All Science Is Either Physics or Stamp Collecting

Ernest Rutherford? John Desmond Bernal? Richard Feynman? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, while reading about the discovery of a new species of frog I marveled at the remarkable diversity of the biosphere. But, I was also reminded of the following humorous and barbed assertion:

All science is either physics or stamp collecting.

This statement has often been attributed to the prominent physicist Ernest Rutherford, but the only citation I have seen was published in the 1960s which was long after the great experimentalist’s death in 1937. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in the 1939 book “The Social Function of Science” by physicist John Desmond Bernal who ascribed the idea to Ernest Rutherford, but Bernal did not present a precise quotation. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1939, The Social Function of Science by J. D. Bernal (John Desmond Bernal), Quote Page 9, G. Routledge & Sons Ltd., London. (Verified on paper; great thanks to Stephen Goranson and the Duke University library system)[/ref]

There must be for any effective scientist an intrinsic appreciation and enjoyment of the actual operations he is performing, and this appreciation will not differ essentially from that of the artist or the sportsman. Rutherford used to divide science into physics and stamp collecting, but if the analogy were to be carried through, it would be reduced to “gadgeteering” and stamp collecting.

In 1945 a periodical published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science called “The Scientific Monthly” printed an instance attributed to Rutherford:[ref] 1945 September, The Scientific Monthly, Volume 61, Number 3, A Lend-Lease Program for Philosophy and Science by Max Black, Start Page 165, Quote Page 168, Column 1, Published by American Association for the Advancement of Science. (JSTOR) link [/ref]

In this sense all studies become “scientific” to the degree that they aspire to reach the condition of physics and seek to imitate closely the complex interweaving of selective observation, controlled experiment, and mathematical elaboration which is to be found there. Those who favor this definition may take as their slogan the epigram attributed to the late Sir Ernest Rutherford that science consists only of “physics and stamp-collecting.”

QI has found the saying in neither an interview nor a book nor an article by Rutherford; in short, there was no direct link between the scientist and the adage. Indeed, it was possible that Bernal served as the only avenue for transmission of the sharp apothegm.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1952 an article in the “New Zealand Science Review” attributed the saying to an unidentified person who attended a talk given by Rutherford:[ref] 1952 October, New Zealand Science Review: Official Journal of the New Zealand Association of Scientific Workers, A Preview of Biophysics by A. G. Bogle, Start Page 158, Quote Page 158, Published by the New Zealand Association of Scientific Workers, Wellington, New Zealand. (HathiTrust Full View)[/ref]

This I might call the “physicist’s way of looking at things” though I must not go as far as someone who was overheard after a lecture of Rutherford’s to say “all science is either physics or stamp collecting.”

In 1974 the popular remark appeared in “American Scientist” magazine when a book reviewer referred to its presence within an anthology titled “A Random Walk in Science”:[ref] 1974 September-October, American Scientist, Volume 62, Number 5, Book Review by D. Allan Bromley, (Book Review of “A Random Walk in Science: An Anthology edited by E. Mendoza and compiled by R. L. Weber) Quote Page 595, Published by Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. (JSTOR) link [/ref]

It does include Lord Rutherford’s classic remark: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”

In May 2015 the popular science-oriented webcomic xkcd depicted a game show with three contestants representing physics, biology, and chemistry. The goal of the competition was to determine the best scientific field. The physics proponent spoke first and mentioned the expression:[ref] Publication Date: 2014 May 4, Comic Series: xkcd, Comic Strip Title: Degree-Off, Comic Author: Randall Munroe, Comic Series Description: A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language. (Accessed on May 9, 2015) link [/ref]



The two statements above were split across two panels, and the ellipsis indicated that much of the speech celebrating physics was omitted. Hence, the coiner of the adage was not identified; however, a cursory examination of the comic might lead some readers to believe that the quotation was being ascribed to the notable physicist Richard Feynman.

In conclusion, this adage is usually attributed to Ernest Rutherford, and QI has found no alternative ascriptions with substantive support. The first known citation credited Rutherford, but it appeared two years after his death. John Desmond Bernal apparently was the prime locus for the dissemination of the remark and its common attribution.

Update History: On May 10, 2015 the xkcd citation was added.

(Great thanks to Stephen Goranson for accessing the key 1939 citation. Special thanks to John Simpson and Dale @mudlock who pointed to the xkcd comic strip.)

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