Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Stamp Collecting

A while back I picked up Motivation and Personality by A. H. Maslow from the free book table outside the Berkeley Public Library.

M&P is one of those books I’d never read, but is still so familiar that I might as well have read it. It was published in 1954, based on papers written during the 1940s, and it’s full of such phrases as “self-actualization” and “synthesis of holistic and dynamic principles.” Maslow isn’t really responsible for the ways in which those ideas were later turned into buzzwords and catch phrases; he used them first, and he was driving at something.

The couple of chapters constitute a long essay on the philosophy of science, because Maslow was dealing with a phenomenon in the psychological sciences that is nowadays called “physics envy.”

When I was a lad, close to the time of the publication of M&P, in fact, the popular image of the scientist was in the process of moving away from a guy in a white lab coat pouring the contents of one test tube into another test tube. What replaced it was a guy with a particle accelerator. Granted, the guy in front of the blackboard scribbling incomprehensible algebra bridged the two other images, but nevertheless, the image had changed from chemistry to physics.

The sci-fi magic wand changed, too. The old school method was the magic potion, or, in the case of Frankenstein (and even older tale from the dawn of electricity) the lightning bolt. The tame lightning bolt was accomplished by the special effect of the Jacob’s Ladder, you know, the gizmo with the electric spark crawling up between the two metal rods. But Steve Rogers gets to be Captain America by getting injected with the magic potion.

The new school was radiation. Radiation grew giant ants, woke up Godzilla, and gave Peter Parker spider powers. The magic potion became the magic ray.

It doesn’t take much reflection to uncover the source of the change, at so many levels. Hiroshima and Nagasaki went up in nuclear lit flames and suddenly physics is a much bigger deal, with big, big budgets The Manhattan Project was bigger than any corporation of its time, and the national lab system that grew out of it was likewise gigantic.

The number of jobs for physicists likewise increased enormously, as did the money available for education in the sciences, again, with physics being the glamour field.

I don’t think I’m going to single out the academic physics community for becoming all snooty about their sudden increase in worldly status; all academics are snooty, given anything like an excuse (and just being academics is usually enough). Being snooty is part of the academic job description.

Nevertheless, academia is always a status competition, and the physics guys suddenly had a lot of extra moxie. So all of the old canards (“All science is either physics or stamp collecting") got some more muscle behind them. Hence, physics envy.

I will grant that, since much of Maslow’s work was done before the end of WWII, physics envy was obviously in the making long before the post-war physics swarm, but why should I let an inconvenient time-line spoil a good narrative? Besides, I’m not saying that this is cause and effect, just that the effect was given a booster shot. Maslow gives a perfectly good description of the intellectual history of what he calls “atomistic and reductionist” thought; I’m just adding a sociological footnote.

Maslow, of course, was concerned with psychology, and his main point is well-taken, that science is too often centered on the means whereby something is studied, and the problem itself may be given short shrift for this reason. Thus, because physics uses certain kinds of mathematics to solve problems, other fields try to mimic the mathematical fireworks. Physics attempts to avoid teleological interpretations in its theories, because such interpretations are contaminated by the projection of human desires, etc. But psychology is about motives, desires, and purpose. In that way it is teleological at its core. Any attempt to avoid interpretations of motive, desire, and purpose make psychology into something other than what it is.

As it happens, I tend to get a little distracted by something that falls to the wayside. When it was all potions and funny smells, science was centered on chemistry. With the rise of the status of physics, chemistry lost status. And there I was, naturally attracted to chemistry.

Still, tastes and conventions change. The image of the heroic physicist has waned, particle accelerators have become prohibitively expensive (and what have they done for us lately, anyway?) and now biochemistry and genetic engineering have become the new magic wands, all the way to taking over the retconned origin of Spider-Man. And the most visible image of science in popular culture is the crime lab technician.

By the way, the author of the “physics and stamp collecting” quote was Earnest Rutherford. Who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.