Stamp Collectors’ Wives Don’t Get Escorted by the King of Sweden

RutherfordSome sciences are more scientific than others, or at least more prestigious. When the Nobel Prizes are awarded each year, the highest place of honor is always formally filled by the Physics Prize recipients. They receive their prize first, and at the banquet later, one of their wives’ is the King of Sweden’s dinner partner.¹ If a chemist wants to see his wife’s hand on that regal arm some day, he’ll have to come up with something of such significance that it can pass for physics.

Rutherford claimed that “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” The arrogance of physicists in trivializing the complexities of other sciences can be irritating. In my wife’s incoming class in the BCMB graduate program at the Johns Hopkins University,² there was another student with a physics bachelor’s degree. This student found the first year course work surprisingly difficult and felt there were unreasonable expectations. My wife’s unvoiced response was “No, the work isn’t too hard. You just don’t have the right preparation. Just because you can do physics doesn’t mean you can do molecular biology.”

Still, there’s a point to what Rutherford said. A physicist would generally also make an inexpert tailor as well as biochemist. Even so, the most fundamental concepts in the understanding of matter and energy (i.e., everything, well, physical) we call physics. Complex, messy fields like geology, for instance, use physics as a foundation to elaborate concepts that are in many ways grander but also more open to revision. In contrast with physics, there’s economics. Economics uses quantitative analysis and other methods of science. The best economists in the world, the Bank of Sweden Prize winners, are even allowed to attend the banquet with the Nobel Prize winners.³ When an economist presents us with his grand theory of all human interaction, however, no one treats it on a par with Boltzmann’s Law.

The above three paragraphs of prologue hopefully have filtered out those bored by such things. I’ve been curious about the difficult social relations of evolutionary biologists. A couple examples of what I mean come from Fred Reed (a Hunter S. Thompsonesque writer who lives in Mexico because he can’t stand life in America anymore):

“[E]volutionists are obsessed by Christianity and Creationism, with which they imagine themselves to be in mortal combat. This is peculiar to them. Note that other sciences, such as astronomy and geology, even archaeology, are equally threatened by the notion that the world was created in 4004 BC. Astronomers pay not the slightest attention to creationist ideas. Nobody does except evolutionists.” (link) “I have spent countless hours as a reporter talking to scientists, as distinct from zealots with a scientific background. Without exception that I can remember, they were rational, honest, and forthcoming. Yes, they were often trying to establish a pet theory. But they said, ‘I think this is so, and here’s the evidence, and I think it’s pretty solid, but I still need to show this or that, and no, we haven’t, but I hope we will.’ If I expressed doubts, they either showed me clearly and civilly why I was wrong, or said, ‘Good point. Here’s what we think.'” This polite, rational behavior he contrasts with the response of evolutionists when questioned. (link)

A few reasons for this state of affairs can be postulated. One is that evolution deals with an interface in nature that people take personally, the division separating men and animals. Upholding that there is no essential division could leave the evolutionary biologists feeling embattled. Another reason would be the heritage of the atheists who flocked to Darwin because they saw in his theory a good club for beating.

I suggest another reason for evolution’s social awkwardness: As a science, it’s quite a bit closer to economics than it is to physics. There’s nothing wrong with that. Most worthwhile things are closer to economics than they are to physics. Many are on the other side of economics. It means, though, that overarching explanations of all life everywhere are easier to group with the works of Marx and Milton Friedman than with those of Einstein and Maxwell. It may be hard to face up to the fact that neither your wife nor any of your colleagues’ will ever have a date with Carl XVI Gustaf. That would be above the station of stamp collectors.

¹ I suppose Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert Mayer were themselves the dinner partners of Oscar II and and Gustaf VI Adolf. [Curie, no; Mayer, yes: see comment 2.]

² Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology

³ “The Economics Prize is not a Nobel Prizeâ€

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About John Mansfield

Mansfield in the desertA third-generation southern Nevadan, I have lived in exile most of my life in such places as Los Alamos, Baltimore, Los Angeles, the western suburbs of Detroit, and currently the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C. I work as a fluid dynamics engineer. I was baptized at age twelve in the font of the Las Vegas Nevada Central Stake Center, and on my nineteenth birthday I received the endowment in the St. George Temple. I served as a missionary mostly in the Patagonia of Argentina from 1985 to 1987. My true calling in the Church seems to be working with Cub Scouts, whom I have served in different capacities in four states most years since 1992. (My oldest boy turned eight in 2004.) I also currently teach Sunday School to the thirteen-year-olds. I hold degrees from two universities named for men who died in the 1870s, the Brigham Young University and the Johns Hopkins University. My wife is Elizabeth Pack Mansfield, who comes from New Mexico's north central mountains and studied molecular biology at the same two schools I attended. We have four sons, whose care and admonition, along with care of my aged father, require much of Elizabeth's time. She currently serves the Church as Mia-Maid advisor, ward music chairman, and choir director, and plays violin whenever she can. One day, I would like to make shoes.

6 thoughts on “Stamp Collectors’ Wives Don’t Get Escorted by the King of Sweden

  1. John M, I have a few comments. The first is that there is a tremendous amount of discussion between cosmologists and creationists on the origin of the universe. One of the differences is that creationists can accept one of the most popular cosmological theories, which is the “Big Bang.” But one of the interesting points is that cosmologists do seem to have a reasonable amount of humility regarding their theories. They do tend to say “well, the evidence today seems to point to theory A, but I’m willing to accept that further evidence could change that theory.” Karl Popper’s “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” seems to have been taken seriously by cosmologists, who recognize the humility and basic logic of recognizing that theories can change based on new evidence. Evolutionary biologists do not have the same sense of humility (obviously, I am generalizing here — one of my best friends from college has a PhD in evolutionary biology and does take Popper seriously). For most evolutionary biologists, they are in a war with creationism. If you are in a war, anything goes, including falsifying data, exaggerating your arguments and, with apologies to the brilliant Clark Goble, claiming that your science is “settled” and therefore snuffing out all possibilities of debate. I would call for much more humility on the part of evolutionists. As I have said before, there is a tremendous amount that is still unknown about the creative process. Let’s admit that over time we will discover new things that will make our current understanding seem puny and infantile in comparison.

  2. Marie Curie and her husband Pierre missed the 1903 awards ceremony due to illness.

    As for Maria Goeppert Mayer:

    In photographs, she looks small and frail, stepping gingerly down to King Gustav VI Adolf. Her arms are too weak to hold the gold medal or the heavily bound diploma, so a Swedish aide hovers nearby to carry them for her. After the ceremony, the king gave Mayer his arm and, as they swept through the reception room on their way to dinner, onlookers sank to their knees. “It was a fairy tale,” she said.

    Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries, 2nd Edition (1993) by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, Joseph Henry Press, page 200.

  3. Perhaps one reason some evolutionary biologists don’t exhibit more humility is that the large majority of ardent anti-evolutionists are just as certain of themselves. Viewing all the religious questions as “settled”, they refuse to entertain any scientific ideas that may conflict with their preconceptions. Of course, believers in the ninth article of faith need never fall into this trap.

    Perhaps we shouldn’t expect the same level of “certainty” from science and religion, but often the battles between them are fought on the ground of politics rather than within their own disciplines and competencies. In this arena, from my point of view, as far as the distortion of the arguments of the other side is concerned, the evolutionary biologists are more sinned against than sinning.

  4. Bill — I think you are forgetting all us anti-Bigus Banguses out here. Astrophysicists don’t get offended when we say what about dark matter or, how do we know the universe ends where we can’t see further. My favorite is: why has the “known universe” increased in size at least 4 times in the last 15-20 years? (mostly attributed to better telescopes that could see further into space)

    Though I must admit I have no specific knowledge of how God organized the universe. I don’t even know how gravity works or how light avoids warping the time/space continuum. I’m uncertain whether it was the chicken or the egg first.

  5. Splendid post, John. It is true that physics is different. I am a chemist as an artist. While I could calculate and predict everthing that I have done (physical chemistry), I have instead “seen” it. I have a tremendous respect for physicists of all stripes – I don’t have the patience for the training.

    I agree that there is an intractability in the debate. I would, however, imagine that there would be a comparable debate in cosmology had not the religious world acquiesced. People can debate chemistry civilly becasue everyone is willing to consider all the posibilities, this is not so in the evolution debate.

  6. No theory in science is ever final. Every one of them can be upset when new data emerges. When we have a theory which answers all known facts, we call it a law. But any law could be found to be deficient if new facts were to emerge. From that standpoint, all scientists should exhibit some humility.

    However, over the centuries, almost all new scientific explanations (or theories) have had to battle to replace the old ones; fiercely resisted by the entrenched scientific community, and sometimes having to wait until the proponents of the older theory die off.

    So, even though there is a “fight at the drop of a hat” aspect to evolutionary biologists, it has not been unknown in earlier scientific battles.

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