Interpret the Quotation: Ernest Rutherford

By Chris Mooney | June 26, 2006 12:33 am

The famous physicist once remarked: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” What do you think he meant by this? I’m thinking about using the quote in the new book to underscore two different views of science–a deductive approach based upon theory and a Baconian inductive approach based upon the collection of data–but I’m not sure if I’m interpreting Rutherford the right way….


Comments (31)

  1. I take it as saying that physics is the only “real” science, while other areas of study are just trivial.

  2. Probably he meant that all physical sciences are related to physics, and can be reduced to physics. I look forward to hearing your views on deductive sciencel, for much of what passes for “cosmology” is solely based on collection of data.

  3. Ick of the East

    It seems to be pretty straightforward; Everything but physics is unispired drudgework.
    And, to be fair, much of it is.

    But to see what Darwin and Wallace (I won’t name anybody who came after Rutherford) did with their decades of drudgework and call it uninspired is, to be nice, just crazy talk.

    Still, I wonder how Rutherford would feel about this….

  4. To follow on from Macht, I think he’s saying that that hard or “real” sciences supervene on physics – chemistry is “really” physics, etc – while the soft sciences are just collecting and categorising of data.
    Not saying I agree, but anyway – I suppose in a way he’s disparaging even the “closer” sciences to physics, saying that physics is the most important because the ones that aren’t just stamp collecting really just come down to physics anyway.

  5. stumpy

    If you look beyond the flippancy and arrogance of Rutherford’s remark, then you see (or at least I see) the question posed, whether all scientific pursuits are reducable to problems addressed by physics. Theoretically, this may be the case. However, as someone trained more in biological sciences and less in physics, I think that applying physics to questions in, for example, cell biology, or, more extremely, medicine or psychology, would be analogous to counting the sections of an orange by means of inferring the properties of the orange grove itself, say, thru measurements of bark thickness. In other words, the number of variables and the amount of effort that would be required to explain the world purely in terms of experimental or theoretical physics is beyond our human capacity. It’s fundamentally a left-brain/right-brain dichotomy, or a question of logical-and-sequential reasoning v. intuitive thought. Human consciousness is able to transcend, sometimes, its hardware limitations, by using intuiition, which is the nonlinear extrapolation of data to arrive at a surprising and yet accurate conclusion. Physics is to, eg, medicine, as sequential reasoning is to intuition.

  6. David Clausen

    I think Rutherford is making a reduction claim that all other sciences can be reduced to physics.

  7. I agree with Chris that the contrast is between a purely data-collecting science and one with unifying theoretical principles from which deductions can be made, and on top of that, the claim is that the only science with such principles is physics (and that any principles which might exist in other sciences must be reducible to physics).

  8. I think Peter has the gist of it, but I’d elaborate. Back in Rutherford’s day, something like biology really did have no perceptible order to it. It was a mess of facts with no apparent pattern. Physics, at the time, was the core component of those areas of science that did have some discernable logic to them, so it makes sense that he’d equate the subject with the rigorous, predictive style of thought.

    Of course, we now know (via population genetics, evolutionary theory, systems biology, and so on) that it’s possible to handle biology in this sort of rigorous fashion. It may be chaotic, but we can pluck a decent number of really beautiful patterns out of that pandemonium. I suspect that, if you sat Rutherford down with a good book on population genetics, he’d have revised his assessment by the end of the first chapter.

  9. He means exactly what you think he means. There has been a long tradition of methodological disagreement between those who favor induction over deduction and hypothesis and Rutherford here is coming out clearly on the side of deduction as the mark of “real” science.

    Remember that Rutherford HATED the lab, did not have the patience for experimentation, but a very sharp physical intuition. On top of that, he had a bit of the bluster. So biographically, there is every reason to expect that he means what you think he means. (Barbara Lovett Cline’s wonderful little book “Men Who Made a New Physics” has an enchanting section on Rutherford.)

    The origin of the debate, I would argue, goes all the way back to Plato’s ratonalism and Aristotle’s empiricism, but the more scientific version comes about with the birth of modern mathemtical physics. The dead center of Newton’s Principia is a Baconian diatribe against Descartes’ deductivism. John Stuart Mill and William Whewell fought the same battle in the 19th century. Philosopher of science Peter Achinstein argues very persuasively in his book “Particles and Waves” that the wave/particle debate concerning the nature of light is entirely bound up with exactly this methodological argument.

    Since the 1970’s, this debate has fallen out of fashion amongst philosophers of science because of the introduction of the semantic view of theories wherein scientific theories are no longer seen as sets of propositions to be either derived down from hypotheses and first principles or inductively inferred up from the data. On the semantic view, scientific theories are sets of models (in the technical sense of model theory). In a good theory, one of its models resembles our universe or some corner of it. The truth and falsity of scientific explanations, on this view, gets replaced by the notion of better and worse fit.

  10. SLC

    This comment was also repeated by the physicist Luis Alverez when palentologists were reluctant to accept his (and his geologist sons’) hypothesis that the dinosaurs were eliminated by an asteroid collision. However, I would point out that physicists also engage in “stamp collecting.” The application of the mathematical theory of groups to physics results in the classification of sub-atomic particles according to irreducible representations of groups such as SU2 and SU3. For example, the proton-neutron doublet is described as belonging to an irreducible representation of dimension 2 of the group SU2 (isotopic spin). The sobriquet “eight fold way” (designated by the Physicist Murray Gellmann who won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the application of the group SU3), refers to the classification of 8 spin 1/2 sub-atomic particle as belonging to an irreducible representation of dimension 8 of the group SU3 .

  11. Dave S.

    First, I’d want to know the primary source for this quote. I know it appears in his biography and other sources, but I don’t know exactly when he himself said it. I assume he did say this (or something like it) but it would be nice to see the primary reference.

    To me it means that he was thinking in terms that physics could be understood by simple, succinct and demonstrable laws. Whereas in other activities like the biology and chemistry of the time, they were more concerned with listing and categorizing organisms or elements in boxes based on common characteristics, as opposed to really getting at the underlying essence.

    The irony is of course that when he won the Nobel, it was for chemistry and not physics.

  12. Simon Pride

    There’s a related saying: “Chemistry is that part of physics solely concerned with electrons”. In each case, the idea is – as Peter Hollo says – that Physics is the mother of all sciences, dealing with the Really Hard Questions; those being solved, or understood, the rest of science is merely filling in the details, as unimportant and uninteresting to a Real Scientist as stamp-collecting. This is of course a huge science in-joke, on the order of viola jokes in music.

  13. “Stamp collecting” was (and is) a disparaging term for those sciences that spend much of their time collecting (supposedly unrelated) empirical observations. The ultimate stamp-collecting fields have long been considered to be zoology and botany, for example: “Here’s a plant that looks like this, and does this. And here’s another one that looks like this.”

    That’s an unfair characterization, of course, but you can see where a physicist, of all scientists, would be prone to it. Physics has the chance to make big, sweeping discoveries about how matter and energy work, so its practitioners sometimes see other sciences as just tidying up after them. As a chemist, I naturally see that as an overly reductionist point of view.

    I mean, physicists are correct when they say that chemical reactivity is all due to the behavior of the electrons in molecules. Case closed, eh? But solving the physics equations for any decent-sized molecule requires a lot of approximations and numerical methods, and the results often have error bars that obscure the very things you want to know.

    That’s why we drug-company types still go out in the lab and crank out hundreds, thousands of analogs of active compounds, rather than sitting in our offices and computing our way right to the answer. The math-and-physics computational approach can’t give it to us yet, and I’d hate to try to fix a date for when it will.

  14. Brian Bartel

    For Rutherford, the basis of all science must have been particle physics. His discoveries into the very core of atomic existence and function have broad implications in all fields of science, and thus lie at the center of biology, chemistry, and physics. On the other side of the coin, there was a still a trend at the turn of the century to become the naturalist scientist – collecting various flora and fauna (both extinct and extant) from around the globe.

  15. Paul B. Thompson

    Nice discussion thread here, and (without claiming any special insight or expertise into Rutherford) I suspect that the answer is “all of the above”. The quote both makes the distinction orinally noted by Chris and also endorses physics as the only real science, primarily by valorizing the reductive philosophy noted by others.

  16. SteveG,

    Are you sure Rutherford hated the lab? He was an experimental scientist, and if you read his Nobel biography, seemed quite good at it coming up with a variety of new instruments and techniques. That doesn’t sound like someone who hated the lab at all.

    Any references would be appreciated!

  17. Ray H

    Rutherford and other physicists used this quote to put down derisively the natural sciences, geology (Lyell) and biology (Darwin) in particular. His view was that biologists were searching the world for new specimens to put into Natural History Museums and then to invent taxonomic categories for the names. Physicists followed Lord Kelvin in that evolution could not have occurred because the hydrogen in the sun could only combust for a few 100,000 years, thus the time Lyell and Darwin required was not possible and understanding the geological and biological history of the earth was pointless as stamp collecting.

  18. MJR

    Rutherford was basically right, except he would’ve been more right if he were a mathematician and included physics among the lowly ‘stamp collectors.’ As SLC so esoterically points out in her post, physics does indeed describe the fundamental behaviors of everything from sub-atomic particles to the stars. But without its maths, physics would be dead in the water.
    Anyone who has a mathematician for a friend (and happens to be a ‘stamp collecting’ geologist himself) will know that number nerds often scoff at science by calling it ‘applied mathematics’. Within the walls of graduate programs in mathematics, I am told that this is a commonly used term of derision.
    Of course this doens’t diminish the importance of any field of stamp collecting — those of you who are upset at this moniker should be ashamed! Where is your geek pride on this? Your contributions to society are right up there with Magic the Gathering and Sabermetrics (the geekiest possible way of analyzing Major League Baseball statistics)!
    But seriously, folks, face it: you’re all nerds obsessed with minutiae and you wouldn’t have it any other way. Be proud of that fact. By way of proving my stripes on this, I’d never ever in a million years, no matter how much derision was heaped on me, even consider giving up so much of a pebble of my rock collection. Or even my rock POWDER collection, which I used to for geochemical analysis when I was in grad school.
    The same thing applies to physicists — they may be even more geeky because they BUILD tremendous contraptions for measuring impossibly tiny things at astronomical expense to everyone else (read ‘taxpayers’), most of whom couldn’t care less about their function, much less about the advances in understanding they achieve.
    Indeed, then, physics is as much stamp collecting as any other scientific discipline. As such it should be toppled from the lofty position it has attained, thanks in large part to Rutherford’s sharp tongue.
    To help achieve this coup, I’d like to subject Rutherford and his timeless wit to a bit of revisionist history. Rutherford was a fantastic scientist, and one that modern enlitghtened thought should not be without. And even though the fine folks on the Nobel Prize committee did a great job in undermining his egotism by honoring him in Chemistry ratehr than his beloved Physik, let us take it one step further. As one of the greatest scientific minds of his time, or any time, we should bestow upon him the honor that is his due. From this day forth, let him forever be known as “The Father of Stamp Collecting.”

  19. John Wilkins

    I don’t know Rutherford from Bohr (except that he was an Antipodean, so we Australians can claim him by default), but I think it reflects the era when classification was regarded as dry, dusty work in museums of no interest except to a few specialists. Nowadays, classification is a major part of the biological sciences and is done using some fairly sophisticated techniques that would make Rutherford (or Bohr) blink in surprise.

    If you read Popper as a systematist, for instance, you have to force him to say that a classification is a hypothesis. It usually isn’t, except that what are offered are various classifications that compete for being the best way to organise the objects so classified. Sometime after W. Stanley Jevon’s The Principles of Science (1873), classification ceased to be an interesting part of science, especially to physicists and those who thought physics was the whole and end of science. Which is kind of ironic, given the central role of the periodic table.

    Ray H’s comment about Kelvin’s dating of the earth is not entirely correct. A great many physicists agreed with the geologists’ assessment of age after 1903’s discovery of radioactive decay. To quote Bowler: “By 1906, Lord Rayleigh had shown that the energy produced by the radioactive elements should more than compensate for the heat lost into space. … Within a few years, geologists such as Arthur Holmes were using the rates of decay to to produce new estimates of the age of the earth, which soon reached figures of the same order of magnitude as the one accepted today…” (Evolution, 3rd edition, 236f).

    It depends then on when Rutherford said it. Every source I have seen give a citation for this comment, which, incidentally is “In science there is only physics. Everything else is stamp collecting”, cites

    Birks, J. B. Rutherford at Manchester. New York: W. A. Benjamin, 1963.

    If Rutherford said it post 1903 or so, then I think it had little to do with the age of the earth or the Kelvin doctrine.

  20. Thank you all for the great comments. I agree…it’s both a reductionist claim, and a claim of superiority for the deductivist approach to knowledge, rather than the data-gathering inductive approach (no matter what science is practicing that approach). I also agree with those who have suggested that it’s a rather limited view….

  21. natural cynic

    What I find interesting is the fact that the meme hasn’t become extinct. Ann Coulter parrots it in her derision of biologists.

    I think that it was just an arrogant put-down.

  22. Laurence Jewett

    “All science is rubber stamp collecting.”

    Any guesses on who might have said that?

  23. Having just completed the draft of a high-school/college level history of physics in the 20th century, I’d have to agree that Rutherford, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry but not physics, was saying that all other sciences can be viewed as special cases of physics.

    However, I don’t think we should deride stamp collectors, who have a wealth of data and many ways to organize it. Two of the greatest accomplishments of organizing data are the Periodic Table of the Elements and the Eightfold Way. Knowledge of the periodicity of elements probably guided Pauli to his exclusion principle (and certainly made the principle immediately believable). While the SU(3) symmetry by which Gell-Mann ordered the baryons led him to postulate the quark.

    In other words, we need to collect stamps and ponder our collections before we can deduce the underlying principles by which they can be organized.

  24. PhillipJ,

    You are exactly right that “hated” was the wrong word, far too strong. Rutherford was a master experimenter, especially when it came to experimental design. “Impatient” would have been a better word choice. PMS Blackett’s remembrance in the book “Rutherford at Manchester” gives a nice discussion. Rutherford was a master at getting idea to experiment and from new result to conceptual idea to new experiment, but he could be impatient with the actual running of the experiment.

  25. Polly Anna

    Oh, my goodness!!Was Rutherford a precursor to Anne Coulter, or Anne read Rutherford? They sound a lot alike. I’m sure they were/are both equally unidimensional, biased and arrogant. Unidimensional Annie says: While I’m sure there have been groundbreaking discoveries about the internal digestive system of the earthworm, biologists are barely even scientists anymore. They’re classifiers, list-makers, like librarians with their Dewey decimal system. Except librarians don’t claim the Dewey decimal system holds the Rosetta Stone to the universe. There were once great biologists, but the morally vacuous ones began to promote their own at the universities.Polly Anna

    [Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart–Anne Frank]

  26. Bill

    It simply reflects his belief that the physical world (and all other sciences) is ultimately governed by physics. It’s not about deductive vs. inductive reasoning.

  27. Barry

    Of course, the simplest explanation is that Rutheford was a physics-*sshole. We’ve all seen such on the net – the guy who walks in, announces that’s he (always a he) is a physicist, and that physics is the only ‘real’ science. This is usually accompanied by a total lack of awareness that other sciences work under different constraints, especially in terms of cause, effect and proof. In extreme cases, such people will deny that A is a cause of B unless there’s 100% linkage; probabilistic causes don’t exists (they must have had fund with statistical mechanics).

    Near relatives are Mr. “I’m an engineer, nobody else knows anything”, Mr. “I’m a programmer; the world can be explained using programming analogies”, and last but far from least, Mr. “I’m an economist, so I know how the world works” (the last is seen far more frequently in the amateur version, where somebody read Econ 101, and thinks that they’re clued in).

  28. Just to flesh out the meme… I recall vividly when the astrophysicist, George Field, said “If you’re not studying singularities, you’re just picking daisies.” Vividly, because I was among the daisies.

  29. Tom

    It doesn’t seem certain to me that this about reduction or rationalism versus empiricism. It could also be about universality. Biology produces claims that can only be true on the surface of one planet, so it’s stamp collecting. Physics is true universally whenever it’s true at all.

  30. Lance Harting

    You wouldn’t be referring to me would you Barry? Hehe

    Plenty of physicists are assholes. Newton was a notoriously inhospitable bore. Serves him right that Einstein knocked his Principia off its hallowed perch. Seems old Albert could be a bit of a prick as well.

    I must admit to have been a bit self-satisfied when I first heard Rutherford

  31. This is a wonderful (and snarky) refuation of the saying on a blog.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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