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Why Physics Is Not a Discipline

Have you heard the one about the biologist, the physicist, and the mathematician? They’re all sitting in a cafe watching people come and go from a house across the street. Two people enter, and then some time later, three emerge. The physicist says, “The measurement wasn’t accurate.” The biologist says, “They have reproduced.” The mathematician says, “If now exactly one person enters the house then it will be empty again.”

Hilarious, no? You can find plenty of jokes like this—many invoke the notion of a spherical cow—but I’ve yet to find one that makes me laugh. Still, that’s not what they’re for. They’re designed to show us that these academic disciplines look at the world in very different, perhaps incompatible ways.

Instructive: Phase transitions in physical systems, like that between water vapor and ice, can give insight into other scientific problems, including evolution.Wikipedia

There’s some truth in that. Many physicists, for example, will tell stories of how indifferent biologists are to their efforts in that field, regarding them as irrelevant and misconceived. It’s not just that the physicists were thought to be doing things wrong. Often the biologists’ view was that (outside perhaps of the well established but tightly defined discipline of biophysics) there simply wasn’t any place for physics in biology.

But such objections (and jokes) conflate academic labels with scientific ones. Physics, properly understood, is not a subject taught at schools and university departments; it is a certain way of understanding how processes happen in the world. When Aristotle wrote his Physics in the fourth century B.C., he wasn’t describing an academic discipline, but a mode of philosophy: a way of thinking about nature. You might imagine that’s just an archaic usage, but it’s not. When physicists speak today (as they often do) about the “physics” of the problem, they mean something close to what Aristotle meant: neither a bare mathematical formalism nor a mere narrative, but a way of deriving process from fundamental principles.

This is why there is a physics of biology just as there is a physics of chemistry, geology, and society. But it’s not necessarily “physicists” in the professional sense who will discover it.


In the mid-20th century, the boundary

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