Why do ecologists not become physicists?

There are a few examples of physicists moving fields into ecology, perhaps most notably Robert May, but I don’t know of any examples where ecologists have entered physics.  Are there any?

If not there may be a good reason for this, as Steve Heard’s post about his tongue-in-cheek Centrifugal Theory of Species Diversity, and the resulting discussion in the comments, indicates.

I’ll leave you to read it, only to note that if the Ollerton Modification of Heard’s Conjecture is ever shown to be correct, I want my share of the Nobel!

11 thoughts on “Why do ecologists not become physicists?

  1. Paolo Biella

    well, I ment to dedicate myself to physiscs when I was 17 y old, but finally I decided for biology but, you know, I could swich a day 😉 so, if you find someone that did it before to switch to physics let me know, I might ask for some advices.

  2. ScientistSeesSquirrel

    Well, as it turns out, I nearly became a physicist – I had admissions offers from both Physics and Biology as an undergrad, and had trouble deciding. I think my post, along with the Discussion thread Jeff mentions, provides some pretty good evidence that I made the right choice in the end!

    Thanks, Jeff, for highlighting my little bit of silliness 🙂

      1. Paolo Biella

        so, my question would be: what could bring an ecologist to dedicate to Physics? which implies: 1. what is missing in ecology as approach; 2. which skills are required to an ecologist to play a role in Physics (more than maths I mean)?

  3. Clem

    While I may not be able offer a suitable conjecture (or modification) for why other scientists don’t change fields and become physicists, I can explain why I’ve never been tempted to cross that line.

    So I grew up on a small farm. We would have an excellent breakfast every morning, a good lunch near midday, and a satisfying meal at the end of the day. This routine was followed as though handed down by some super-natural force of the universe. It was quite habit forming. At university I continued to avail myself of 3 meals at semi-regular intervals… seemed as though it was the least I could do to keep all the vitals happy.

    As many science based curricula are want to do there was a physics class (or three) to be taken. I drew the short straw when lab partners were being assigned in one physics class and ended up with a physics major. Outwardly this specimen looked to be a normal male hominid of college age. Excellent math skills, but questionable personal hygiene and social skills. He was VERY passionate about physics, and some other members of the class thought me fortunate to have drawn him as a lab partner (indeed, I may have actually derived some esoteric benefit… but I digress). So at one particular lab we were waiting for some particle or other to decay and register its death on the appointed instrument. I’d rather watch paint dry. For some reason or other (the physics of this have totally escaped me… it was about 40 years ago) the particle(s?) we were waiting on seemed to be in no particular hurry to share their secrets. The dinner hour approached and passed. My stomach offered several attempts to remind me of my duty to shepherd its happiness. Finally I could wait no longer and told my lab partner I had to get something to eat; even offered to bring him a sandwich if he liked. No eating in the lab… (oh, I hadn’t planned to bring a sandwich to the lab for myself 🙂 ) – so our Jr Einstein was going to go without. Suit yourself. Half an hour later I return to the lab to find a note taped to the instrument with the long awaited data, and a hastily scribbled note about how my lack of dedication to the science was… well, not up to the expectations of such a passionate wannabe.

    There are many other reasons I’ll not become a physicist (my math skills are likely too rudimentary for starters), but the notion that I might have to starve for the cause… well, sorry, someone else can skip his meals if he likes. Not this one.

  4. ibartomeus

    Had been Newton an ecologists, he would have explained the apple thing by evolution, not gravity. Clearly only the trees dropping apples to the ground have a fitness high enough to survive. The rest just got extinct.*

    *I hear that somewhere, but I can recall the source.

  5. Jim Bouldin

    Some of the remote sensing people probably qualify, like Steve Running and similar people. Radiation physics, land cover etc. Also some of the people who work in gas exchange.

    The real short answer for me is that physics just isn’t 1/100 as interesting as biology is. I’m not interested in general laws, I’m interested in violations thereof. 🙂

  6. Jeremy Fox

    Lack of ecologists (or indeed non-physicists of any stripe) moving into physics seems to me to be overdetermined: there are multiple reasons, each sufficient on its own and none necessary.

    Lack of the necessary mathematical training is a big one. Lack of interest in the subject is probably another.


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