Berkeley Physics Bids Farewell to Nobel Prize Winner and Colleague

Last Sunday in the Great Room of the University of California at Berkeley Faculty club, the physics department held a memorial for Dr. Owen Chamberlain, physicist, activist and Nobel prize winner. Owen, who died on February 28th, 2006 after a long bout with Parkenson’s disease, was a protege and colleague of the late Dr. Emilio Segre, with whom he shared the 1959 Nobel prize in physics for their discovery of the antiproton.

Dr. Segre died in 1989 (the same year Owen retired) and the Berkeley physics department held a very nice memorial service for him as well. I suppose one reaches a “certain age” and memorial services start to appear on the calendar (don’t get me started with the ever-aging computer side of the business – one could end up going to funerals every month at this rate). My Berkeley physics advisor, Professor Frank Crawford, retired in 1991 and died in 2003 after also suffering from Parkinson’s for about a decade. While Dr. Crawford was known for his love of music, he had a bit of a rebellous streak, best exemplified by his “corrugohorn” – a length of flexible corrugated brass pipe that he turned into three basic horns: a bugle, a neck horn and a slide corrugohorn. He used to boast that he was the only member of the Berkeley physics faculty with a peddler’s license, and I think that is probably still true today.

Owen was a complicated man in a department known for strong personalities and beliefs. He was an activist involved in causes ranging from nuclear disarmament (he was one of the Manhattan Project boys and knew what it could really do) to free speech. He was one of the few people who dared to engage Dr. Teller in debate, because as Dr. Charles Morehouse recalled “Teller would drag everyone else around the stage”.

New York Times and the Politics of Academic Prejudice

Dr. Lawrence K. Altman in the New York Times today takes on the problem of poor academic peer review and fraud in scientific journals, and how their failure to carefully vet papers has resulted in public mistrust. However, the lack of oversight, audits, and failed analysis of scientific papers cited — a good first step — to anyone involved actually describes the symptoms of a more insidious disease. The greatest problem faced by researchers today is the ease by which anonymous reviewers of unstated credentials can blackball competitive ideas and promote others they prefer with impunity. Thus, instead of a battle of ideas openly discussed, papers are promoted merely for reinforcing entrenched ideas already espoused by the reviewer or for spinning trendy ideas in which the reviewer may have a stake.

I have heard academics and researchers candidly discuss paper rejections based not on good science but on bad blood and old rivalries. Professor John Doyle of Caltech, a respected researcher who has won prizes for his papers, often quotes the ludicrous academic paper rejections he has received, primarily because he has (self-admittedly) not spent enough time stroking the reviewers at conferences prior to actually sending in a paper so as to “prepare” them and get “buy in to the idea”. And after poorly reasoned (if not completely untrue) rejections, the coup de grace is always that the paper is “poorly written”, no matter how well-published and credentialed. It is a scandal. Is it no surprise then that many researchers are now spending more time writing for trade press while the quality of papers in journals diminishes?

Recently at Stanford I was gratified to hear Dr. Shri Kulkarni of Caltech brazenly discuss his dislike for “paying” journals to publish his work when magazines like Nature gladly accept his articles and pay him for them. Perhaps as a Berkeley alumna who has written both academic papers and published extensively in the trade press, I am inclined towards the intellectual honesty of both Dr. Kulkarni and Dr. Doyle for putting the stranglehold of personal and professional bias in scientific review on the table — after all, both of them received their Ph.D’s from Berkeley, and both of them refuse to remain silent on this outmoded, repressive and ultimately anti-innovative process.