In a 1916 paper publishing the measurement of Planck’s constant — which has since been critiqued as dramatic for its time, and Nobel-prize-worthy, among other names — Robert A. Millikan referenced Albert Einstein’s theory on the quantization of light as “reckless.”

I’ll admit that to-date in my readings of scientific papers, never have I stumbled upon such a fiercely personal word to describe a theory. Not only does Millikan insinuate that the quantization of light into morsels of energy (known today as photons) holds no validity, but he manages to summon all the complicated little emotions associated with the reprimand of a rebellious and inconsiderate adolescent.

Reckless is not a word I associate with theories, especially those that are conceived via intense mathematical and experimental reasoning. Drinking and driving is reckless. Unprotected sex is reckless. Thus, in his contextual use of the word reckless, Millikan betrays the nature of what I previously maintained as a relatively unbiased accumulation of ideas. A scientific journal is no place for petty feuds.

Despite its significance, this example of fiendish interactions in the scientific community lies on the rather tame end of the spectrum compared to, say, Einstein’s feud with German experimental physicist Phillip Lenard. Among their less cordial professional exchanges exist a miscellany of unpleasant utterances, such as “infantile,” “stupidities,” and references to goats.

Based on a cursory analysis of the feud, it is unclear what motivated Einstein to relay such personable attacks on Lenard’s investigations, which Einstein opined as “ludicrous” and a waste of time.

Lenard’s qualm lay not merely with Einstein, however, but with the entire concept of theoretical physics. He equated theoretical physicists to Cubist painters, who from his perspective were “unable to paint decently.” Lenard found the extensive mathematical and theoretical approach to physics inferior to that of an experimentalist.

Physicists are petty. That’s not to say physicists are abnormally petty compared to other scientists. Physicists are human, and humans are petty. The characteristic transcends occupation.

Generally speaking, however, one tends to view the hard sciences as void of emotion. Physics is the study of the universe. It seeks to define the laws of nature, laws that exist independently of the human. Yet the only way physicists interact with the truth is through the mind, begging resolution to the philosophical theory of constructivism; can truth exist outside of the mind that constructs it?

The answer is unclear. For now, what is nonnegotiable is that the human mind is a plum pudding of both emotion and logic. Even physicists cannot escapes that whims and impulses, the hundred thousand pangs that flesh is ere to.

In my time here at Drake, I’ve begun to develop a philosophy defining what it means to be a physicist. What makes my education different from that of, say, a mathematician, or a chemist? We’ve heard the jokes before; a physicist, a mathematician and an engineer walk into a bar…

Every scientist contributes a unique perspective to the situation at hand, each approaching the problem from a different angle. I found myself recently presented with the task of communicating these deficits in mentality to a friend. These anecdotes, minus the blatant belittlement of the mentality of the engineer, proved most useful in this pursuit.

Every scientist contributes a unique perspective to the situation at hand, each approaching the problem from a different angle.

One of my favorites is as follows:

A physicist, a mathematician and an engineer are challenged to build a pen and gather a herd of sheep inside. The engineer herds the flock of sheep into a circle, then builds the fence around them. The physicist assumes each sheep to be spherical and identical, makes a few calculations, then builds a fence and herds the sheep inside. The mathematician builds a fence around herself and then defines herself as being outside.

Perhaps, a more informative anecdote is as follows (from cs.northwestern.edu):

An engineer is working at her desk in an office. Her cigarette falls off the desk into the wastebasket, causing the papers within to burst into flames. The engineer looks around, sees a fire extinguisher, grabs it, puts out the flames, and goes back to work.

A physicist is working at her desk in another office and the same thing happens. She looks at the fire, looks at the fire extinguisher, and thinks “Fire requires fuel plus oxygen plus heat. The fire extinguisher will remove both the oxygen and the heat in the wastebasket. Ergo, no fire.” She grabs the extinguisher, puts out the flames, and goes back to work.

A mathematician is working at her desk in another office and the same thing happens. She looks at the fire, looks at the fire extinguisher, and thinks for a minute, says “Ah! A solution exists!” and goes back to work.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to apprehend the various mentalities from these examples. The engineer immediately employs his knowledge via practical means. She doesn’t question why it works or how it works, rather she asks “does it work?” If it works, it’s useful.

The mathematician lies arguably at the opposite end of the spectrum. Value is placed on the abstract rather than the practical. It is almost as though the mathematician reevaluates the philosophical notions that seem self-evident to the commonwealth, such as definitions of “inside” versus “outside.” In this way, the mathematician’s mentality is unbounded by reality, by coordinate systems, by colloquial definitions. Truly, it is an artistic way of thinking.

The physicist is somewhere in between the engineer and the mathematician. Anecdotally, the physicist seems to adhese the theory of the mathematician with the application of the engineer. For this reason, physics is sometimes called applied mathematics; for this reason, applied physicists are essentially considered glorified engineers.

It is almost as though the mathematician reevaluates the philosophical notions that seem self-evident to the commonwealth, such as definitions of “inside” versus “outside.” In this way, the mathematician’s mentality is unbounded by reality, by coordinate systems, by colloquial definitions. Truly, it is an artistic way of thinking.

But what mentality do they hold?

I do not precisely know yet. Based on my own observations, physicists place an extraordinary value on experimentalism. They enjoy predicting results, and guessing at solutions to equations. Physicists intentionally make assumptions that defy the precision of mathematics so as to reveal more general characteristics of a system. I heard my Modern Physics professor say once that “among friends, and for all practical purposes, 3.16 = pi.” (To the mathematicians reading this: your squeals are audible.)

Physicists test their equations for extreme values of a variable, and use the approximate sign ( ≈ ) quite often in mathematic reduction. 1/(1-x) ≈ 1+ x when x << 1.

Even among physicists, there are discrepancies in mentality, and hierarchies formed as a result. Theoretical physicists (which are essentially applied mathematicians) develop theories for the universe, then hand their work to the experimentalists, saying, “Now prove that it works!” On the other hand, experimentalists occasionally find something in the laboratory and retort, “Ha! Factor that into your theories!”

What universities sell to students is not merely information, it’s the development of a mentality adherent to the nature of the field.

What is undeniable is that the education at the undergraduate level for these fields, engineering, mathematics and physics, is virtually the same, and you can get this education virtually anywhere. What universities sell to students is not merely information, it’s the development of a mentality adherent to the nature of the field.