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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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September 1, 2010

Scientia Est Experientia

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Posted by Derek

Chad Orzel has a post up on the two halves of physics, and about how people tend to forget one of them: the experimentalists. I think he's right, and the problem is the glamorous coating that began to stick to theoretical physics in the early 20th century (and has never completely flaked away).

Several things led to that split: the startling predictions of relativity and quantum mechanics, borne out by experimentalists right down to the most unlikely-sounding results, for one. The Manhattan Project, which was a triumph of engineering, but was seen, I'd say, by many in the general public as sheer theory somehow made real. The personal fame of people like Einstein, and the fame of later practitioners like Feynman and Hawking. All of this made experimental physicists seem either like 19th-century relics, or (more often) made them confused in the public's mind with theorists from the very beginning. (The only post-1900 physicist that I can think of who was both a great theorist and a great experimentalist was Enrico Fermi). Update - qualified that to take care of off-the-charts figures like Isaac Newton.

Chemistry, on the other hand, has always been an experimental science in the public mind. Say "chemist", and people think of someone in a lab coat, in a lab, surrounded by chemicals. "Theoretical chemistry" is not a phrase with any popular currency, as opposed to "theoretical physics". Even many chemists tend to think of someone who spends all their time on theory as being close to a physicist, or even a mathematician.

Some of the practitioners don't do much to clarify matters. Witness the great Lars Onsager, who really was a chemist (and won the 1968 Nobel for it). But his PhD dissertation, which had to be whipped up when Yale discovered he didn't have a doctorate, was (disconcertingly) on Mathieu functions, and Yale's math department said that they'd be glad to grant him the degree if the chemists had any problem with it. Very few people are competent to read all of Onsager's Collected Works.

I agree with Orzel, though, that experiment is the beating pulse of any scientific field. That's the worry that some people have had about physics in recent years, that it's strayed into areas where experiments cannot help. Chemistry will, I think, never have that problem. But we've got others.

Comments (18) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Who Discovers and Why


1. Steve on September 1, 2010 9:12 AM writes...

I think one of the reasons physics made such remarkable progress in the 20th century was because theorists and experimentalists worked off of each other's work so well. That, to me, is the real beating pulse of science.

In chemistry, we have done a comparatively poor job of that (on both sides).

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2. barry on September 1, 2010 9:30 AM writes...

Astronomers have always labored under a handicap; they can rarely perform experiments.
Chemistry owns the other end of the spectrum. Until recently, ours was the only discipline in which we could make the objects of our study. Now, particle physicists and biologists have joined that game.

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3. MattF on September 1, 2010 9:33 AM writes...

Let's not forget Steven Chu, solid-state experimentalist extraordinare, head of the US Dept. of Energy, and, very visibly, a physicist.

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4. Myma on September 1, 2010 10:23 AM writes...

Even on the Big Bang Theory, the experimentalist Leonard is mocked as being inferior to the theoretician Sheldon.

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5. dearieme on September 1, 2010 10:34 AM writes...

"The only physicist that I can think of who was both a great theorist and a great experimentalist was Enrico Fermi". Ahem. Isaac Newton?

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6. dsa on September 1, 2010 11:18 AM writes...

In Computer Science, we often point to Physics as an example of the importance of experiments and that one can be a scientist and build things. Since so many on the experimental side have been drained off to the (more lucrative) areas like start ups, particularly the universities tend to be top heavy with theorists. Being such a young science, we're still at the point where the experimentalists can prove much less than the theorists can dream up, further convincing them that we aren't really making much of a contribution.

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7. LJ on September 1, 2010 11:46 AM writes...

You said: "...the startling predictions of relativity and quantum mechanics, borne out by experimentalists..." Hmmm... But relativity WASN'T first concocted by theorists, it was devised by Lorentz, Fitzgerald and Einstein to explain the startling experimental results of Michaelson and Morley. And quantum mechanics was born amid the "ultraviolet catastrophe"... evoked by Planck, but first witnessed in black-bodies by experimentalists.

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8. Wavefunction on September 1, 2010 11:56 AM writes...

Quite. That's precisely what Freeman Dyson means when he talks about the "craftsmanship of science" in his book "The Sun, the Genome and the Internet".

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9. retread on September 1, 2010 12:50 PM writes...

Chemistry deals with the problems that physics can't solve. So of course we're reduced to experiment and empirical rules. But that's what makes it so much fun -- you never know if your chemical hunches will be correct until you try them out in the lab.

n the quantum mechanics course I audited last fall, we ran out of problems exactly soluble by the 5th week. It was approximation after that. The approximations may be good, but approximations they are.

Read any of The Curious Wavefunction's posts about the shortcomings and pitfalls of the potentials used by computational chemists.

Ask your friendly neighborhood physicist for a solution of the n-body problem where n is equal to or greater than 3.

If physics could really help us, Derek's (and everyone's) PhD would have been a lot shorter.

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10. Osaka on September 1, 2010 12:51 PM writes...

LJ: Planck did not posit the existence of quanta to explain the ultraviolet catastrophe; he did it to merge two competing equations which described well the lower and upper sections of the electromagnetic spectrum, but not both, into one which did both, but relied on quanta. The ultraviolet catastrophe was unknown to him for a good while, around 5 years, though quanta did in fact end up explaining that predicament.

History books skew reality.

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11. RTW on September 1, 2010 2:34 PM writes...

The problem with Theoretical Physics/vs Experimental, is that the Theory and Experiments agree very well with the things the experimentalists have already done and tested agains the theorys. The issue now is that the experimentalists require equipment now that costs 100's of billions of dollars to test the their Theoretical brothers postulates. This involves nations, not simple institutions or University department finding.

I nearly had a second major in Physics, and lately have been reading much about SuperString theory. Not that I will ever understand the mathmatical basis behind it. I urge you to give "The Elegant Universe" by Brian Greene a read. It has no math in it, but the concepts are often very hard to wrap ones mind around. I have been working my way through it for several weeks. Not quite finished yet. I am in the chapter about unification of 5 to 6 different string theory methods. Its a rough business when you can't even begin to solve the equations. Like quantum mechanics you may only be able to actually solve the equations for the simplist of systems like hydrogen. String Theory is many fold harder still.

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12. srp on September 2, 2010 3:41 AM writes...

Peter Galison, a historian of science at Harvard (with a physics PhD), has made great strides at rewriting the history of particle physics in terms of experimental progress. His magnum opus is Image And Logic, but the shorter How Experiments End book is very good, too. One of his contributions is to empirically refute some of the constructivist claims that physicists find things like quarks in the data because their theory leads them to filter and interpret the data that way. The key point is that experimentalists have their own independent concerns and constraints, such as understanding background noise, that take precedence for them over confirming theorists' notions.

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13. Cartesian on September 2, 2010 4:30 AM writes...

In physics some theories are a bit annoying, but it is on the way of progress.

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14. dearieme on September 2, 2010 5:34 AM writes...

"Ask your friendly neighborhood physicist for a solution of the n-body problem where n is equal to or greater than 3." Imight have advised that until recently, but I've seen an allusion to a "solution" to the three-body problem. If anyone can tell me more, I'd be glad to learn. (Wikipedia makes no mention.)

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15. ech on September 2, 2010 11:12 AM writes...

I have a BA in Physics (with an Astronomy concentration) and saw a lot of the divide between theoreticians and experimentalists in our department. The big advantage the theorists have is, as alluded to above, they are cheaper. As the theoretical astrophysicist who taught my Cosmology course said to me one day: "All I need to do my job is a blackboard, a grad student or two, and some computer time."

And as also mentioned above, "Big Bang Theory" plays up the divide quite well.

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16. gwern on September 2, 2010 1:02 PM writes...

I've always found a certain irony in that. Physics has been the victim of its own success - it has explained too much too well.

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17. DrSnowboard on September 3, 2010 2:26 PM writes...

And having solved (sic) all those pesky theoretical discrepancies by creating more and more 'particles' and 'fields' , the humble but eminent physicist feels able to affirm the redundancy of God...

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18. mbt shoes women sale on June 15, 2012 2:02 PM writes...

It would seem that some of the dog beds are nicer than some people sleep in, but that is the way it is. However, at the time of buying SUVs, people are looking for the comfort of the cars. So what does it basically do? A fashion stylist as its name implies works with fashion trends that create a noticeable and distinctive individualized style for their clients.

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