Today's XKCD Finally Takes Physics To Task

Illustration for article titled Today's XKCD Finally Takes Physics To Task

To be fair, though, physics has had this coming for years.

Had this coming. What do I mean by that? Back in 2008, Randall Munroe published “Purity,” a single-panel comic that characterized sociology as applied psychology, psychology as applied biology, biology as applied chemistry, chemistry as applied physics, and physics as applied math. Maybe you’ve seen it before; today, I’d venture it’s one of the better-known XKCD comics:

Illustration for article titled Today's XKCD Finally Takes Physics To Task

The panel is a visual depiction of the popular (not to mention specious and, usually, smug) cocktail party contention that all sciences—especially those sciences commonly characterized as “soft”—are reducible to some “harder” science, with all reductionist roads leading to math. But those familiar with “Purity” will recall that physics, not math, actually winds up having the last word in the form of the comic’s alt-text, which reads: “On the other hand, physicists like to say that physics is to math as sex is to masturbation.”

Anyway. The upshot is that “Purity” has, for years now, served as ammunition for physicists who maintain, as nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford did, that “all science is either physics or stamp collecting.”

Today, nearly seven years after the publication of “Purity,” XKCD has taken Rutherford, his disciples, and their reductionist view of science to task.

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