spherical-chickenThis is a physics joke, heard either in high school or maybe college, probably both(jokes get repeated).  Most times when I tell it, people’s eyes glaze over and they disappear.

Don’t know who originated this story so cannot give you the author, of course he may have preferred anonymity. This is my mangling of the story.

There was a chicken farmer(the farmer raised chickens, was not a chicken).  His flock of chickens were not laying eggs.  Laying eggs was apparently an important aspect of his chicken farming.  The farmer brought in experts, county ag(they always say ag rather than the full agricultural, it is a sort of short hand) extension agents, who were unable to diagnose the issue.   The ag agents could not figure out what was going on, so they brought in the next level of help support, these were from the University, some  Agricultural Professor Researchers who studied farm animals.  The professors were all stumped.  One of the professors after running into many brick walls told the farmer that there was a brilliant physicist who might be able to figure out the problem.  So a day or two later this professor from the physics department came by.  The physicist looked around the farm, took notes and then went back to the university.  A month later the farmer, who was as befuddled as ever, received a call from the physicist.  The physicist told the farmer, “I have a solution to your problem.  First assume a spherical chicken…

I started with the naive view that science was a search for truth and an understanding of reality.  There seemed to be a heavy conceit that all of the universe would be described by a set of equations.  That these equations would tell you all there is to know about the universe.  Understand the math, understand the universe.

High school physics teacher used a big blue book,  Fundamentals of Physics by Halliday and Resnick.  The blue book was heavily calculus based text-book and there were many places where the authors stated, obviously this follows from that.  Teacher wanted us to show the steps from that to this.  Too long ago so I don’t remember the obviously this or the that it followed from.   Do remember a week of work and pages of steps.  Did have to learn enough calculus to do this, it helped in calculus class, so bonus.

Obviously, self evident, everybody knows, these are phrases that people tend to use when they are so steeped in some thing that they lose the sense of how alien the some thing is.

My grasp of math and the application of math was too mechanical or not deep enough or both and more and worse.  A physics lab had a big furry equation, it had a function inside of a square root like  \sqrt{f(x)},  to derive the equation that followed from it had to know that over the domain of the function f(x) was very close to 1 so dump the square root and just use f(x).  It made it easier to solve and got rid of non-linear aspects of the problem.  Simplifying models make them work, until it doesn’t.

Seemed like closed form solutions were something mathematicians highly prized.   A math professor assigned a problem that none of the available methods could crack.  Later he confessed it was a problem lacking a closed form solution, and was assigned in the hopes that someone would invent a new method.  When asked about the number of problems with closed form solutions, the professor confessed it ran as high as five percent.

There was a visiting professor at a lab.  He told me about what Herman Cember wrote in one edition of his textbook  Introduction to Health Physics.

   Science is not concerned with absolute truth or reality—it is concerned with
giving the simplest possible unified description of as many experimental
findings as possible.

Physics still seems  very mathematical.  When I was in high school, there were point masses.  Now there are strings.  These are all the assumptions that make up the models.  Is mathematics a spherical chicken?  Are all the models spherical chickens?  So how many assumptions build the spherical chicken you see?  Is it spherical chickens all the way down?





This is a pretty good place for me to end.  I don’t know enough to say much more.  Found a site that has a better alternative explanation Spherical Chickens in a Vacuum. The  Spherical Cow is another take on the same joke.

Got the following quote from Searching for Certainty: What Scientists Can Know about the Future Sep 1992  by John L. Casti.  From the beginning of chapter 2: Whither the Weather.

Some [people] are weatherwise, some are otherwise.  — Benjamin Franklin

John L. Casti has written a lot of books on simulating reality.  Found the following pretty good talk on you tube.