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« does science fiction matter? at all? even a little? | Main | 50 years of getting yer (video) game on »


Late is better than never! Congrats on a great first post, and on getting settled in your digs (both offline and on)...

If some physicists give you smack for having an open mind and an experimental spirit, then perhaps you might want to remember that you're in good company.
The bests physicists in history not only played melange games with different fields of physics, they regularly left it behind for other visionquests altogether...
One of Einstein's favorite pasttimes was his passionate love affair with his violin. It seems that he didn't suck, either.
The press once asked Oppenheimer what he would have done if he had never pursued the nuclear option as a specialty in physics. They were left in slackjawed disbelief when he told them that he regularly wished that he had focused instead on his Other Great Love: Poetry.

Hi Diandra! Welcome aboard!

Just wanted to say this constant sorting of disciplines always felt like a ridiculous and artificial distinction to me anyway. I ran into a very similar situation when I was considering doing a dual Master's in English and history. One of my advisors told me historians couldn't do English criticism and litcrit people couldn't do historical research. Since I was a medievalist at the time, and in that period you could hardly separate literature from history, that made no sense to me. Still doesn't. And why does it even matter that much? If everything is reducible to physics, that makes everything physics at some point. But I think you're right on the money when you say physicists do physics no matter what department they're in. We all look at problems in the way we were trained.

Large swathes of mathematical biology (e.g. theoretical population genetics) use mathematical models but aren't considered biophysics. So I don't think the fundamental distinction is the use of mathematical models. I think the distinction is more institutional --- as you said, biophysicists tend to have taken the same courses as cosmologists.

In a master level E&M class, one of my fellow students was a chemist, making the change to physics. I was reminded of a summer I spent in my undergraduate lab on loan to a physical chemist trying to do some raman spectroscopy. I mentioned that in technical conversation, you couldn't tell a physical chemist from a physicist, and he replied, "yes, but as a physical chemist you spend your time with chemists, not physicists, there's a difference in the way they see things".

In classes at school I was always the kid with the chronic propensity to raise his hand with answers. This meant that teachers and profs loved me for participating so much in class, but I always paid for it at recess.
So forgive me for my current prolific class participation.
I think what we're really dealing with here is a new twist on an old phenomenon of the sciences and arts...
I call it The Specialist Versus The Generalist.
In war, it is reflected in the rank names. A "private" isn't really that concerned with much else besides doing what he is told, staying out the way, and not getting dead. This really isn't his fight. He would normally just be a "private" citizen. Probably doesn't vote much, either. Even the word "corporal" might reflect the guy who is more concerned with his own skin than any grand strategy. It might also be a way of implying that these are the specialists who make up the "body" of the army. The "General" is concerned with everything, every tiny scrap of information about the current battle, and then trying to dream up a bizarre and innovative way to adapt to the enemy and the battle and do the unexpected thing to win.
Same in science and the arts.
As far as music goes, my favorite bands are all always the ones in which you aren't sure if the bass player, drummer, or vocalist will be playing bass on the next album. And the song lineup wanders through genres like a schizophrenic changes his story.
Same is true in science. The vast bulk are just going to do EXACTLY what they were taught in class, nothing less, but nothing more either. Ingrained and taught methods of thinking lead to a concrete, but unoriginal, approach to science. More concerned with not looking publically like fools than seeing their field with an innovative perspective, these are the guys you younger geniuses have been submitting your papers to. I wouldn't be hurt or crushed if "your crazy new ideas" are treated as exactly that.
Me, I'm with the heretics. It leads to a short life and a painful, fiery, death. But OH! the epiphanies that come!
A specialist is VERY concerned with the comma splice, the semicolon at the end of the C++ line. You have to have them, and every decent poet is secretly a spelling nazi and a decent programmer doesn't have to spend five hours in debug to find that the only mistake was the forgotten semicolon.
And Einstein sucked at math.
But the difference is that the Generalist's only real rule is to break all the rules. Generalists do their best science while asleep. The Great Breakthrough might come while walking down the street, or while painting. A Generalist keeps his mind open as much as possible, and tends to daydream. A generalist is a kid at heart. A generalist learns everything possible about ANY field, and can see the value in music, sailing, games, lesbian porn novels, biology, animated YouTube vids, anthropology, or having long coversations with his cat, as much as he knows everything about astrophysics or computer programming. It is that ability to shift back and forth between diverse topics and see how they might be connected through the use of analogy and metaphore that can often lead to a brilliant new perspective. And it is also how the human brain tends to work in general. We aren't computers who process data in serial fashion. We humans suck in everything, and process in parallel and on multiple levels of consciousness. Who knows what tiny, seemingly irrelevant scrap of triviality might later be seen to be the key to understanding singularity and The Multiverse?
Like Heinlein once wrote: "Most scientists are bottle-washers and button-sorters."
And besides: It's more FUN to be Buckaroo Bonsai from the 8th dimension.

The formulation I like is "physics is what physicists say physics is." (Not the slightly different "physics is what physicists do.")

True that.

I kinda like the idea of Physics as the technical equivalent of a humanities degree. It prepares you for anything. I have a Master's in Physics, and have never done research. Yet, I cherish my Physics experience because it taught me to think about things in a highly conceptual way coupled with an appreciation for technical constraints. I have found this ability to be extremely useful.

RD Padouk: you made me think of that Asimov "Foundation" series novel in which the descendants of Seldon's Foundation have to match wits with the people of The Second Foundation. The First Foundation were all physicists and scientists, using what remained of the knowledge of the Old Empire and the approach of empirical science and technology. The Second Foundation were all intutive artists who use extra-sensory perception to do their work. (It's been so long since I read those books that I don't remember if they were allies or not or how it turned out.)

But I think it's a bit like all of us in here.
We have our scientists, like RD, who try to bring an empirical and logical rigor to their thoughts and explorations. There is obvious merit and benefit in this.
And then we have our artists. We use our intuition to do our work, we daydream, and dream our songs and stories and paintings into being.
The connection is that we are all trying to undertand the modern world around us through the use of modern tools like this electronic tube that delivers our thoughts at each other.
Sometimes the subject of our experiments is Fomalhaut b, and sometimes, at some future point, we'll sail right on past it.
But it is our logic and our intuition that fuel the engines of our starship and plot the course on our holographic astroprojector.

Thanks for this post. I'm a physics grad student working on learning enough biochemistry and biology to do meaningful work in biophysics, so I've been thinking about this a lot. Currently I'm the only person with a physics background in my biophysics seminar.

I've noticed that biochemists and biologists tend to be more applied, whereas physicists tend to get really excited about what we can do and tend to be more "pure science". I think this relates to your distinction between "how" and "why." It definitely agrees with my observations.

A biology professor I was talking with about this noted that physicists like to reduce everything to one reason- reducing the greatest number of phenomena to the minimum explanation- and biology doesn't always work like this. It is messy, it takes multiple pathways, etc.

Also, most baffling, I've noted a dialect difference: biologists say "in lab" and physicists say "in my lab" or "in the lab." Why no article guys? :)

Anyway, I am hoping that I'll be able to advance the biological sciences by attacking the problem from a different angle. And being good at building stuff.

Looking forward to more posts from you!

Physics is the scientific study of matter and energy and how they interact with each other.
This energy can take the form of motion, light, electricity, radiation, gravity,just about anything, honestly. Physics deals with matter on scales ranging from sub-atomic particles to stars and even entire galaxies.

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    Physics Cocktails

    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
    • Hiroshima Bomber
      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
      3/4 Triple sec
      1/4 oz Bailey's Irish Cream
      2-3 drops Grenadine
      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
    • Mad Scientist
      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
      1 splash soda water
      151 proof rum
      Mix melon liqueur, sour mix and soda water with ice in shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass. Top with rum and ignite. Try to take over the world.
    • Laser Beam
      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
      1/2 oz Triple sec
      7 oz orange juice
      Combine all liquor in a full glass of ice. Shake well. Garnish with orange and cherry. Serve to attractive target of choice.
    • Quantum Theory
      Guaranteed to collapse your wave function:
      3/4 oz Rum
      1/2 oz Strega
      1/4 oz Grand Marnier
      2 oz Pineapple juice
      Fill with Sweet and sour
      Pour rum, strega and Grand Marnier into a collins glass. Add pineapple and fill with sweet and sour. Sip until all the day's super-positioned states disappear.
    • The Black Hole
      So called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation.
      1 oz. Kahlua
      1 oz. vodka
      .5 oz. Cointreau or Triple Sec
      .5 oz. dark rum
      .5 oz. Amaretto
      Pour into an old-fashioned glass over (scant) ice. Stir gently. Watch time slow.