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 31, 2010

Martin Rees on Science and the Citizen

This years Reith Lectures by Martin Rees are being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 during June. An important theme in the lectures this year is scientists relationship with society. Rees argues that science is part of our culture, crucial for dealing with pressing international issues like population growth, food security and energy development. He also argues that science is not just for scientists, everyone has have a feel for it, not just the specialists. Here is the blurb from the first lecture: “Science and the Citizen”

“In the first of this year’s Reith Lectures, entitled Scientific Horizons, Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, Master of Trinity College and Astronomer Royal, explores the challenges facing science in the 21st century. We are increasingly turning to government and the media to explain the risks we face. But in the wake of public confusion over issues like climate change, the swine ‘flu vaccine and, more recently, Iceland’s volcanic ash cloud, Martin Rees calls on scientists to come forward and play a greater role in helping us understand the science that affects us all.”

Lectures are available below and via the iPlayer.

Lecture Topic File Play in Browser
1/4: The Scientific Citizen Who should we should trust to explain the risks we face? mp3
2/4: Surviving the Century Does science have the answers to help us save our planet? mp3
3/4: What We Will Never Know What are the limits of Scientific knowledge? mp3
4/4: The Runaway World How can countries stay scientifically competitive? mp3

[Creative Commons licensed picture of Martin Rees above by The Reith Lectures on Flickr, see also introductory clip on the lectures.]

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