In Theory There Is No Difference Between Theory and Practice, While In Practice There Is

Yogi Berra? Albert Einstein? Richard Feynman? Benjamin Brewster? Charles F. Kettering? Walter J. Savitch? Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut? Dave Jeske? Chuck Reid?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following popular adage balances unsteadily between brilliance and absurdity:

In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.

This notion has been attributed to many people including famous baseball player Yogi Berra, scientific genius Albert Einstein, and prominent physicist Richard P. Feynman. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive reason to credit Berra, Einstein, or Feynman. The expression was coined before Einstein had reached his third birthday and before the other two were born.

The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in “The Yale Literary Magazine” of February 1882 which was written and edited by students. Benjamin Brewster who was a member of the class of 1882 wrote about an argument he had engaged in with a philosophical friend about theory versus practice. His companion accused him of committing a vulgar error. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I heard no more, for I was lost in self-reproach that I had been the victim of “vulgar error.” But afterwards, a kind of haunting doubt came over me. What does his lucid explanation amount to but this, that in theory there is no difference between theory and practice, while in practice there is?

Brewster was humorously summarizing the position of his friendly opponent, and QI believes that the saying should be credited to Brewster.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading In Theory There Is No Difference Between Theory and Practice, While In Practice There Is

Notes:

  1. 1882 February, The Yale Literary Magazine, Conducted by the Students of Yale College, Volume 47, Number 5, Portfolio: Theory and Practice by Benjamin Brewster, Quote Page 202, New Haven, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link

Any Field That Had the Word “Science” in Its Name Was Guaranteed Thereby Not To Be a Science

Frank Harary? Gerald M. Weinberg? Marshall C. Yovits? Max Goldstein? Richard Feynman? Anonymous?

science14Dear Quote Investigator: The participants in several fields of endeavor have selected names that include the word “science”, e.g., Political Science, Information Science, Military Science, Library Science, Domestic Science, and Computer Science. This motley collection inspired the following quip:

Anything with “science” in its name is not a science.

Would you please explore the origin of this saying?

Quote Investigator: Because this jest can be expressed in many ways it is difficult to trace. The data below is not presented as definitive; it is being shared so that others may have a starting point to build upon.

In 1975 Gerald M. Weinberg published “An Introduction to General Systems Thinking”, and the first chapter ended with a set of exercises. The seventh exercise presented a jocular law which Weinberg attributed to Frank Harary who was a prominent mathematician in the field of graph theory. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The misnaming of fields of study is so common as to lead to what might be general systems laws. For example, Frank Harary once suggested the law that any field that had the word “science” in its name was guaranteed thereby not to be a science. He would cite as examples Military Science, Library Science, Political Science, Homemaking Science, Social Science, and Computer Science.

This citation was the earliest known to QI though the joke referred to some domains of thought which were named many decades before the 1970s. QI suspects that this citation can be antedated.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Any Field That Had the Word “Science” in Its Name Was Guaranteed Thereby Not To Be a Science

Notes:

  1. 1975, An Introduction to General Systems Thinking by Gerald M. Weinberg, Chapter 1: The Problem, (Questions for Further Research: Exercise 7), Quote Page 24 and 25, Published by John Wiley & Sons, New York. (Verified on paper)

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: 1

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: 2

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.

Continue reading All Science Is Either Physics or Stamp Collecting

Notes:

  1. 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)
  2. 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