Physics’ place in the sciences

This is a fridge magnet that my mum bought me, for the first year I lived out at university.

If it moves, it's biology; if it stinks, it's chemistry; if it doesn't work, it's physics.

Image: Cafepress.com

I do still find the ideas funny. After all, as a physicist, I can tell you that sometimes it did feel like everything physics-related didn’t work – or, more accurately, that I couldn’t get it to work. And sometimes, yes, chemicals do stink; and most of the time, the object of biologists’ studies do move. Or at least, at some point in the past, they did.

But I think that this also brings up a deeper point of discussion about labelling the sciences. After all, there are plenty of things that move and stink; or that move and don’t work; and even some that move, stink, and don’t work (imagine one of those Council lorries that collects the rubbish, where the collection part is broken, for example).

So then why do we feel the need to label the sciences, and stick them into certain categories? There are increasing numbers of inter-disciplinary fields – mathematical biology, biological physics, biochemistry – so are there really definite boundaries between physics, biology, chemistry and maths? (I’m fully aware that there are other branches of science by the way, but as I’ve had the most experience with these and believe the same kinds of rules apply, I’m just going to stick to these four.)

The answer, I believe, is no. Yes, there are categories for modules according to department; yes, there are some fields of physics/biology/chemistry/maths which fit very well within their one subject’s definition and not nearly so well with others. But I don’t think there’s ever a complete cut-off: after all, for example, physics uses maths (a lot) in all its areas of study. A mathematician might say that this is different to the way they use maths, and that physics is “just applied maths”; which perhaps it is, but it’s still got some maths in it, and you can never say that it’s not maths, or that no mathematician ever does that kind of maths.

A clearer, and more inclusive, outline of this kind of thinking is in the below comic, from xkcd.com:

 

The fields of natural science, arranged on a 'purity scale'

Image: xkcd.com

Thinking about it, you might decide that it has a point. Again, I don’t disagree – although there may be counter-examples, overall it seems that this is the way it works. Or at least, it’s the way it works in terms of “____ is just applied ____”. In terms of “purity” – whatever that is – who knows? For a mathematician, certainly, purity is all about the research being sort of basic, fundamental, not applied. But then of course they’ll be at that end of the spectrum, defining it that way.

So really, while there are plenty of definitions for what physics, chemistry, biology and maths are, there don’t seem to be many definitions for what they aren’t. And that’s the issue I’m talking about here: where is the divide, if there is one? And why do we need the divides in the first place?

I haven’t got an answer to the first question, and I’m not sure if anyone does. But to the second – to me, it seems to be all about convenience. Putting things into neat little categories makes administration easier, as it splits up the workload. Fair enough, but I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing. In fact, I don’t think it is at all. Categorising people’s thoughts and interests leads to specialisation, to the point where no-one has a general knowledge even of their own subject.

This, in fact, was one of the reasons why I decided I didn’t want to continue my Physics degree past undergraduate level (that and the fact that equipment seemed to refuse to work around me). I didn’t want to be specialised – I just wanted to be able to understand, and explain, a bit of how the world works.

I think that physics is just as important as any other science; and more importantly, I think that science itself is more important than any specific ‘branch’ of science, however you want to define them.

Rant over now. Honest.

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One comment

  1. Is there something up with the site. It’s loading up pretty slowly for me. Someone else experiencing this?

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