Wednesday February 22, 2006

Physics Envy

I was watching a recent episode of Nova about the neutrino titled "The Ghost Particle", and at one point I was nearly overcome by a powerful wave of pure physics envy.  In discussing the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, a huge ultraclean spherical acrylic tank of heavy water located two kilometers below the surface of the Earth in a nickel mine in Ontario, Canada, Prof. David Wark said:

When the SNO detector was finished, the exact center of the SNO detector has the lowest level of radiation of any point in the Solar System.

Let me be clear.  I find language and linguistics fascinating, and I do not regret my choice of field.  But an underground lab with "the lowest level of radiation of any point in the Solar System"?  Goddamn, that's cool.  We mere social social scientists never get to announce anything that so totally reeks of Big Science.  Think about it.  We'll never get to say something like:

  • When fully pressurized, gentlemen, this hyperverbal chamber will contain the highest density of lexical items ever observed.
  • After parsing this quintuply-nested onion sentence, Broca's area in the subject's brain will achieve a temperature nine times hotter than the surface of the sun.
  • The submicrosecond collapse of this precise mixture of passive and antipassive verb forms produces mutual annihilation and a burst of hard gamma rays.

All we get to do is undermine each other's claims about the content of the human language faculty and argue about just how far beyond explanatory adequacy our theories have progressed.  (It's pretty far now, I gather.)  That sort of thing is fine as far as it goes, but when am I going to discover a grammatical process that can power a city the size of New York for over 300 years?  I want there to be a kind of reactor named after me!

Bonus etymology:  Some googling and a quick trip to the JSTOR suggests that the term physics envy was first coined in a book review by Joel E. Cohen in the May 14, 1971 issue of Science (vol. 172), in which he wrote, "Physics-envy is the curse of biology."  Sigh.  It's not just biology, Joel—I'm feeling it all the way over here in the scientific study of human language.

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
06:39 PM in Linguistics , Science | Submit: | Links:


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Hmm ... you should deal with particles a lot:

"4 : a unit of speech expressing some general aspect of meaning or some connective or limiting relation and including the articles, most prepositions and conjunctions, and some interjections and adverbs "

Maybe you could try firing a laser at a dictionary to see what happens?

Posted by: Steve at Feb 22, 2006 7:17:27 PM

Five words: Eternal Engine of Linguistic Massacre. Maybe we can get DARPA interested?

Posted by: includedmiddle at Feb 22, 2006 9:06:27 PM

All I can say is: High Speed, High Entropy Parse Forest Pruning with TUNGUSKA.

Posted by: Trochee at Feb 23, 2006 12:40:42 AM

Oh, I hear ya! Before I realized I am incapable of doing calculus, I wanted to do theoretical physics.

Posted by: Bridget at Feb 23, 2006 7:24:32 AM

I think you need to find a military application for Big Linguistics.

Posted by: Andrew at Feb 24, 2006 9:12:42 PM

Of course, these days, with so much money going into the biotech business, there seem to be more jobs going for biologists than physicists, so the physicists are getting biologist envy.

Posted by: Pete Bleackley at Feb 27, 2006 4:33:42 AM

i always thought physics-envy was more specifically epistemological - the social sciences are envious of the deductive proofs on offer in physics rather than the cool toys they play with!? i thought it was because social science experiments are notoriously difficult to make exclusive of extraneous or unthought of factors so the psychologists (not trained in epistemology) confuse causality with constant conjunction??
i speak as a psychotherapist with qualifications in psychology that were difficult for me to take seriously(both subject matter and my own qualifications) having been taught philosophy and epistemology by an ex industry nuclear phycisist! i HAVE seen some real science done in the name of psychology...but very little. seems that human existence is better understood by the arts and psychotherapy seems, on the whole, not to be so rife with...physics-envy.

Posted by: miles at Nov 2, 2007 9:32:56 AM