Grrrr, physicists!

This comic is not funny.

It’s totally wrong. It’s from the Ernest Rutherford school of science stereotypes. Biology involves “less knowledge”, however that is defined, than physics? Nonsense. Ask my students. There’s constant tension in my classes between understanding the general principles and mastering all the details, and both are hard. Biology needs to be moved upward, above physics, on this graph.

As for the potential for evil…I’m sorry, there’s no comparison. Physics specializes in the spectacularly abrupt termination: bullets, bombs, lasers, “Mr Bond, I want you to die!” sorts of things. Biology is all about the slow, lingering, agonizing death that is simultaneously a mechanism for transmission to others; biology turns people into walking engines of death. And cancer! What’s more evil than cancer? Nothing, I tell you. So the cartoonist really needs to move biology way, way out to the right.

It vexes me that physicists are always brainwashing their students into thinking biology is less evil than they are.


  1. says

    I should also point out that chemistry can be pretty darned evil, too. Fracking, combustion, industrial waste, poisonous gases…again, we seen the ignorance and lack of appreciation promulgated by physics bias on display.

  2. says

    The _amount_ of knowledge in each branch of science is the same, but there’s a certain logic to it.
    It’s all about precedence.
    Without chemistry, there is no biology.
    Without physics, there is no chemistry.
    Without mathematics, there is no science.
    QED. ;)

  3. says

    ….and if you want to brag, biologists have to know math, chemistry AND physics to do their job. The other guys are much more specialized and can ignore biology altogether!

  4. Johnny Vector says

    Hell, I’m a physicist (by training anyway), and it’s obvious to me that biology is a lot harder.

    Although, if you’re a physics supervillain, you have to compete with Neil Patrick Harris, so there’s that.

  5. Athywren - Frustration Familiarity Panda says

    I have to ask… has the author of that comic studied any of those subjects? I studied physics. I might put it on par with chemistry, but above biology? Wat? Biology is very squishy and damp, and it smells quite bad, but if there’s an overall field of science that I’m least comfortable in; in which I get lost and confused most quickly, and which requires the most background research before I’ll understand what people are going on about, it’s biology. What, do they think we learn about meiosis by osmosis or something?

    (Also, why are androids counted under biology? I mean, sure, there are biological things to learn form there, but surely you’ll be looking at computer science, chemistry and physics for the actual creation of them more than biology? I can’t help but think that they’ve got androids confused with babies here….)

  6. dianne says

    poisonous gases

    Know what biologists do with poison gas? We take the fucker and use it to treat cancer. Successfully. One of the first, probably THE first successful chemotherapy was repurposed mustard gas. It might not be evil per se, but for stone cold badassitude I’d like to physics top that.

  7. zetafunction says

    As for mathematicians being not evil, guess who left a backdoor for the NSA in the internet’s main encryption system?
    Hints: 1) it involved carefully chosen elliptic curves 2) the NSA funds research in algebra and hires algebraists, both on a fixed-term and permanent basis.

    @Dianne: since we’re xkcd-ing…

  8. komarov says

    Must I point out that if you want to be properly evil you should go into the financial sector / business? You can pick up some science credentials later on or simply hire a bunch of physicists, chemists, biologists and engineers* at minimum wage, stick them in the basement of your secret volcano lair luxury palace cum research campus and wait. Sure, at times you might envy the evil technicianfor all the thinkering he/she gets to do, but at the end of the day all those deaths will be on your hands and your hands alone. Your minions will be just that, mere accessories to destruction, unremembered by history, barely hated at all by the survivors.

    Besides, if you find yourself on the payroll of a mad mogul you will have to ask yoursef whether you’re still useful when the weapon is complete. Should you find yourself in that position, I suggest you invent something that breaks down both frequently and spectacularly.

    *That doomsday device won’t build itself, you know.

  9. kesovich says

    What’s the difference between a Civil Engineer and a Mechanical Engineer? Mechanical Engineers build Weapons. Civil Engineers build Targets.

  10. Ryan Cunningham says

    It vexes me that physicists are always brainwashing their students into thinking biology is less evil than they are.”

    Last I checked, physicists themselves are biological. All of their evil is a byproduct of biology. Two can play the “everything your field comes from my field” game, assholes!

  11. Dreaming of an Atheistic Newtopia says

    Ah, the familiar smell of condescendence from the other sciences.
    I think (some) physicists confuse their awful lack of knowledge about biology with an imagined lack of knowledge to be had in biology. “All i know about biology is cows and horses so that must surely be it”. Sure, i only have a fairly basic understanding of physics and they could easily make me feel like an ignorant buffoon if they wanted to. So could i…

  12. Becca Stareyes says

    It seems like the physicists are using ‘knowledge’ as a proxy for ‘knowledge of mathematics’. Which is silly: a PhD in anything probably knows as much as a PhD in physics, in their appropriate field.

  13. wcorvi says

    I’m a bit confused – should biology be moved up? Or to the right?
    A while ago a friend tried to impress me with her biology problems; we ended up challenging each other. We agreed to provide each other with background reading, and see who could come up with a viable research project in the other field, first. She gave me a paper on tardigrades; I gave her Eddington’s book, “The Mathematical Theory of Relativity”.
    After ten minutes, she closed the book and said she was totally lost. In a couple hours, I had a research proposal she wanted to carry out.
    But the real test is what we physicists call the ‘kill ratio.’ Measured in megadeaths per kilobuck.

  14. otranreg says

    …And if you believe the cartoon, Biology is actually the most rational choice: it presumably requires the least knowledge of the four (and leaves more time to practise that pipe organ in your lair) and is second-best in terms of evilry. A real bargain!

  15. says

    Oh, no, wcorvi: you can’t imagine how annoying that is. You read ONE paper, and now you have a research proposal? Have you considered the possibility that biologists are just as smart as you, they’ve been thinking about this for decades, and they came up with your proposal years ago, tested it, got the results, and have moved on? Or that maybe naive assumptions about the easiness of biology leads you to make totally impractical hypotheses that ignore the basic properties of the system?

    Also, I think your friend exhibited the appropriate humility when confronted with a complex field of knowledge. Perhaps you ought to learn likewise.

  16. Rob Grigjanis says

    wcorvi @15: A book which amounts to an entire course in relativity, versus a paper. I sense chains being yanked.

    BTW, the book is online (PDF)!

  17. Vatican Black Ops, Latrina Lautus says

    wcorvi reminds me of why I sometimes hate hanging out with my own chosen social group, the nerds. You know at least one of them is going to be a completely un-self-aware jackass who has to be right about everything.

  18. gmacs says

    …luxury palace cum research campus and wait.

    Excuse me? Did you just slip in and out of Latin for a syllable or was this a Freudian slip? Because I can see why a luxury palace with an associated research campus would be so appealing. (Way better than a volcano. Who wants all that heat, gas and sudden tremor to mess with your equipment?)

  19. nathanieltagg says

    Be fair!

    Making a virus that will kill everyone – totally doable.

    Making a time machine – probably impossible.

    The latter clearly requires more expertise than the former!

  20. whywhywhy says

    First, thank you PZ for your valiant efforts to take a bit of the hot air out of the physics ego. As a physicist, it always pissed me off when a Prof or student would say something to the effect of “all you need is a copy of Stedman’s and a few hours to understand anything in medicine”. Effectively, these folks are guaranteed not to provide much use to biology or medicine.
    Keep hammering away at instances of the physics is ‘best/hardest/most desired/etc’ attitude. It is good for everyone, especially physicists.

  21. biogeo says

    I have degrees in both physics AND biology, and any suggestion that physics requires more knowledge than biology is definitely crap. In fact, I’d say the y-axis on that graph is entirely inverted from reality. The whole point of physics is that it deals with properties of systems which are universal rather than contingent, and what kinds of predictions you can make about a system with minimal information about it. The more you have to “know” about a system in order to ask your scientific question, the less likely it is that scientific question will be described as physics. Biology, by contrast, deals with systems that are entirely governed by contingency (historical contingency with evolution & development, contextual contingency with ecology and behavior, etc. etc. etc.), so in order to ask an important scientific question, you have to already know a great deal about the system.

    Another way I sometimes like to put it is that physics is so easy that some of the most brilliant minds humanity has ever produced were able to generate some of the most foundational ideas in the field (classical mechanics, relativity, quantum mechanics) just by thinking about it really hard for a few years, and these ideas were more or less correct in their first formulation. By contrast, biology is so hard that the most brilliant minds humanity has produced are generally unable to solve the basic problems with pure reason alone, and even the closest example we have with Darwin and natural selection contained a fundamental flaw in its original formulation (Darwin thought heritable variation was continuous rather than discrete, which wouldn’t have worked) which was only resolved when additional knowledge about the nature of genetic inheritance was discovered.

  22. komarov says

    Re: gmacs, #21:

    Definitely the latin there, sorry if anyone is disappointed. Use of the latin ‘with’ is not that uncommon in … is occasionally used in English, so there. [haughty] Anyone confused by this is just an uneducated pleb. [/haughty]

    Anyway, the luxury palace with its own research campus is a huge advantage the evil tycoon has of the mad STEM-professor: he’s a legitimate businessman and doesn’t have to hide. In fact, he can advertise what he’s doing and receive government funding and tax breaks on the assumption that whatever he’ll churn out can be used against the communists / nazis / terrorists / heathens.
    But good luck getting any grant money by submitting proposals for research projects to end life as we know it. Even if the review boards are willing to consider your proposal, it’s bound to be thrown out once they realise you can only be contacted through intermediate henchmen because your location and identity are classified.

  23. biogeo says

    wcorvi @16: Don’t confuse accessibility with simplicity. Doing good physics research is relatively inaccessible because even formulating a valid question typically requires a strong mathematical background that most people without specific physics training lack. By contrast, biology research is relatively accessible, in that a valid question can be formulated without much background. But just because the question is valid doesn’t mean it’s particularly useful scientifically, and most of the obviously interesting valid questions have already been asked and either answered or discovered to be tremendously more complicated than it first seemed. Many of the people with physics training that I know who jumped ship to work on problems in biology have discovered that their preconceptions about their ability to ask and solve important problems in biology with the methods they learned in physics led them to make all kinds of rookie mistakes in their first years.

    Don’t get me wrong, physics training is awesome, and tremendously valuable if you’re interested in biology. But in order to apply it to biology, you have to really become both a physicist and a biologist. The typical physics “assume a spherical cow” approach just doesn’t cut it for non-trivial problems in biology.

    Also, Rob Grigjanis is right that comparing a textbook to a paper is silly. Within my field of neurobiology, I would expect that after reading a primary literature paper, I should have ideas of what kind of question would be a useful next step to advance the field, whereas after reading a textbook chapter, I should at best have an understanding of what was known and well-established several years ago, but not necessarily have a clear idea of what good follow-up research questions would be.

  24. moarscienceplz says

    Unless I missed the announcement, none of these fields has been completely investigated. So wouldn’t that entail that the knowledge required for any of them is either undefined or infinite?

  25. Sili says

    I should also point out that chemistry can be pretty darned evil, too. Fracking, combustion, industrial waste, poisonous gases…


  26. Athywren - Frustration Familiarity Panda says

    @moarscienceplz, 30

    Unless I missed the announcement, none of these fields has been completely investigated.

    Don’t be silly. I have it on good authority that there is nothing new to be discovered!

  27. Igneous Rick says

    And as always, geology gets completely ignored. As far as difficulty goes, biology is merely geology that has gone off. And evil? Not only did geologists supply the raw ingredients for global warming, but we provided much of the evidence showing that it is happening. Some of the favorite solutions to the problem: wind farms and electric vehicles are just another opportunity for geologists to be evil, thanks to the unpleasantness of mining for rare earth elements. We are so, so much more than fracking. And our evil knows no limits. I once read something describing using seismic waves to measure anisotropy of minerals in the earth. I immediately realized that it is possible to weaponize earthquakes.

  28. Rob Grigjanis says

    Igneous Rick (Gneiss nym!):

    I once read something describing using seismic waves to measure anisotropy of minerals in the earth.

    Scattering theory? Born approximation, S waves, P waves, etc? Sounds like physics to me.

  29. Who Cares says

    What I don’t get is why robotics is placed under biology.
    Either I’m really dense or the creator of that graph has even less knowledge of other branches of science then already alluded to in this thread.

  30. blf says

    For the worse in pure, albeit misguided, evil, I’m not sure if I would pick pea-farmers or British Industrial Cheddar makers. Both are members of quite honorable and skillful professions, farming and cheese-making, but who have taken such a turn for Bond villainy they make daesh, teh trum-prat, and horses, combined, near-angelic (although you need a very large pin, preferably far far away). Both are “biological” (minus the “logical”), and “chemical”, and depend on chaotic systems (“maths”) in the real world (so no “physics”, neither is notably spherical).

  31. Lurkeressa, Always Late to Juicy Threads says

    Hmm. Aren’t y’all forgetting something? What does biology have in bigger proportions than those other disciplines?
    So, it can’t be that hard then, can it?

  32. Adela Doiron says

    Shhhh. You want biology to be underestimated to keep the meddling heroes off your back. Let the other sciences hog the spotlight with the big showy dramatic evil while biology sneaks around under everyone’s nose setting up the eventual doom of man and pin the blame on something else. No one suspects the quiet ones.

  33. rrhain says

    I’m reminded of Crowley from Good Omens…an angel who did not so much “fall” as “saunter vaguely downwards.” He wasn’t exactly appreciated by the other demons because his vision of “evil” was much more low-level and pervasive. They all wanted the results that wound up with massive casualties all at once. He took the long tail view: The M25 in England. As described:

    “Many phenomena — wars, plagues, sudden audits — have been advanced as evidence for the hidden hand of Satan in the affairs of Man, but whenever students of demonology get together the M25 London orbital motorway is generally agreed to be among the top contenders for Exhibit A.”

    The idea was that by creating just a little bit of evil in a huge number of people, they will carry it around with them wherever they go, infecting everything they do, unable to get away from it.

    Hmmm…maybe engineering is the big one.

  34. Owlmirror says

    The placement of fields on the Evil axis is all kinds of messed up.

    Are chemical weapons banned? Yes, because they’re evil.
    Are biological weapons banned? Yes, ditto.

    Are physics-based weapons banned? Ha, no, they are not.

    Therefore, physics-based weapons are far less evil than biological and chemical ones.

    Also, maths has a low potential to be evil, they claim? Well, cryptography is maths, and here is an essay on The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work.

  35. Owlmirror says

    Come to think of it, in Charles Stross’ Laundry books, maths has the potential to unleash indescribable horror on the universe. And sometimes even describable horror.

    (Look at this spreadsheet pivot table . . . [sudden silent noise goes here] . . . Guess what? Now you’re basically a vampire, which is to say, a [spoilers] fhayvtug-srnevat pbecfr navzngrq ol n zragny cnenfvgr gung guvaxf gung vg’f lbh naq jnagf gb rng oybbq fb nf gb qribhe oenvaf erzbgryl [/spoilers])

  36. biogeo says

    Also, true evil requires interdisciplinarity. A fable:

    The mad biologist, having recently obtained tenure and a secret mountain lair, decided that the time had come for him to use his skills to take over the world. The first step was to use his skills in genetic engineering to breed an army of monster soldiers. Because of the inaccessibility of his mountain lair, he first created minions by using genes from the mountain goat, endowing his creations with preternatural ability to navigate the rocky cliffs. Then, after a late night watching old Bela Lugosi films, he was inspired to create terrifying blood-sucking minions by using genes from a mosquito. But still, the mad biologist was dissatisfied: his goat-mutants were not sufficiently terrifying, and his mosquito-mutants kept falling off the cliffs surrounding his mountain lair. He needed minions that bore the traits of both of these offenses against nature! And so the mad biologist spent many late nights attempting to cross the genes from his two monster strains, to create a strain of super-henchmen. But despite his evil genius, his experiments failed, again and again, and he could not combine his goat-mutants with his mosquito-mutants.

    Finally, the mad biologist decided that he had to spend a little time away from his evil lair to clear his head and get a new perspective. Hoping to get a fresh viewpoint, he went to the evil lair of his friend, the mad mathematician. He explained to her his desire: to create a race of terrible super-monsters, capable of leaping from the cliffs of his lair to drain his enemies’ blood from their bodies.

    “A brilliant and diabolical scheme!” the mad mathematician exclaimed. “But I’m afraid I don’t know much genetics, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to help.”

    “Well, I’m totally stuck, so maybe you’ll think of something I didn’t,” replied the mad biologist. “Everything goes great right up until I try to cross my goat-mutant with my mosquito-mutant, and it just won’t work!”

    “Oho!” exclaimed the mad mathematician. “You’re trying to cross genes from a mountain goat with genes from a mosquito? I see the problem!”

    “What?! Please tell me!” begged the mad biologist.

    “You’re going to feel really silly,” warned the mad mathematician. “Everyone knows you can’t cross a scalar with a vector!”