Saturday, March 29, 2008

Physicists undertake stamp-collecting

John S. Wilkins (Evolving Thoughts) has a nice post about physicists and taxonomy and the role of classification systems in science:

"Ernst Rutherford, the "father" of nuclear physics, once airily declared "In science there is only physics. All the rest is stamp collecting". By this he meant that the theory of physics is the only significant thing in science. Such mundane activities as taxonomy in biology were just sampling contingent examples of physics.

So it is with some amusement that I note that in order to make sense of string theory, a group of physicists have been trying to do taxonomy over string theories. Why this is more than a "gotcha!" is that since the late nineteenth century, philosophers of science have ignored classification, although some of the more important advances in physics relied on it, such as Mendeleev's Table, which drove theoretical advances in both chemistry and physics (and led even more ironically to the understanding Rutherford had of radioactivity)...."

Read more at Evolving Thoughts


  1. The distinction between "physics" vs stamp collecting is between what's fundamental and what's just filling in the blanks. Baron Rutherford got to say what he airily said because he came up with a fundamental -- perhaps several of them, but certainly the golden nucleus was a fundamental.

    I'm a biologist and to this day I'm just blown away that the Krebs Cycle isn't taught as a fundamental, and instead the kids learn all the stamp collecting stuff about how many legs this one has and how many stomachs that one has, and which ones lay eggs, and just a million and one different, well, stamps. They should be taught the Krebs cycle first. First!

    (it's taught much later than first because it was discovered later than the Biblical biology of two by two animals going into Noah's ark, eg Darwin, or Linnaeus.)