The Physics of Stamp Collecting

Ernest Rutherford’s famous line, “all science is either physics or stamp collecting,” has bothered me ever since I first heard it. I’ve used it to make fun of biologists, and I’ve used it as a critical perspective on physics.

Rutherford almost certainly meant it as an insult to non-physicists, but there is a deeper and non-prejudiced philosophical thought underneath the dichotomy. To get there you have to ask: is there such a thing as a physics of stamp collecting?

I’ve discussed the quote once before, in my extended post on foxes and hedgehogs (short version: foxes are stamp collectors, hedgehogs are faux-physicists), but let’s dig a little deeper.

Turns out, the distinction between sustaining and disruptive variants of deliberate practice, which I discussed last week, is a consequence of the distinction between physics and stamp collecting.

The Nature of Physics

I do agree with Rutherford. Physics is the only true science (though aspiring to hedgehog-like physics aesthetics does not make a field physics). What makes it so is that all knowledge in physics is expressible in the form of impossibilities, inequalities and symmetries. 

  • Impossibilities define hard limits, such as traveling faster than the speed of light or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle
  • Inequalities define the major irreversible processes in the universe such as increasing entropy and the increasing variety/complexity in biological evolution
  • Symmetries define ways in which the universe is simpler than it seems. They are equivalently conservation laws like the law of conservation of momentum.

Physics is the current location of the hard outer boundary of humanity’s ongoing attempts to understand its own place in the universe. But unlike arbitrary boundaries between sacred and profane, the boundary marked by physics is inviolable not because it is guarded by priests, but because we have no idea how to go beyond it (so fields that attempt to mimic the epistemic structure of physics, but require priests, are cargo cults. They don’t like accepting that they are about stamp collecting).

That’s how you tell physics from wannabe-physics fields: there are no cops at the boundaries.

Physics is hedgehog-like almost by definition. All of known physics can be summarized on a few highly consistent and coherent pages using a couple of dozen equations. You can get to the edge and flail about trying to cross it. If you manage to cross it with a revolutionary thought, you’ll be celebrated.

But there’s another kind of edge: a horizon. A horizon is what you see when you see when you get to the edge of the realized possible, without exhausting possibility itself. Stamp collecting is the process of chasing after that horizon, and in all but the simplest of domains, can go on indefinitely. Physics may define the boundary of the possible but stamp collecting defines the essence of it. If physics separates the possible from the impossible, stamp collecting separates the realized from the unrealized.

The Nature of Stamp Collecting

When I was a kid, I did in fact literally collect stamps for a while. And matchboxes.

But I didn’t get the point. I was playing at having a collection hobby. I didn’t have a collector’s mind then.

The first things I actually collected were airplanes and stars, as a teenager. Well, information about airplanes and stars. I’d been doing it for several years before I realized what was so addictive about it. It wasn’t bragging rights based on being able to identify planes from pictures and constellations in the sky. Collecting is a way of tokenizing an open, unstructured domain in the form of an evolving vocabulary. It is a process that allows you to structure your understanding while you’re learning.

Collecting is the essence of autodidact learning, since it requires nothing more than the set of things in a domain already encountered and an improvised scheme for organizing them in memory (and where there are physical things being collected, in reality). Certainly, you can speed up if others have in fact explored the territory, by studying their thoughts, but the method is not limited to mapped territories, and exploration of mapped territories is not limited to paths traced out by others.

You can collect things that have never been collected before, in which case you’re engaged in discovery and exploratory taxonomy. You can collect things that have already been collected, but organize them differently, in which case you are engaged in refactored perception. You can extract a physics (or the physics in the case of stamps that are relatively straightforward manifestations of physics phenomena, like stars or airplanes), but that’s not the point. Filling out the universe of possibilities as a growing unstructured memory is the point.  If developing a physics becomes the point, and it’s not real physics, you’re either being ironic or you’re constructing a cargo cult.

By the time my enthusiasm for airplanes leveled off sometime in the 10th grade, I knew the entire history of the twentieth century through the lens of the airplanes that were used to fight its wars. I became unpredictably good at history trivia in ways actual trivia buffs couldn’t grok, thanks to airplanes. I understood the structure of the global economy through the lens of commercial flight.

I still visit airplane museums every chance I get, but now it’s more nostalgia than active interest. I’ve learned everything I wanted to through the lens of airplanes.

Something similar happened with my interest in astronomy. By the time I was done, I knew my way around the sky and had learned about the history of the universe from Big Bang to Big Crunch about as well as a 14-year-old could expect to. I knew why the Sun was yellow, why Betelgeuse was red, where to find star clusters and nebulae, why Saturn had rings, and a great many other things that could be understood without calculus or advanced physics. Through metaphoric mappings, I began to form speculative ideas about the rise and fall of cities and empires. Astronomy became a way to look at other things.

Neither hobby is in conflict with physics. In fact, physics is how you necessarily organize your understanding of airplanes and stars. Fighters and bombers differ in ways that depend on physics more than generals. Astronomy of course, is just physics laid out large.

I also collected, though less seriously, information about wildlife, tanks, ships, submarines and almost every other kind of collectible entity that boys typically get interested in.

I didn’t understand the archetypal hobby of stamp collecting though, till I became interested in world history, a subject that, while not in conflict with physics, is sufficiently removed from it that physics is not a particularly useful way to structure understanding. After reading a couple of fat world history books in high school, I finally understood what might draw people to stamps, matchbooks and other cultural tokens: they allow you to organize your understanding of culture and history in ways that follow the contours of your own thoughts, rather than those of professional historians. Of course, it is entirely possible to be a collector without using collection as a pathway to heterodox understandings of things, but such collectors are boring.

I never did get into stamp collecting because it is a demanding and expensive hobby, but I finally understood it.

Today, I am no longer much of an explicit collector, but I do look at, and attempt to understand, every new domain with a stamp collector’s eye. I enjoy learning about shipping, but I cannot identify every container shipping company and I don’t track ships obsessively. I make up archetypes for fun, but I don’t have a massive library of literary archetypes and slightly evil conversation hacks. I casually make up and maintain glossaries, but I have no obsessive lexicographic instinct that demands expression in the form of 20,000-term tomes.

But I do seek out uniqueness, difference and variety in the world rather than interchangeability, similarity and homogeneity.  This is one reason I often end up arguing with people who self-consciously seek connections and similarities. Connections and similarities are useful, but it is disconnections and dissimilarities that are interesting. 

Similarity and Difference

Repetition is the instrumental conquest of similarity. When you repeat an action, such as catching a ball tossed at you, you want predictable outcomes. You repeat until differences become irrelevant and similarity — caught balls — dominates. You become robust to difference and in a way desensitized to it.

Sustaining deliberate practice, in the sense I defined last week, expands the idea of repetition to an entire complex of generative behaviors, but the principle is the same. You become desensitized to true variety in the pursuit of combinatorial variety. Music performance is an example. While you might stray from perfect classical technique slightly to add an edge to the performance, if you stray too far, you stray into noise and the sort of innovation that is not actually appreciated by taste-makers.

Sustaining deliberate practice is dominated by doing. The doing removes difference, brings reality into closer correspondence to symbol-mediated understandings of it, and turns into predictable performance. The appreciative component is secondary and to a large extent ritualized and aestheticized away. As a field evolves, this dynamic makes performance behaviors increasingly mannered.

Disruptive deliberate practice too depends on repetition, but it is repetition in pursuit of difference.  The appreciative aspect dominates, while the instrumental aspect is secondary. The repetitiveness of disruption is the repetitiveness of stamp collecting. The mechanics require little or no skill, beyond perhaps patience and attentiveness. What does require skill though, is appreciation: the contemplation of differences and distinctions in service of higher-resolution mental models.

Disruptive deliberate practice therefore is dominated by seeing. The seeing accentuates difference, and attends to gaps between reality and symbol-mediated understandings of it. Not gaps in the sense of model error, but gaps in richness. You learn to see more in reality than impoverished models of it manage to capture.

The instrumental aspect becomes pure schlepping rather than skilled doing. Schlepping is a regime of doing that is worth experiencing at least once in your life: it is repetition whose only reward is a more refined eye, unaccompanied by any useful skill. For me, the purest schlepping experience was cataloging a library.

You could even define philosophical schlepping as the contemplation of apparently irrelevant differences during the processing of tediously important similarities. Disruption happens when you patterns emerge in the variety that suggest a new course of action and apparent irrelevance suddenly transforms into extreme relevance.

Where you actually pursue the course, you are an innovator. Where you note without pursuing, you become an appreciative spectator and occasional giver of directions to the lost.

It seems to me that that’s actually a fair definition of a life well-lived: some mix of innovation and appreciation. Perhaps the physics of stamp collecting is simply the physics of living well.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Rutherford’s saying reminds me of Robert Heinlein, in the guise of his character Lazarus Long, “Most ‘scientists’ are bottle washers and button sorters.”

  2. As a philatelist who appreciates physics I’ll admit I’ve always been mystified by this quote – thanks for a very interesting attempt to interpret!

  3. Kristoffer says

    Hello, Venkat: As one who works in medicine, I find Rutherford’s line idiotic. Perhaps, though, he meant it tongue and cheek as a friendly dig at non physics folk.
    However, not a particularly funny or clever line, anyway.

  4. Kristoffer says

    Sorry, I meant to say tongue in cheek.

  5. I’ve never heard that quote before, I find it quite funny.

    I’m just wondering is your problem with the quote that it is untrue, or is it that the implication is false (eg there is an implication that stamp collecting is worthless)?

    I like the concept of focusing on the differences. I guess this is at the heart of the scientific method. New theories come when the current theory doesn’t predict some piece of data (eg General Relativity).

  6. Besides knowledge in physics being expressible in the form of impossibilities, inequalities and symmetries another point that differentiates physics from biology is that models in physics are extremely powerful compared to models in biology. As a physicist who moved to biology, the cultural differences between the two fields are large. In physics, the theory is what is considered real, it is the experimental data that are just a confirmation of the theory in most cases. In biology, it is the other way round. Models in biology are extremely restrictive, compared to models in physics.

    The current stamp collecting phase in biology, i.e. sequencing anything you can lay your hands on and proliferation of sensors and technologies allowing for measurements previously not possible I feel will give way to a more cohesive model for many processes in biology. The last big stamp collecting phase in biology was collecting fossils and animals and plants by Darwin and Linnaeus and others which gave rise to the great central theory of biology, the neo-Darwinian synthesis. I am sure with the horde of physicists now in biology some sense will be made of the stamps collected so far.

  7. Like Farhat said, biology had to go through a “stamp collecting” phase of aspiring natural philosophers hitching rides on any world-traveling ship that would have them, collecting specimens, making meticulous observations, corresponding with major stay-at-home collector/taxonomists and other field collectors … before Origin of Species could be written. Now, with the generalization of evolution beyond biology, it has become comparable in power to the great principles of physics.

    Before Newton there were “star collectors” like Tycho Brahe, and before him Babylonian star chroniclers, plotting the movements of the stars and planets generating table going back for centuries enabling someone to one day look at that mass of data and “I see what’s going on here”.

    Daniel J. Boorstin had a thesis expressed in The Discoverers that Transactions of the Royal Society by providing a place to write up miscellaneous observations of the wonders of nature (like an eyeglass maker, Leuwenhooke, observing microscopic animals in dirty water, or for that matter Darwin spending 9 years dissecting Barnacles and writing about it), helped facilitate the collection of small observations that would feed the occasional sweeping discovery. In Boorstin’s view, or perhaps it is my take on it, theory tends to suppress the richness of observation that ultimately makes theory possible.

    Academic history oscillates between phases when micro-histories are in fashion, like the discovery of the life of a New England midwife, or the recent Burgermeister’s Daughter (built around a trove of love letters and other documents saved from the early 1500s) — AND phases of high theory built partly on the “grand synthesis” of microhistories of the previous generation or two. Note that the previous century’s microhistories will probably hold up better than the previous century’s Grand Syntheses.

    The essay form lets you relax, meander, and maybe accumulate observations without the pressure to say ONE BIG THING. Same thing for accumulating lists of aphorism, or lexicons, or trying on the “archetype system of the week”.

    If I see far, it is because I stand on a gigantic pyramid of midgets. “Midgets” sounds dismissive but I don’t mean it that way really. Most of us are midgets compared to a Newton, and in Darwin’s case he was even one of them or maybe at least 3 or them: the island-hopping specimen-seeker, the world renowned barnacle expert and the world-renowned earthworm specialist.