May 24, 2012

Physics or Stamp Collecting? Let’s hear it for the Stamp Collectors

An old stamp collection by DigitalTribes on Flickr

Are you a Physicist or a Stamp Collector? Creative commons licensed image via DigitalTribes on Flickr.

The Life Scientific is a series of interviews by Jim Al-Khalili of high profile scientists. It’s a bit like Desert Island Discs without the music and with more interesting guests. If you missed them on the radio, you can download the lot as a podcast. Here’s a good example of an interview with John Sulston on the Physics vs. Stamp Collecting debate [1].

Jim Al-Khalili:

“There’s this wonderful, I’m sure you’ve heard it, Lord Rutherford’s tongue in cheek quote that all science is either physics or stamp collecting. Very rude, very insulting of course and it was applying to the way 19th Century naturalists would classify the world around them. What you were doing was a similar sort of thing but down at the level of individual cells.”

John Sulston:

“Yes I mean I am a stamp collector by that definition and I freely admit that, that’s why…”

Jim Al-Khalili:

“I don’t want to be insulting.”

John Sulston:

“No, no, no it’s not insulting in the least, I am a stamp collector but stamp collecting with a purpose, I don’t want to collect all stamps, I like collecting stamps that people are going to use. So I collect patterns perhaps is what I do. And I make maps that other people can use for their own work and that’s true of the cell, and it’s true of the genome, and I think that’s my role, I don’t think I’m a very intellectual person but I certainly can through a sort of obsession and loving of sort of completeness make a map that other people find valuable. Whereas other people previously had only done little tiny bits of it, which weren’t joined up, so I had to do the joining up, that’s very appealing to me. But it works – it wouldn’t work at all if you were off on your own – that’s why the stamp collector thing is used in a pejorative sense because it means somebody all by themselves just obsessively collecting stamps but if you bring a map out and it becomes the basis for a lot of other people’s work, like my maps have, then it’s entirely different.”

So let’s hear it for the stamp collectors, aka the “other scientists”. They no longer have to live in the shadow of Ernest Rutherford‘s jokey insult about their physics envy.


  1. Birks, J.B. (1962) Rutherford at Manchester OCLC:490736835
  2. Ihde, A. (1964). Rutherford at Manchester (Birks, J. B., ed.) Journal of Chemical Education, 41 (11) DOI: 10.1021/ed041pA896
  3. Birks, J., & Segrè, E. (1963). Rutherford at Manchester Physics Today, 16 (12) DOI: 10.1063/1.3050668
  4. Goldhammer, P. (1963). Rutherford at Manchester. J. B. Birks, Ed. Heywood, London, 1962; Benjamon, New York, 1963. x + 364 pp. Illus. $ 12.50 Science, 142 (3594), 943-944 DOI: 10.1126/science.142.3594.943-a

May 10, 2012

The Lovelock Laboratory: A fantasy workplace in the West Country

έροτας : love, as described by an implicit heart curve (x²  + y²  − 1)³ − x² y³ = 0

An equation of love (x² + y² − 1)³ − x² y³ = 0

Former Mancunian James Lovelock runs the kind of a laboratory most scientists can only fantasise about working in as they grind through the humdrum bureaucracy of peer-review and never-ending grant applications. Lovelock is fortunate enough to run a completely independent, self-funded lab located in the beautiful West Country. There’s a fascinating interview with him on The Life Scientific with Jim Al-Khalili where he says lots of interesting things about elocution lessons, nuclear power, climate change and his grand theory of planet earth, Gaia [1,2,3]. When asked, he also made this interesting comment about being an indepedendent scientist [4]:

“It’s the most wonderful thing to do [being independent]. I keep on saying that scientists are just like artists if they are creative. If you were an artist, would you want to spend your life in an institute for fine art, quibbling with other academics about the different styles of painting? You’d rather be in your garage doing your masterpiece and selling a lot of art to some tourists to pay the way. That’s been my life as a scientist. ”

The audio file of the broadcast is available for download or just click on the play icon below:

So to become a truly independent scientist, you either need to win the lottery, nobel prize or possibly invent the modern equivalent of electron capture detection to bankroll running a lab from the bottom of your garden.

Well if nothing else, it’s an entertaining fantasy to while away dull moments in the real world…


  1. James Lovelock (2009). The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning ISBN:1846141850, Penguin
  2. Andrew Watson (2009). Final warning from a sceptical prophet: James Lovelock fears that humanity faces widespread death and mass migration as Earth’s systems become further unbalanced by climate change Nature, 458 (7241), 970-971 DOI: 10.1038/458970a
  3. John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin (2009) He Knew He Was Right: The Irrepressible Life of James Lovelock and Gaia, ISBN:1846140161, Allen Lane
  4. Matthew Reisz (2012) Free-range thinkers: Independent scholars can confound, complement and challenge the work of their campus counterparts. Times Higher Education

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