Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

Interdiscipline [updated]

by Andre on 29 April 2006

Tozier writes a pithy piece about working and communicating in a new field from his uniquely experienced perspective. The highlight:

Indeed, I suspect the proper way of thinking of a discipline is like a biological species, which is differentiated by reproductive barriers. In academia, it’s not about the fucking, but about thinking the other people are fools. If they’re time-wasting fools, they’re in another discipline. (And if they’re in another discipline….)


On the subject of interdisciplinary communication, I just came across an older paper in Physics Today called “Harness the Hubris: Useful things physicists could do in biology.” Great title. The best part may be the box at the end that has a response from Robert Austin. You could read the whole thing if only there were a free copy available.

Phil’s comments:
[ Update @ 1445PST by PJMJ ]

Forget silly copyright rules, having just read these articles, I liked Bob Austin’s comment enough that I’ll reproduce it here. The premise of Adrian Parsegian’s Harness the Hubris is that physicists can do many rather mundane things to help biologists along, such as teaching them elementary physics, and studying materials that are biologically relevant.

Bob Austin took issue with this approach, because there are so many interesting things to study in biology, why restrict ourselves to only simple (boring?) biomaterials and education? He writes:

Dear Physics Today,

I was charmed by Adrian’s style of writing and amused by his entrance requirement for the Biophysical Society. But, now that I have been able to find the time to take a break from all the turmoil in the lab and think about what he has to say, I think this article sends exactly the wrong message to physicists.

What’s wrong? In fact, the title says it all: “Harness the Hubris: Useful Thing Physicists Could Do in Biology.” In other words: You arrogant physicists! Don’t even think about solving any big problems in biology like you have done in so many other fields! Know your place in the New Order! The best you can hope for is to provide some useful technical tools for the biologists.

I completely disagree with Adrian. Having lived with biologists and biochemists for a number of years, I know damn well that many of them can’t reason their way out of a paper bag, and that they really need the analytical and experimental gifts of good physicists to help in the really major conceptual logjams that are facing modern biology. It may be hubris, but the fact is that some physicists are scary smart. Here at Princeton, I think some of the biologists recognize this fact, and are indeed turning more and more to brilliant physicists like Stan Leibler and John Hopfield to help wrestle with the really big questions.

Adrian’s article is basically a capitulation; the three big things we can do are: teach good service courses, find good biomaterials, and help biologists use good force fields. Forget that! I want to do the big problems: I want to understand energy flow in biomolecules; I want to understand how genes are turned on and off; I want to understand the collective processes in cell growth; I want to understand how the brain works; I want to understand the origins of consciousness. Don’t tell me that I should be a good little boy and work on sugars first. No way! I’d rather drive a truck.

Adrian’s article really is a recipe for defeat. What I think you should do is publish this as a two-sided article: Adrian with his timidity, and let a good strong physicist (not me!) write a reply that states the case for physicists at the very forefront of biology, working with the biologists on the biggest problems they can find. No appeasement! It isn’t over until the fat lady sings, Adrian.

Robert H. Austin
Professor of Physics
Princeton University

While I’m sure a little of that was over-reactionary, he makes a very good point. Just because we’re physicists, why should we only study the overtly physical problems biologists have, instead of applying our quantitative tools and thinking to the most interesting questions biologists are asking? I know I’d rather be thinking about big problems that than studying sugars.

  1. Uncle Al    4495 days ago    #

    Feynman was interested in population genetics for a weekend. He read something, it got his hackles up, and he derived all the relevant mathematics over a couple of days. On Monday he hit the library to see if it was publishable.

    OTOH, Feynman hadn’t done anything everybody else in that field had not already done. OTOH, everybody else had needed 20 years.

    Biology and NIH medicine, even with DNA technologies, are circling the drain because nobody has had a seminal thought in 20 years. There may not be an original thought to be had. If there is, a biologist won’t be the one to have it. When all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like screws. Pound ‘em in!

  2. Bill Tozier    4490 days ago    #

    I remember Per Bak fondly. He had hubris out the wazoo. Pointed out, loudly and often, how physicists were well-trained to deal with many-body systems, and biologists weren’t.

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