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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Darwin vs. Newton

I claimed that Charles Darwin is the greatest scientist who ever lived. slc posted a comment on Carl Zimmer at Chautauqua.
According to Neil Tyson, Issac Newton was the greatest scientist who ever lived. Dr. Tyson, who is about the size of an NFL linebacker, is not a man I would care to have a disagreement with.
I don't want to engage in a wrestling match with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Surely we can settle this issue peacibly?

DeGrasse Tyson is an astronomer. What would you expect him to say? Astronomers and physicists don't understand biology and they don't understand that biology is much harder than physics. Darwin is the better scientist because his subject was much harder.

Let me give you an example. Back in 1687 people didn't know very much so it was pretty easy to come up with some simple laws. Gravity was kinda obvious, don't you think? Getting hit on the head by an apple doesn't compare with collecting data by traveling about the world for five years on a small boat.

How many different laws can there be? We know that f (force) has to equal something. Does it equal m2b? Nope, that doesn't work. How about a-m. Nope. Let's try m/a ... the experiments rule that out as well. Hmmm ... maybe it's f = ma? Viola! Newton just discovered the second law of motion. Now let's invent calculus to make life miserable for undergraduates.

What about those nasty little exceptions where the planets don't seem to obey the laws? No problem, God did it.

Newton didn't even write in English! This is DeGrasse Tyson's example of the greatest scientist who ever lived?

[Image Comment: The woman in the photograph is the only living descendant of Jesus. How appropriate that she's almost standing on the tomb of Charles Darwin!]


  1. 1. Students who go into biology in college are students who aren't very good in math.

    2. Actually, as Dr. Tyson points out, Newton had to invent calculus in order to prove that his inverse square law of gravity was compatible with the observed elliptical orbits of the planets.

    3. Compared to quantum mechanics, biology is transparent. A few quotes:

    Richard Feynman - If you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don't understand quantum mechanics.

    Steven Weinberg - Quantum mechanics is a totally preposterous theory which unfortunately appears to be correct.

    Lawrence Krauss - Nobody understands quantum mechanics.

    4. By the way, Dr. Tyson was on the wrestling team at his high school, The Bronx School of Science.

    5. Prof. Moran is correct that Newton accepted intelligent design as an explanation for the stability of the planetary orbits in the Solar System as he thought that the gravitational forces between the planets would cause the system to become unstable and hypothesized that god would have to occasionally give them a nudge to preserve stability. Famously, the 18th century mathematician, Laplace, used perturbation theory to prove that the solar system was stable. When asked by Napoleon what role god might play, Laplace replied that he had no need of that hypothesis.

    So Newton was wrong about that, just as he was wrong about a corpuscular theory of light being able to account for diffraction. Darwin was wrong about inheritance being an analog process when Mendels' experiment showed that it was digital.

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  3. Surely the incomprehensibility of QM, and the amount of theory needed to even approach things like Schroedingers equation, are arguments in favour of biology. There's nothing a mathematician likes more than an elegant theorem, and evolution by natural selection is possibly the most elegant I've come across, you can explain it pretty accurately to a 10 year old and it explains a phenomenal amount.

    slc 1) isn't really accurate, I know a few mathematical biologists who are counterexamples. Most of them do go from maths to biology though, rather than vice versa.

  4. slc says,

    Richard Feynman - If you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don't understand quantum mechanics.

    And I respond with a Nobel Laureate who says (quite rightly) ...

    Another curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understand it. I mean philosophers, social scientists, and so on. While in fact very few people understand it, actually as it stands, even as it stood when Darwin expressed it, and even less as we now may be able to understand it in biology.
         ...Jacques Monod.

    It's hard to understand evolution, much harder than understanding Newtonian physics. The most important difference between biology and physics is than in biology there are no rules; everything has exceptions. Biology is very messy and that makes it inherently more difficult.

    Seriously, I take an extreme position while yanking the chains of physicists who have long been accustomed to thinking themselves superior to all other scientists, but the real point is that all sciences can be difficult and there's no reason for physicists—or biologists—to claim that their discipline is harder than any other.

    Nevertheless, Darwin is the greatest scientist.

  5. slc says,

    Students who go into biology in college are students who aren't very good in math.

    And students who go into math aren't very good at biology. We learned this the hard way when we made computer science students take my biochemistry course in preparation for a major in bioinformatics.

  6. Students who go into biology in college are students who aren't very good in math.

    Ha ha ha ha ha! **** you.

  7. Re larry Moran

    1. Often times, students who go into math aren't very good in physics either.

    2. As I said, nobody understands quantum mechanics. I strongly suspect that Prof. Moran and Prof. Dawkins understand the theory of evolution, even if they disagree about the role played by adaptation.

    3. Actually, I disagree with both Dr. Tyson and Prof. Moran. In my opinion, the three most important scientists (there term greatest seems inappropriate) who have ever lived are Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. I see nothing to be gained by trying to rank them relative to each other as a strong case can be made for any of them for number 1. They were all wrong on occasion but, as Enrico Fermi once said, a scientist who is never wrong is a scientist who never accomplishes anything of importance.

    4. As somebody who never took a course in biology (a junior high school course in life science hardly counts), I have done considerable reading on the subject of evolution (most of Gould, all of Dawkins, both books by Mayr), and think that I have a fair laymans' understanding of the subject.

    Re charlotte

    I was responding to Prof. Morans' comment that biology was harder then physics. An incomprehensible theory is certainly harder to understand then a comprehensible theory.

  8. It's hard to understand evolution, much harder than understanding Newtonian physics.

    Yes, contemporary biology is definitely harder to understand than the physics that was contemporary 300 years ago.

  9. Wait Biology is wayyy easier than math- just the way BCH242 was wayy easier than- MAT 157.

  10. Eistein owns all- It's hard to put in words Einstein's insight- I mean it is possibly the greatest discovery known to man, evolution is refutable, no one refutes physics, math, the purest kind of rationalism. Relativity is probably the most important concept ever derived, without this we would have lost newtonian physics!!

  11. Anonymous

    SLC said...
    1. Students who go into biology in college are students who aren't very good in math.

    What a load of crap. I know a few biology majors that are outstanding in math, chemistry, and physics, and many that are very talented in any two of those disciplines.

    Biology is much more difficult because you cannot understand all of biology by understanding a few rules and then expanding upon or extrapolating from them. Life is messy. Examples of exceptions to rules in biology sometimes seem to outnumber examples that follow the rules. Some specialties in biology also require solid mathematical abilities, and many biologists are up to the task. Moreover, as a biology student, I was terrible in math. Since then, I've developed my math, physics and chemistry skills. I know few mathematicians that have developed their understanding of biology beyond middle school level.

    Physics, on the other hand requires a solid understanding of maths. Someone with very strong math skills will probably make a very successful physicist. But good mathematicians often can't even wrap their big brains around simple concepts such as descent with modification! To be fair, that seems to have much more to do with religious biases ingrained from childhood than mathematical training.

  12. I've only met a handful of computer scientice students who were competent mathematicians, by my standards...but there's not a lot of point in that discussion, since people generally study subjects they're good at! I do feel obliged to point out that mathematicians are not all monomaniac geeks, many have interests in quantum physics, genetics and various other areas which involve 'hard maths' at some point. You'd be stuffed without us, and you know it :P

    Anyway, the original point was Newton vs Darwin. Darwin wins 'best scientist' for me irrespective of the beauty of his theory because of the way in which he practised science - with thorough gathering of evidence, extensive correspondence with others and with self-criticism and revision of his ideas. Newton, by contrast, was superstitious, ignored the holes in his own theories whilst attacking those of others, and was a git.

    Aren't some of what we call Newton's laws of motion attributable to Galileo anyway?

  13. "Compared to quantum mechanics, biology is transparent"

    That's a silly thing to say; I understand that quantum theory despite all its weirdenss at least has been succesfully formalized matheamtically.

    If you happen to accept some simplistic all-encompassing "explanation" of..."biology", then only thing that's transparent is your ignorance of biology.

  14. Whoa, whoa, whoa there people, hold your horses for just one moment.
    I sense a touch of bias emerging on the imagined primacy of these various fields of endeavor.

    Biology, bless its soul, that often messy and at times almost occult area of study is mostly supported by word and idea conceptions with the occasional wild card thrown in to keep us humble.

    Maths on the other hand, that clinical, ordered discipline, demands that there are no exceptions lest the whole construct collapses. Cold, exact and unable to deviate from the initial precepts that define its foundational laws.

    Common ground here is impossible. You are comparing apples to goldfish and these terms of reference preclude any satisfactory resolution.
    That is unless the examples are iMacs and PCs and in that case we can all agree, PCs, the commonly accepted shorthand of the word pisces, win easily.
    Aside: Bill Gates, that noted recreational angler, was wont to meld his hobby and his work in clever but arcane ways.

    Thus now exposing the roots of this concept of which is the 'King of the Hill' we come the truth laid bare.
    Biology stripped to the base core is like an inverted pyramid.
    But what, you ask is at origin of the thesis?
    Maths, that intellectual gymnastic exercise, devoid of all meaning unless actually applied for a purpose, is akin to a man-made languages with all its rigid rules and unyielding structure.
    Yes, that explains why it's the favorite path followed by those brainiacs who all opposible thumbs.
    Profs might refer to it as the queen of sciences but most students agree the word drag should be included.

    So now we come to the bitter bit.
    The crux of the real and the imaginary.
    In the cold hard light of reason there can only be one field that unites, no, make that a loving embrace with a sloppy smooch on the cheek, all of mans knowledge.
    The one ring that rules them all.
    The font of truth, pure as the driven snow, can be no other than field of CHEMISTRY begotten by that sire of sagacity himself, Robert Boyle .

    Gentlemen, I rest my case.

  15. "Now let's invent calculus to make life miserable for undergraduates."

    Hehehe... Seconded.

    Though as one of those maths-poor biologists I'm ever so looking forward to torturing myself over the break In order to make life easier when it comes to population genetics and enzyme kinetics...

    And Darwin > Newton, if we're only going on their major discoveries. Otherwise, the sum of Newtons scientific works has had a greater impact on science than evolution, for one Newton laid out to some extent how we should proceed with scientific enquiry in Principa...

    Though both Hooke and Boyle have had quite great influences on how science emerged during the 1600's, particularly Hooke's focus on experimentation.

    And ironically, while Boyle's Law might be named after him, he merely recorded tables and never formalised the law. Boyle's theology iirc made it anathema for him to place rules on God's actions. At least that was what was described in my HaPS lecture on that particular subject...

  16. I don't like the word "greatest" but I agree that Darwin's work is overall more impressive than Newton's.

    Moreover the social impact of Darwin's discovery is more far-reaching such that is remains controversial today.

    Biology is much harder than physics because we have to contend with noisy data and multiple organization levels. Like Larry said, living systems is full of exceptions.

    Personally, I think that the most badass scientist who ever lived is Santiago Ramon y Cajal.

    To understand how we even understand is one of the most impressive achievements in science.

  17. I think the key word here is 'scientist'. This is different from 'thinker' or 'genius' which Newton undoubtedly was - perhaps even more so than Darwin. What Darwin exemplified, however is the application the scientific method in a way that is an example to all budding scientists to this day. His marshaling of all the available evidence, his examination of the pros and cons of each point and his final conclusions being deemed tentative on the available data, are perfect example on how to approach things in a scientific manner. He was clearly wrong on some points but there is little doubt that, considering his approach to evidence, he would have gladly accepted Mendelian genetics if he had known about it rather than obstinately sticking to his (incorrect) blending theory of inheritance.

  18. Well, I certainly seem to have stirred up a hornets' nest here. Let me respond in brief to some of the comments.

    Re martinc

    I think it somewhat unfair to imply that Newton was some kind of ivory tower thinker. Actually, he performed a number of very important experiments in optics which are detailed in his book on the subject. In addition, he continuously badgered observational astronomers to provide him with numbers in order to support his inverse square law of gravity.

    It is also interesting to note that Newton briefly considered the possibility that light had both wave and particle attributes, after reading the works of Huygens. This 200+ years before Einsteins' 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect!

    Re Anonymous

    Actually, conceptually, Newtons' law of gravity which implies action at a distance is at least as mysterious as speciation in evolutionary biology. The issue was much argued over in the interregnum between Newton and Einstein.

    Re sanders

    Although it is true that there is a solid mathematical underpinning of non-relativistic quantum mechanics, the fact is that evolutionary biology conceptually is understandable, even if there is currently no underlying mathematical formulation. As I stated previously, nobody understands quantum mechanics. In addition, the mathematical underpinnings of the special relativistic formulation of quantum mechanics are shaky at best (e.g. the divergences of quantum electrodynamics)

  19. Both of them are equally great.
    They are both experimentalist and theorist.
    Both of them are scientists. They are not pure mathematicians. Mathematicians are good at imagining things that do not exist. They are next in rank to theologians and pseudoscientists.

  20. Darwin vs Newton? Bring it on!

    Newton was a sickly scrawny wimp, but Darwin had those stomach issues, so I think it would be an interesting match up if we're talking about the men at the prime of their scientific notariety.

    OTOH, it's Darwin all the way if it's a match up of each at their physical prime. (And Darwin was undoubtedly the better marksman, if we allow the use of weapons).

    Nonetheless, I'd pay money to see it!

  21. Newton probably had the greatest impact on the making of the modern world compared to anyone else. The Economist in a special issue quipped that his work probably had a greater impact than the rise and fall of nations. Calculus has applications in biology too. Conceptually and philosophically though, I would probably agree that Darwin's impact has been greater since he showed us where we stand in the universe.
    And I would disagree a little with the claim that students who opt for math don't understand biology. Consider that some of the greatest discoveries in biology, especially molecular biology and genetics, have been made by physicists.

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  23. The font of truth, pure as the driven snow, can be no other than field of CHEMISTRY begotten by that sire of sagacity himself, Robert Boyle .

    Amen brother. Everything, including math, QM, biology, psychology, and any idea you can possibly think of can be explained via chemistry or neurochemistry. We rule, even if most of us can only find jobs at paint companies.

  24. In fact evolution generally is very simple to understand. Its details can be tricky, but the whole point of the beauty of evolution is its simplicity. Dawkins himself has stressed this fact often and extols it.
    Meanwhile, quantum mechanics is beautiful because it's incomprehensible.

  25. "Darwin vs. Newton"

    I don't know how that would turn out. Do you mean a fistfight, or with weapons?

  26. Hm,

    biology is harder than physics?
    I know that's a Joke, but seriously I don't think that's the case.
    But anyway; I can't separate the science into physics,chemistry and biology without finding this separation annoyingly artificial with respect to reality. Every topic has it's hard parts as well as stunningly easy and elegant ideas.
    And I think as abstract processes evolution and newtons mechanics both are easy and elegant. Although, both ideas are hard to come up with the first time.

  27. The 'woman in the photograph' was the star of "Amelie" where she was, if not directly descended from divinity, at least a heavenly experience for many of us.

    P.S. This was funny, funny stuff. I am not sure you get enough credit for that.

  28. The fact is that Physics doesn't need Biology, but biology without physics would be reduced to pseudo-science. And obviously there is no contest between Newton and Darwin, Darwin was brilliant, Newton is amongst the most trascendent men ever to walk this planet...

  29. lol , Newton >>>Darwin.
    darwin won't even be in top 5 ever

    1. Newton 2. Einstein 3. Galileo 4. Archimedes 5. Gauss/Faraday/Maxwell

    only some fools would think darwin having more impact than the greatest genius of mankind called isaac newton