Saturday, February 05, 2005

Investigating the Missing Issues of Physics Today

Albuquerque Journal North
Saturday, February 5, 2005

Missing Journals Spark Mistrust; Issue Had Column Critical of LANL

By Adam Rankin
Journal Staff Writer
Call it the case of the missing issue of Physics Today. But is it a case of conspiracy or coincidence?
Most likely coincidence, according to magazine and Los Alamos National Laboratory staffers who are investigating the disappearance of nearly one-quarter of Los Alamos National Laboratory employees' copies of the scientific journal two months ago.
But conspiracy theories that have grown out of the disappearance, offering a telling glimpse of morale at the lab. The issue featured a column critical of LANL management.
About 100 out of 450 issues of the popular monthly magazine published by the American Institute of Physics failed to turn up in employee mailboxes. Some feared the worst­ that LANL managers blocked delivery because the magazine contained a letter critical of LANL director Pete Nanos and his rationale for halting all work at the nuclear weapons research facility last July because of safety and security concerns.
Since the shutdown, employee morale has plummeted as uncertainty over pending management contract negotiations, benefits and pensions percolates among workers.
LANL public affairs director James Fallin said the laboratory is working with Physics Today and laboratory mail room managers to figure out what happened to the copies that were never delivered.
"There never has been nor would there ever be any attempt to keep those kinds of publications away from employees," he said.
Mail room managers are now working on a way to track periodicals so that if they aren't delivered, the reason can be determined, he said.
The author of the critical column, 32-year LANL theoretical physicist Brad Holian, said the question of the missing December issues remains a hot topic in laboratory employee chatter.
"I think it speaks to the morale and it also speaks to the degree of trust that people feel toward the management," Holian said, adding that he doesn't believe there was a conspiracy himself.
His column on safety, which challenged LANL director Pete Nanos' assessment that a "cowboy" culture made work at the nuclear weapons research lab unsafe, used numbers gathered and posted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy.
According to the numbers, Holian argues that "From 2000 onward, LANL took the lead in safety performance among comparable labs in the DOE complex ... "
Holian's column was a direct challenge to the primary reason Nanos gave for calling a halt to all work at the laboratory, costing millions in taxpayer dollars and frustrating scores of scientists.
On a popular employee Internet blog, one anonymous employee questions: "Could LANL management really have been so, well, ill advised as to have ordered (the magazine's) sequestration in an attempt to hide the facts from LANL employees?"
Another employee responded: "I wondered where my copy of PT got off to, now I know!"
Holian is more temperate.
"I personally don't think that it is really a conspiracy, because you can always explain it by some incompetence somewhere," he said. "But it sure is telling whether some people jump immediately to the defense of the director."
Fallin said mail room managers understand the importance of Physics Today to lab employees.
"They are just wringing their hands over there in the mail room," he said. The magazines are shipped second-class bulk mail so they are difficult to track, he said, adding that LANL mail room managers are checking with the postmaster in Albuquerque to find out what might have happened.
"It has been looked at from just about every possible angle," Fallin said.
He said there is no indication of wrongdoing and that most people did get their December issue of Physics Today.
In discussions with the magazine's editor, Fallin said he learned LANL has about 450 subscribers, 270 of whom responded to queries on whether they received their issue. Of those, Fallin said, about 100 didn't receive copies, though they could read the issue online.
LANL may post Holian's column on the employees' Reader's Forum, Fallin said, so that everyone is guaranteed to be able to read it.
Physics Today reporter Paul Guinnessy is taking a look at the lab closure issue and plans a story for the March edition, which will include a new column from Holian and two responses to Holian's original op-ed from LANL managers.
With 125,000 subscribers, Guinnessy said, the magazine normally gets about four or five requests for new copies because issues weren't delivered.

In December, I didnt several of my magazines delivered in Los Alamos when they were supposed to show up. I contacted the publishers at the time and they said it was due to problems in shipping in California due to the rains. I got new copies shipped to me and got some old damaged ones early in January.
According to a Physics Today editor, there will be an article concerning the missing issues in March.
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