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Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

Insightful looks at the nature and role of science by two former PPPL insiders

Newswise — Intriguing essays on the culture, history, and discoveries of science and an urgent call for the integration of science into public understanding come from two recent works by two former key members of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). Those members, physicist Fred Dylla, who worked on all major fusion projects while serving at PPPL from 1975 to 1990, and Rush Holt, assistant director of the Laboratory from 1989 to 1997, draw on their careers, insights, and love of science to explore what the discipline is, how it is done, and where it should be headed.

Scientific Journeys

Dylla’s collection of essays, titled “Scientific Journeys,” ranges over centuries and profiles larger-than-life figures such as physicist Richard Feynman, Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, and 12th century polymath Hildegard von Bingen. Holt’s detailed forward to a new edition of Vannevar Bush’s 1945 landmark report, “Science, the Endless Frontier,” provides a history of that blueprint for U.S. scientific policy since World War II and issues a passionate call to fully engage the public in the meaning and impact of the scientific process.

Dylla wove his PPPL years into two chapters of the book and calls his time at the Laboratory “an important part of my career that helped inform my view of science.” He joined the then-fledgling Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility after leaving the Lab and went on to serve eight years from 2007 to 2015 as executive director of the American Institute of Physics (AIP), a federation of 125,000 members that promotes the physical sciences and publishes scientific journals.

While at AIP Dylla wrote weekly short essays for the Institute members and staff before he retired in 2015, when a Springer Publishing editor asked if he would like to expand them into a book. “I chose those that could be updated and added a few new ones,” he said of the wide-ranging work. “The pandemic locked me down and putting it all together took about a year.”

Among the 45 chapters is one called “How Long is the Fuse on Fusion?” In that look back at his PPPL career Dylla notes the challenges and promises of developing fusion energy. While he remains “convinced that the goal of demonstrating a sustaining fusion reaction on a laboratory scale remains one of the most challenging scientific feats,” he points out that, “despite the remaining challenges, the ultimate goal is too promising to ignore.”

Science and public policy

For Holt, “My whole career has been straddling science and policy. I’ve also been wrestling with the appropriate place of science in our culture, society and democratic governance.” Thus when the Princeton University Press wanted to reissue the Vannevar Bush report, “they wondered if I would be willing to write a companion essay putting the report into perspective.”

The task fit Holt’s views on science and public policy. After leaving PPPL he served eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1999 to 2015 and went on to become chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society and a parallel organization to AIP, from 2015 to 2019.

While in Congress Holt saw first-hand that “most politicians think they can’t do science and wouldn’t want to.” And he knew from experience that “most scientists think politics is messy and dirty and not where they should spend their time. However, I never saw that division.”

His own chief concern has been that “we really need to ask, ‘what should the bargain be if citizens give scientists billions of dollars, what should they get in return?’” Scientists, he says, “must remind themselves that without public engagement the bargain is incomplete.” He notes such incompleteness in the fact that “while immunologists and virologists have created wondrous vaccines, millions of people don’t trust those vaccines or even want to learn how the pandemic virus is transmitted or wear masks.”

Science on Saturday

While in Congress and then at AAAS Holt interacted with Dylla, whose leadership of AIP overlapped with Holt’s Congressional terms and whose work Holt admired while both were at PPPL. Holt also strongly supported the Ronald Hatcher Science on Saturday lecture series and other PPPL programs that Dylla and colleagues had created to engage the public, and launched some outreach programs of his own.

It was therefore not surprising when Dylla asked Holt to write the forward to his book. In doing so, Holt brought together the scientific and educational interests of the two former PPPL physicists.

“That community program for science education,” Holt wrote of the Science on Saturday lectures that are still ongoing, “illustrated Fred’s continual interest in what science and society owe each other.” Such engagement, he wrote, can help overcome the “mutual incomprehension” that “affects public support for the science the public needs for wise policy decisions.” Such engagement also helps fulfill the scientists’ obligation “to show the public the importance of evidence-based thinking in the day-to-day fulfillment of a citizen’s democratic responsibility.”

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit energy.gov/science.

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