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April 15, 2007

A rose is a rose

Warning: Because I'm still recovering from my catastrophic loss last Monday, blogging will be light or ridiculous for a little while longer. So, without further ado...

A few weeks ago, I inadvertently initiated a competition in the comment thread of Scott Aaronson's blog on how to identify physicists. It all started with Scott claiming that he was not a mathematician (as New Scientist claimed he was in an article about D-wave's press releases about quantum computers). As various peoples weighed in on Scott's mathematicianness, finally Dave Bacon proposed a sure fire way to settle the question:

Place yourself and a large potted plant in a huge room together. If you get tangled up in the plant, you are a mathematician. I draw this test from careful observation of the MSRI in Berkeley.

I then wondered aloud how to identify physicists, and I was returned a laundry list of characteristic behaviors:

  1. Hearing the word “engineering” causes a skin rash. [John Sidles]
  2. Writes “a”, says “b”, means “c”, but it should be “d” [Polya]
  3. Frequently begins sentences with “As a physicist…” (as in “As a physicist, I care about the real world, not the logical consequences of the assumption I just made”) [Scott Aaronson]
  4. When told he is actually a mathematician he thinks: “LOL” and all the mathematician go: “OMFG”. [Peter Sheldrick]
  5. They think that, since walking forwards gets them from their house to work, walking backwards in the opposite direction must have the same outcome. (Re: the replica method) [James]
  6. Is interested in creating just one job. [John Sidles]
  7. Considers chemists to be underqualified physicists, and biologists to be overqualified philatelists. [anonymous]

Amusingly, I know many people (physicists, mostly) who are walking, talking caricature of these. I also know some excellent people in physics departments who certainly are not, and I'm not sure what they do is "physics". I wonder if they think of themselves as physicists...

I know I promised to keep this ridiculous, but I can hardly help myself. So, if you'll permit me a lengthy navel-gazing digression, there's an interesting question here, which has to do with the labels communities of people choose to adopt, and how they view interlopers. For instance, I have no idea whether to call myself an applied mathematician (maybe not), a physicist (almost certainly not, although most of my publications are in physics journals), a computer scientist (still not quite right even though my doctorate is in CS), or what. Informatician sounds like a career in oratory, no one knows what an "applied computer scientist" is, and none of Complex systemsatist, "compleximagician," or statico-phyico-algorithmo-informa-complexicist have that nifty ring to them. (And, for that matter, neither does plecticist.)

With my recent phase change, when people ask what I do, I've taken to simply saying that I'm a "scientist." But, that just encourages them to ask the obvious follow up: What kind of scientist? In some sense, applied mathematician seems colloquially, kind of, maybe, almost like what I do. But, I'm not sure I could teach in a mathematics department, nor would other applied mathematicians call me one of their own. Obviously, these labels are all artificial, but they do matter for hiring, publishing, and general academic success. The complex systems community hasn't achieved a critical-enough mass to assert its own labels for the people who seem to do that kind of work, so, in the meantime, how should we name the practitioners in this field?

Update, 16 April 2007: One colleague suggests "mathematical scientist" as an appropriate moniker, which I tend to also like. Sadly, I'm not sure other scientists would agree that this is a useful label, nor do I expect to see many Departments of Mathematical Science being created in the near future (and similarly for "computational scientist") ... End Update

posted April 15, 2007 08:30 PM in Humor | permalink


Theoretical scientist? Replace "scientist" with the discipline in which you are theoreticalisating: theoretical biologist (lotsa math there today), or theoretical cosmologist (as if there were any other kind), or theoretical chemist (doing protein folding simulations using energy minima and valencies), etc...

After all, all theory is ultimately math.

Posted by: John Wilkins at April 16, 2007 08:53 PM

Just call yourself a leader, that's all you need to be.

Posted by: HDR at April 22, 2007 04:33 AM

Mathematical scientist might work really well. Only issue you might experience is that people, like me, would have no idea what that means...

Posted by: Richard at April 25, 2007 09:21 AM

While I was registering on a journal's website earlier today, I discovered that "complex systems" is actually a branch of "applied mathematics." Who knew!

Posted by: Aaron at April 25, 2007 08:53 PM

Pioneer or Explorer at the edge of applied mathematics or at the center of the science where there only Pioneers survive.

Posted by: succc at April 26, 2007 06:18 AM

Any good thief should return the hard disk!!!

Posted by: succc at April 26, 2007 06:28 AM

Wow, you must have parked your car in a notorious crime area, or your car could be too expensive. A really disheartening reminder for backups...*shudders*. On another note, I think applied mathematician describes your work best. Plecticist sounds too...plastic?

Posted by: musafiremes at April 28, 2007 12:38 PM

My car is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an expensive one. On the other hand, apparently, the restaurant it was parked at was in a bad part of town, and my make/model/year is particularly easy to break into!

Posted by: Aaron at April 28, 2007 02:01 PM