Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On Physics Culture

This comment was left on my blog by "Anonymous", but i wanted to give it a bit of attention:


Hey Steve, 

I wanted to solicit your thoughts on a topic. Physics has a culture . I thought of this when looking at this post about the conference. Going to the board. Working with other people--thinking on the fly--at the board. The value of scribbling together.  Taking walks. The value of re-presenting someone else work in a new form. The value of articulating a problem. The low value placed on facts--the you could look that up feeling. the way of writing down ideas to make intuition clear--the feynman style. There are so many things. I work in Biology now, and there is a very different culture where these things are absent. Boards dont even exist. Everything is power point. And everyone constantly talks about facts--facts first--always can you be more specific--can you make that concrete. I really feel that these cultural attributes have contributed to the success of physics--and I dont want them to be lost in a world dominated by engineering disciplines and biology. In fact, biology has not really been successful given all the resources it has--and I feel that part of this is the intellectual tradition.


While I do think the interactive physics culture of  bouncing ideas around is extremely productive (and fun), I'm not sure one can conclude that it should be appropriate for all fields.    There must be some amount of Darwinism of cultures in the various branches of sciences --- if this culture worked in other fields, people would adopt it more.   Conversely, the reason other fields have other cultures is probably because their culture is effective for their fields.    

Admittedly there are some pieces of culture that continue for not-so-good reasons (e.g. powerpoint) but still, there must be something to the fact that the different fields operate differently from each other. 

On the side, I'm not sure it is fair to conclude that "biology has not really been successful".   While there are immense unknowns in biology, it is also true that the progress that has been made in biology in the past fifty years is really mind-boggling.

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