Eureka in APS News

There’s an excerpt from Eureka: discovering Your Inner Scientist in the American Physical Society’s monthly newsletter for December. This takes off from Ernest Rutherford’s (in)famous line deviding science between physics and stamp collecting:

Like a lot of kids, I had a stamp collection for a while. I never collected anything particularly notable, but going through old letters and boxes of stamps from relatives who had had collections was enjoyable in a quiet way. And putting the individual stamps together to make a larger picture was fascinating. I remember an intimidatingly large three-ring binder with spots for every US stamp that had been issued to that point, and the satisfaction of completing a page. My hobby also gave a sense of history outside the collection — for example, seeing all the stamps of the 1893 Columbian Issue commemorating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ famous voyages showed me there was a good deal more to the story than I had heard in grade school.

Beyond the immediate pleasures of building a collection, though, the impulse to collect can be a starting point for science. The most obvious product of collecting hobbies is an array of physical objects, but collecting is also a mental state. Serious collectors develop habits of mind particular to their hobbies — a sort of constant low-level awareness of possible sources of stamps, an ability to spot new specimens, and close observation and knowledge of the fine gradations that separate valuable stamps from worthless bits of colored paper. These habits of mind also serve well in science; the simple act of collecting a diverse array of interesting objects or observations also serves as the starting point for most sciences.

This is drawn from Chapter 1, and the same basic argument is presented in this video: