Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

The comedy of biophysics

by PhilipJ on 3 April 2006

I’ve started reading Bob Laughlin’s A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down, which is Laughlin’s philosophy on how the laws of nature come about. Once I’ve finished reading the book I’ll try and offer a little more insight (because, you know, a masters student with a weblog is definitely a worthy critic of a nobel laureate theorist!), but I’ll leave you with this rather accurate—particularly when I’m the one working in the biology lab—dichotomy between the physical and biological sciences, and how trying it is from time to time working in a biophysics lab:

My geneticist colleague David Botstein often begins lectures by explaining that the essence of biology is living with uncertainty. He especially emphasizes this to audiences of physicists, because he knows they have a hard time with this concept and will misinterpret much of what he says unless alerted to the issue ahead of time. He has never revealed to me how he thinks about such audiences, but I happen to know that most biologists consider the physicists’ obsession with certainty and correctness to be exasperatingly childish and evidence of their limited mental capacity. Physicists, in contrast, consider tolerance of uncertainty to be an excuse for second-rate experimentation and a potential source of false claims.

  1. Matt B.    4491 days ago    #

    This rings false to me…

    Physics is full of uncertainty all the way down at the bottom. Don’t experimental physicists use some of the same statistical methods that bioligists use?

    Though, it would be funny for physicists and biologists to get in a pissing contest over whose field is more uncertain.

  2. Bill Tozier    4491 days ago    #

    I’ve just had a similar conversation with my [new] engineering colleagues. As a defrocked biologist, I picked up a deep sense of the whole “science of exceptions” thing, and have always done my best to pass it along to students and colleagues at every turn.

    Among the Operations Researchers, I find they dismiss reality almost as quickly as economists are wont to do.

    I think perhaps my professors and colleagues now prefer tractable mathematical models—like linear programs, to use their most-invoked example—far more than they prefer to talk about stuff. Stuff is messy. Mathematics is simple and you can say lots of words about it in long papers that take three years to review.

    Of course, the reason I’m complaining from my new vantage point over in engineering is that biology is accelerating towards “us”, full steam ahead. It’ll be a glorious and interesting day when they finally collide. :)

  3. PhilipJ    4491 days ago    #

    Matt B. – Physics uncertainties are tractable, electronic noise in amplifiers, resolution limits in spectrometers, finite time windows with which to measure things. (Some) biological uncertainties are different. They aren’t errors on a measurement, they are often-impossible to explain bacterial cultures growing in media they shouldn’t be able to grow in, plasmids that aren’t getting expressed in plain old E. coli, or other weirder things. In my three short months of full-time wet lab work, I’ve seen lots of things I can’t explain, and that is apparently normal.

    Bill – It is no doubt going to be an incredibly exciting time. It seems like everyone is starting to notice this vast playground over there, that, while people have been playing in (and even finding out neat things!) for quite some time, seems somehow endless in possibilities.

  4. Alex Mallet    4491 days ago    #

    Having just made the switch from the [mostly] deterministic field of computer science to biology, I whole-heartedly agree that it takes a while to get used to the uncertainty inherent in biology. The bit that I have to keep reminding myself of is that when a biologist says “X does Y”, what is really meant is “X does Y, most of the time, under my particular experimental conditions and, really, I’m not sure how much Y it does, just that, most of the time, there’s enough Y that I can detect it. Oh, and it might also do Y by really doing Z, which then does Y.” Eliminating, or more likely learning to deal with, that kind of uncertainty is what’s needed to really start “engineering” biology [for some definition of “engineering”].

  5. Uncle Al    4490 days ago    #

    Errors in physics tend to average and converge, allowing accurate prediction. When they do not – turbulence with positive feedback – physics founders and tap dances. Controlled hot fusion hasn’t got a chance.

    Errors in biology tend to add and diverge at the get go. Biologists admit – ANOVA! – that they have only weak best guesses. Every cell in Caenorhabditis elegans can be traced back to the original fertilized egg. So?

    Structural determinism, from meaty wet parts to DNA blueprints, won’t get you much understanding of the organism. Nobody boasts that they know which way the worm will turn at a given moment, even for grand canonical ensembles.

    Now let us combine the worst of physics (sheafs of differential equations for modeling) and the worst of biology (phenomena without definitive origin). Voila! Economics.

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