O'Really?

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.

References

  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

July 1, 2011

Anything that calls itself a Science, probably isn’t…

Way Cool Science Stuff by Mark A. Hicks www.markix.netScience, is a big word that gets used and abused with reckless abandon. Virtually any discipline can award itself extra kudos by adding the magic S word at the end. For example, which sounds weightier, sports studies or sports science?

This phenomenon has been noticed many times before, for example, the philosopher John Searle once remarked that:

Science has become something of an honorific term, and all sorts of disciplines that are quite unlike physics or chemistry are eager to call themselves ‘sciences‘.

A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that anything that calls itself a science probably isn’t.” –see [1,2]

So let’s make a list. Starting with things that probably aren’t a Science because they call themselves one:

We could carry on for ages with this list and eventually include:

So are maths, physics, chemistry, biology etc real sciences™ too? Using Searle’s definition, it’s difficult to say. To avoid confusion, it might be a good idea to use a subjects non-scientific original name (“biology” rather than “life science”) that way, we know (paradoxically) they are real sciences. Probably.

References

  1. John R. Searle (1986). Minds, Brains and Science (1984 Reith Lectures) Harvard University Press ISBN:0674576330 (see also audio from the BBC Reith lecture archive) not  Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge University Press. ISBN:052109626X (as originally stated in the first version of this post)
  2. Fuller quotation: “Science has become something of an honorific term, and all sorts of disciplines that are quite unlike physics and chemistry are eager to call themselves ‘sciences’. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that anything that calls itself ‘science’ probably isn’t — for example, Christian science, or military science, and possibly even cognitive science or social science. The word ‘science’ tends to suggest a lot of researchers in white coats waving test tubes and peering at instruments. To many minds it suggests an arcane infallibility. The rival picture I want to suggest is this: what we are all aiming at in intellectual disciplines is knowledge and understanding. There is only knowledge and understanding, whether we have it in mathematics, literary criticism, history, physics, or philosophy. Some disciplines are more systematic than others, and we might want to reserve the word ‘science’ for them.”
  3. Peter J. Denning (2005). Is computer science science? Communications of the ACM, 48 (4) DOI: 10.1145/1053291.1053309

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