OK, so my last blog post about cancer may have gotten a little serious. Sorry about that. To make up for it, here's a genuine picture of Abraham Lincoln fighting a polar bear with chainsaws for arms...
Now here’s a question. Which Power Ranger was the most racist? Trick question, the answer is all of them!
Some questions might be a little easier to answer on the other hand, such as: which flavour of crisp is the best (Salt and Vinegar), does anybody like gherkins (no) and who would win in a fight between Optimus Prime and Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird? Trick question again, they would unite forces.
Even that debate about whether Jaffa Cakes are technically a biscuit or a cake has a legitimate answer. A cake is something which hardens over time while a biscuit gets softer, making Jaffa Cakes, legally speaking, a cake. How do I know that? My old Physics teacher used to work as an accountant for the legal firm which helped McVities win a court case about biscuit terminology.
That’s true. No seriously, that’s true. I know I've lost your faith after posting that Lincoln-bear picture, but this is honestly true. Look up the VAT Mcvities Tribunal of 1991. My Physics teacher's name was Mr. Harrington and he taught me Physics from years 10-13. We used to call him Haribo. (By the way, sir, if you're reading this...sorry for that)
But which Science is the best one?
At school we study Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Umbrella terms for enormous bodies of knowledge. Biology is the study of anything that lives (Biology literally means “the words of life”), Chemistry is the study of substances and observable change, while Physics is the study of…well, sort of everything else.
Unfortunately, Physics in school is a bits ‘n’ pieces subject with lots of unrelated things slapped together under the same heading. Space, electricity, particles, forces and motion, heat and a whole bunch of other stuff get thrown together without coherency. It’s a dog’s dinner made of bits which are fascinating in their own right but don’t quite gel. Kind of like a Coen brothers movie.
Splitting knowledge into these factions is a risky game because it's often so broad as to be meaningless. Even Biology, which has a definite circumference (living stuff) can be broken into a buffet of sub-topics. Physiology, Zoology, Ethology, Anatomy, Medicine, Cell Biology, Immunology, Molecular Biology, Neurology, Neuroscience and so on.
Plus, what do we do with Biochemistry - the study of how chemicals interact with living systems? Or what about molecular astronomy - the study of chemicals found in space? And what about subjects like Geology or Climate Science? They don’t fit into neat brackets at all!
Grouping things into Biology, Chemistry and Physics is like trying to categorise Shakespeare’s plays into comedy, tragedy and history (which people still do for some reason). It’s an unnecessary and foolish endeavour. You’ll have to twist and bend your definitions to fit the group labels and the overall result will be a nonsensical mess. Kind of like a Coen Brothers movie.
Richard “Friendly Man” Dawkins, has argued in favour of something called Heirarchical Reductionism in Science; the idea that Biology is applied Chemistry and Chemistry is applied Physics etc. Other Scientists like Philip Anderson have argued in the other direction. If you were to take a computer program and plug in all the laws of Physics it wouldn’t necessarily generate the Biological complexity of a frog for instance. You can't just say Chemistry is a form of Physics and Biology is a form of Chemistry.
You could easily create a Universe which had all the same physical laws but which had no life at all. Or possibly life, but not human life. Or maybe human life, but not the Kardashian sisters, and really that’s what Science is all about. Trying to create a Universe where the Kardashians aren’t permitted to exist.
You want to know about a group of sisters who really did something to change the world? You want the Sisters of the Sun (also called the Harvard Computers), they were the women who catalogued, categorised and explained how the Universe evolves. These women practically invented the field of astrophysics.
There’s a rivalry among Scientists sometimes. It’s often in good humour but occasionally it’s not. Robert Sapolsky (a Stanford Biologist) has noted that many Biological and Social Scientists seem to suffer from what he calls “Physics envy” i.e. Physics is full of equations and strange sounding terminology, so some Biologists stick unnecessary complications and mathematics into their work to make it feel “more Sciencey”.
I think there is a perception some people have that Physics is somehow “purer” or “more intellectual” than other Sciences. It is true that you can reduce Chemistry to Physics, but I don’t think this makes Chemistry somehow less cool or prestigious. I mean if you really boil things down, the most fundamental field of study is Quantum Mechanics. Are you going to tell me that studying space, or the human brain, or chimpanzees is somehow not interesting?
Yes, Physics is about discovering the deepest, most fundamental ways nature behaves but how do you test any Physics theory? With Chemistry! If Physics predicts that particles should arrange themselves into a particular shape, the best way to test it would be to actually look at how the chemical behaves in a lab aka Chemistry. Chemistry is the validation Physics desperately needs.
And then, once we know how simple chemicals behave we can predict how complex chemical systems might behave, and we have a word for testing that too: Biochemistry. And so on and so on.
Me personally? I like to try, as best I can, to follow in the footsteps of Doc Brown who says, in Back to the Future III: “I consider myself a student of all Sciences”. To him, Science was just studying the world and, really, every part of the world is interesting if you go into enough detail.
Physics is the most fundamental Science. Chemistry is the one we have the most influence over. Biology is the most relevant. Astronomy is the most profound. Earth science is the most vital to survival. And so on. Every Science has its claim to importance and none of them matter more than any of the others.
At University my Master’s research was in Biophysical Chemistry. The strange land where all three disciplines of Science overlap. If you’re interested, what I was doing was using something called computational quantum mechanics (particle and theoretical physics), mixed with a bit of statistical thermodynamics (normal physics) to model the interactions between ionic liquids (chemistry) and plant-matter (biology).
This was the culmination of a decade’s Scientific education, although granted I was always on the back foot learning the Biology stuff. I became passionate about Chemistry and Physics as a teenager and only came to love Biology late in life. That’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t teach Biology at A-level. I just don’t know anywhere near enough about it.
Apart from the structure of wood – seriously, I know a freakish amount about that.
Some of my students have asked which subject I prefer teaching, Chemistry or Physics and I don’t have an answer. It’s like asking which of my eyes is my favourite. I like having both of them in my life. They both help me see the world.
But also, the right one.
I don’t have a personal favourite part of Science, although if I’m completely honest I think there’s a nostalgic part of me which is still in love with quantum mechanics. It’s the subject which got me into Science when I was 14 and I’ll probably always have a special place for it in my amygdala.
I think deciding on the best Science is infeasible, not just because they overlap but because they’re all interesting and we need each of them. If we’re going to survive this gauntlet called “living in the natural world” we need to know as much about that world as possible.
So which is the best Science? I’m afraid that too was a trick question. The answer is all of them.
Lincoln vs Bear: deviantart
The Man who Wasn't There: unsung films
The Man who STILL Wasn't There: blogspot
Doc Brown: Wikia
Sisters of the Sun: Wikipedia
I love science, let me tell you why.