The effectiveness of unreasonable physicists

Now and then physicists have invaded other fields with success, sometimes embarrassing the natives. For example, Max Delbruck and the phage group, Crick and DNA, Seymour Benzer, Walter Gilbert, Alvarez and the K-T extinction, etc.

But sometimes it doesn’t turn out so well. I remember a physicist who thought he had invented the perfect weight-loss diet: you drank lots of cold water, which require lots of calories to warm up, and thus you would lose weight. Problem was, he hadn’t noticed that there is a differences between gram calories (the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree C) and food calories, the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree.

His diet worked, but you had to drink a thousand times more cold water than in his original estimate, which made for an inordinate number of pit stops.

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57 Responses to The effectiveness of unreasonable physicists

  1. Ursiform says:

    He could have worked it out if he knew a megawatt equaled a jelly doughnut per second …

  2. curri says:

    Franz Boas?

  3. dearieme says:

    Don’t forget that Rutherford was awarded the Nobel for Chemistry. I’ve often wondered whether that is the only recorded example of a good Swedish joke.

    • Graham Asher says:

      Okay, I’ll bite. Two English ladies are travelling through Sweden by train. There’s a good-looking youth opposite them. One of the ladies says to the other, sotto voce, “What a handsome face”. The young man indignantly replies, “Det var fan inte jag som fes!”.

      Note for non-Swedish-speakers: the youth replied “It bloody well wasn’t me who farted!”; “What a handsome face” sounds like “Vad det han som fes?” to a Swede, i.e., “Was it him who farted?”.

      Well, I thought it was a good Swedish joke.

      • Graham Asher says:

        typo correction: I meant “Var det han som fes?” of course. (“was”, not “what”)

        • dearieme says:

          British chap goes into a Swedish pharmacy and asks for a deodorant. The pharmacist asks (you must act this out in a cod Swedish accent): aerosol? Reply: no, it’s for my armpit.

  4. Yudi says:

    Are there other examples of physicists poking around in a different discipline without success? I have noticed that non-physicists seem very defensive about such things. Are they right to be?

    • ckp says:

      Many an overconfident physicist has lost his shirt on the stock market.

    • mapman says:

      It’s all about large numbers. Lots of physicists, the kind that tended to assume a spherical cow at all times, lost it in biology. OTOH, very few biologists have any sort of record in physics. So the net success rate is positive for physicists – and rightfully so for many reasons.

  5. Bruce W Bowen says:

    Probably would have had slightly better results crunching on ice. You then have heat of fusion as well.

  6. dux.ie says:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_intoxication

    “””Water, just like any other substance, can be considered a poison when over-consumed in a specific period of time. Water intoxication mostly occurs when water is being consumed in a high quantity without adequate electrolyte intake.”””

  7. dux.ie says:

    Cambridge Analytica the political polling and micro-targeting messaging firm was instrumental in the wins for both the Brexit and US Rep Presidential campaigns.

    https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/features/2015-11-12/is-the-republican-party-s-killer-data-app-for-real-

    “””SCL began hiring Ph.Ds, many of them from the University of Cambridge, from fields where manipulating large data sets is routine. As a result, it is probably the only political consulting firm whose employee bios delineate sub-disciplines within the hard sciences, separating those who studied astrophysics from theoretical physics, condensed matter physics, theoretical solid state physics. Very few of them have ever before stepped near a campaign office, and they demonstrate little familiarity with political life in the United States. In casual conversations about the subject, Cambridge Analytica employees speak of “the Tea Party” and “conservative Christians” as distant oddities, in a manner typical of educated Europeans.”””

  8. JayMan says:

    Hmmm, I wonder who do we know here that fits that bill? 🙂

  9. ohwilleke says:

    Gell-Mann’s venture into linguistics was something of a debacle.

    • How so? He supports an idea that is unpopular with most historical linguists, but that’s to be expected. I admit I was hoping the Santa Fe Institute would produce more on the topic and am disappointed, but the evidence from other fields – genetics in particular – is backing up Greenberg’s theory nicely, even accounting for his overreach.

      • ohwilleke says:

        The work he participated in had serious flaws. For example, one paper made a big deal in its abstract about how they had shown Korean was part of an Altaic family, without even analyzing any Korean language data. It also ignored lots of well established linguistic data to its detriment, resulting in papers widely condemned as horribly wrong in the linguistics community.

        • Yes, exactly the sort of answer I suspected. “Widely condemned as as horribly wrong in the linguistics community” is to me the problem. The Russians and Ruhlen have improvements in Greenberg’s claims, yet are still rejected. Everyone now says Greenberg was very close to right about Africa. Genetic is proving him right about North america, over the screaming objections of historical linguistics. Yet they remain just sure that he is wrong about deeper relationships between language families. Someone from outside – say, a physicist – might not find that such an obstacle.

      • Toddy Cat says:

        Greenberg was a fascinating guy. Most linguists say that his methods were garbage, and they make a pretty convincing case, but he also seems to have been right a surprising amount of the time. The adequacy of his methods notwithstanding, it seems like he was correct in his inferences more often than chance would have dictated. Perhaps linguists need to re-examine their assumptions.

        • Jim says:

          If there really are hundreds or even dozens of independent linguistic families among the languages of the Americas that would imply hundreds or dozens of independent migrations to the Americas.

          • poster says:

            Nope. All it would imply is that any similarities(not counting borrowings) between those language families that would have existed in their common ancestors have disappeared, or at least are not clear enough to differentiate between borrowings.

            On the subject of Greenberg, one could make the exact same inferences as he did in many cases by ignoring all linguistic evidence(including mass comparison) and paying attention only to archaeological, genetic, geographical, anthropological etc. data(which makes arguments about how Greenberg couldn’t have reached his results purely by chance irrelevant). Greenberg himself didn’t exactly ignore these things, which is probably why he was at times right(probably also why some people before him were right). Also many of his ideas(about the Americas for example) had been suggested earlier by others. So even if he was right, it’s not clear to what extent it has to do his mass comparison methods. Furthermore, given how, at times he was quite sloppy with data and willing to make inferences about languages with very little data, it’s not clear that his method could not also be used to support any number of [wrong] ideas. I get the feeling the people posting on this blog like his ideas precisely because they mesh with archaeology and genetics, not because they care much about Greenberg’s linguistic methods.

            Given that, I wouldn’t be so quick to bash linguists for pointing out shortcomings in his methods and errors in his data, and preferring the more rigorous comparative method. Having said that, I do not actually claim Greenberg’s methods may not have some use in generating ideas about language families that can later be tested with other methods(linguistics or otherwise). Certainly he was on to something with his African language classifications, which I would point to as a success. I do not give him credit for Eskimo-Aleut or Na-Dene, partly because they were not his ideas anyway. His proposed Indo-Pacific remains speculative. It might makes sense with physical anthropological and genetic data, but if that’s the case, why not just use physical anthropological and genetic data? No need to get into arguments with linguists.

            • Jim says:

              It two languages have a common ancestor they are genetically related no matter how dissimilar they have become.

              • Technically, I would suspect all languages in the world have a common ancestor in the ancient past. So this is clearly not the only condition we use to define language families.

            • Jim says:

              Nobody ever said that Greenberg was the first to suggest the Eskimo-Aleut family or the Na-Dene family. There were both accepted by the end of the 19th century except for the controversy as to whether Haida belongs in the Na-Dene family (without which it becomes the Dene family).

              • Jim says:

                Sapir coined the term Na-Dene about 1915 but the resemblances between Athabaskan, Tlingit, Eyak and Haida had been noticed long before.

              • poster says:

                “It two languages have a common ancestor they are genetically related no matter how dissimilar they have become.”

                compare to:

                “If there really are hundreds or even dozens of independent linguistic families among the languages of the Americas that would imply hundreds or dozens of independent migrations to the Americas.”

                Two languages are genetically related no matter how dissimilar they have become, that is correct. Members of a linguistic family are descended from a common ancestor. But two languages that share a common ancestor can have descendant languages which can form separate families.

                “Nobody ever said that Greenberg was the first to suggest the Eskimo-Aleut family or the Na-Dene family. There were both accepted by the end of the 19th century except for the controversy as to whether Haida belongs in the Na-Dene family (without which it becomes the Dene family).”

                The first paragraph my previous post was intended to respond to you but the rest was not aimed particularly in your direction, sorry about that, I didn’t want to make a 2nd post. The point which I didn’t make very well is that evidence of Na-Dene and Eskimo-Aleut being separate families(and separate migrations, if we’re talking about the genetic data) is not necessarily evidence that all other Native American languages are related(though that is highly plausible). In any case, as you seem to agree, this idea wasn’t original to Greenberg anyhow. This point seems relevant to Assistant Village Idiot’s above comments for example who seems to think the genetic data is proving Greenberg right about North America. The data supports the idea that speakers of Na-Dene and Eskimo-Aleut represent different migrations, beyond that, it’s unclear.

  10. Jan Banan says:

    Angela Merkel’s venture into politics surely ranks first in the debacle category.

    • tautology123 says:

      Un der the view, that being good at politics is getting reelected, Merkel has done better than most. Maybe that is cynical.

    • Peter Lund says:

      I don’t think there were any major blunders until the Fukushima trouble led to the Energiewende.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energiewende_in_Germany

      That was a great political success, though. It prevented The Left (communists, former ruling party in East Germany) and The Greens (also communists, but of the fruit-juice drinking, nudist, sandal-wearing, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist, and feminist kind) from gaining votes from the nuclear scare, which would lead to the Social Democrats having a majority with The Left and The Greens and without Merkel’s party/parties.

      • dearieme says:

        One might reasonably wonder whether inviting a million invaders to move to Germany wasn’t a blunder. It might, after all, prove the end of Germany. Could there be a bigger blunder for a German? Neither Kaiser Bill nor Hitler achieved that.

  11. Some Troll's Legitimate Discussion Alt says:

    Instead of drinking 1,000 times more water, just drink water that’s 1,000 times colder, duh.

    Or it it, rather.

  12. Slimboy Fat says:

    So take extended daily baths in ice water to warm it that way.

  13. Bob says:

    I imagine that the number that have failed on becoming school administrators is not insignificant.

  14. RCB says:

    Must have been a theoretical physicist.

  15. spottedtoad says:

    Don’t forget Gamow.

  16. dave chamberlin says:

    Pretty damned cheeky for those physicists to butt into the business of stamp collectors.

  17. William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) calculated, based on the rate of cooling of an Earth-sized body receiving radiant heat from the Sun, that the possible time span for the evolution of life on Earth was 100 million years at most, and probably more like 28 million. Darwin wrote “I feel a conviction that the world will be found rather older than Thomson makes it.” Kelvin was off by about 2 orders of magnitude; he didn’t know about E=m c^2 or radioactive heat.

  18. melendwyr says:

    I suspect drinking a thousand times more water than normal, even if you were careful not to let your electrolyte levels be messed up, would result in higher rates of bladder cancer that would more than offset any gains from weight loss.

  19. MawBTS says:

    In 2005 a radio show held a water-drinking contest that ended with one woman dying from water intoxication.

    It was successful from a dietary standpoint. Her weight stabilized and she is now burning exactly as many calories as she consumes.

  20. indravaruna says:

    Where is J the Israeli water engineer?

  21. Gringo says:

    His diet worked, but you had to drink a thousand times more cold water than in his original estimate, which made for an inordinate number of pit stops.

    He had a piss-poor idea for a diet because it was a piss-rich diet.

  22. tommy says:

    I’ve long dreamed that some very wealthy person would turn their attention toward getting physicists–particularly statistical physicists–to invade the social sciences. With enough cash, we might make more progress in 10-15 years than sociologists and their ilk have made in a century.

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