . but I want to ask that everyone not be too cruel to our colleagues.” This heartfelt admonishment and call for a tempered response to those who might disagree had power, as it was sincere and delivered with a reflective reticence. Every pause seemed to be thought out. Other speakers at the meeting with a connection to Ukraine chose not to mention anything about the war.

The next mention I heard of Russia’s war with Ukraine was in a session I chaired on 17 March, “Superconductivity in non-Fermi liquids.” The always earnest Andrey Chubukov of the University of Minnesota began by saying, “I have something more important to talk about than physics.” He too called out Russia and mentioned a letter that many scientists have signed in solidarity with Russian dissent on the war.

As chair of that session, I had lots of time to reflect. A sort of collage of global outrage against heinous behavior began to form in my head. I wondered: What really was the APS response when Germany invaded Poland in 1939? (A speaker had asked that question at the Ukraine session; no answer was given.) Why does it take the invasion of a sovereign country to mobilize a nation against brutality? What about Chile during the Pinochet era? What about George Floyd? Would someone begin a March Meeting talk decrying the Minneapolis police department? I remember the pushback I received when Michael Weissman and I suggested that APS consider police brutality in deciding where to host its meetings, a proposal the society eventually accepted. A common objection at the time was that physics should not be political. Well, it seems that Ukraine has changed that. A quote by Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar replayed in my head: “I hope that we seize this moment to really start enacting policies that treat all people who are fleeing war and devastation the same way that we are treating Ukrainians at this moment.”

Perhaps the perception that physics is politically and socially neutral should be reexamined. Certainly one of its most successful practitioners, Albert Einstein, understood the full social and political impact of physics in terms of where it is practiced (he was forced to leave Nazi Germany) and who is allowed to practice it. To address the latter, he lectured at historically Black colleges and universities and wrote extensively about race relations in the US—a second theme that swirled about in pockets at the March Meeting.

Albert Einstein at Lincoln University, 1946.
Albert Einstein lectures at Lincoln University, the nation’s first degree-granting HBCU, in 1946. Credit: Photo courtesy of Lincoln University

I happened upon a session called “Is physics colorblind?’’ that focused on challenges faced by physicists of color and how to be an antiracist in physics. Later in the meeting, I was asked by an executive committee member in APS’s condensed-matter division for my opinion on the recent Physical Review Physics Education Research paper “Observing whiteness in introductory physics: A case study.” Basing the paper in part on the observation of an instructor leading three students through an introductory-level heat-capacity experiment, the authors conclude that traditional interactions in physics classrooms can be made sense of only in terms of “whiteness as a social organization.” I find that conclusion objectionable primarily because previous scholars (for example, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida) have shown that hierarchical structures, like the one in the classroom, can lead to marginalization without any appeal to whiteness. Still, it is notable that a paper about institutional racism in physics was widely discussed by the meeting’s attendees.

Indeed, my meeting experience had little to do with physics. I was pleased to see that three of the speakers in the session I chaired cited a paper I always thought was underappreciated in the condensed-matter community, “Conformality lost” by David Kaplan and colleagues. In it, the authors show that numerous examples abound in both relativistic and nonrelativistic field theory in which a UV and an IR fixed point merge. Perhaps the same was going on in this meeting: a collision of two worlds we normally perceive as separate that had become irreparably entangled. In such a real-world meshing, more than conformality is lost.

Philip Phillips is a theoretical physicist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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