Monday, January 25, 2010

Physicist, Physician, Physical Therapist?

What's in a name?

So have you ever heard someone calling a physicist as "physician"? I'm sure both sides of the profession are a little bit miffed with that terminology being used. The physicist want to be called as such, while the physician doesn't want someone else to get the "stature" of a medical doctor without undergoing the torture of hours and hours of sleepless shifts. So do you correct the error?

I tend to act "dumb" and say "well, I'm a physicist, not a physician. I'm sorry, I cannot prescribe to you any drugs". Usually, if this is someone I don't know that well, he/she tends to ponder what I just said for several minutes, which is usually enough for me to make a getaway before he/she gathers his/her wits.

I recall several years ago the APS-Physics had a bit of an identity crisis. The APS, which stands for (does it still stand for this?) the American Physical Society, wanted to get ride of the word "Physical". It seems that in many instances, especially when it hosts conferences at various places, people mistaken it for either an organization for doctors (i.e., getting your "physical"), or people into physical therapy or physical education. So they wanted to call the organization the American Physics Society. I seem to recall that there were a lot of negative feedback from members, etc. I didn't see what's wrong with calling it the American Physics Society, but then again, I didn't have any strong feelings one way of the other, the same way I couldn't care less if Pluto is designated a planet or not. It changes nothing. Still, the APS probably didn't care for the name to be an issue and probably dropped the whole thing. Instead, they now call themselves APS - Physics. The word "Physics" appears on almost every logo and name accompanying "APS". Now, hopefully, no one would confuse us attending APS meetings as being physical therapists ("I'm sorry, I'm a physicist, not a physical therapist. So I can't twist your back into a pretzel").



Anonymous said...

The problem is same in Turkish: Many years ago, mid 90s. A small Mediterranean village in Turkey. Perfect place to have a local physics congress. Major of the village prepares the villagers for the ‘Physicists’, tells them to behave and be helpful. We arrive. Where ever we go we are welcomed with great respect. Restaurants give discounts. After we leave one of our professor stays behind to enjoy the sea. A local approaches and asks him if he could check his back. Professor replies that he could not. Then he realizes the villagers thought that we were physicians. Explains a lot about the why for the generosity from the locals.

Tometheus said...

At least it's better than the Astronomer / Astrologer confusion.

Anonymous said...

The only time that I recall being called a physician (actually physicien) was in France by an attractive young woman.

mb. said...

While I am not, more than one member of my family is a physicist, including my husband. & both of his parents are medical doctors. Not one of them said they had ever been called by the other moniker although the astronomer has been called astrologer more than once.

One totally silly sidebar: when my brother was graduating with his PhD in physics our grandmother's older sister was completely disgusted. She thought he had been studying physiks or, as they are better known in the 21st century, laxatives. When he told her he was working as a scanning tunneling microscopist she reprimanded him for talking about it at the dinner table.

Ken Westmoreland said...

The situation with linguistics is even worse, as people who study linguistics refuse to call themselves linguisticians, meaning that people who can speak several languages (who are traditionally called linguists) get confused with them. I am a polyglot, not a linguist.