Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

We need to stop pigeon-holing science

by PhilipJ on 4 May 2008

My brief anxiety over what kind of scientist I am was initially posted as a bit of a joke. As the resident wet lab junkie (scary!) in what is primarily an ultrafast optics group, having spent at least as twice as much time on sample prep over the past 8 months as I have on aligning lasers to do fancy nonlinear optics, it gets harder and harder to say things like “I’m a physicist“ with the same kind of certainty that I once would.

And you know what? That’s okay. The more I play in other sandboxes (or as the case has been, dark rooms*), the more I realise my own sandbox of physics is no “better” than anyone else’s. We’re just asking, and trying to answer, different questions.

This is all coming to mind because we just finished holding the annual Chemical Biophysics Symposium again, and on the first evening of every symposium there is a panel discussion on some interesting topic. Something that keeps coming up at these kinds of discussions is the “us” versus “them” comments, wherein “us” is invariably physicists (or physical chemists), who are the majority of the audience at the symposium, and “them” are those nebulous biologists who never seem to be around to offer a biologists viewpoint on science.

I have news for physicists who have woken up to find lots of fun problems in biology: most of us are solving physics problems in biological systems. We are nowhere near addressing most biological problems. It is flashier and more exciting to say we’re working on cancer, or drug deliver, or what have you, but in most cases we really aren’t working with biologists to help solve biological problems, despite claims that we are now starting to study biology the “right way”.

It is useful to recall Bob Austin’s take on the interesting problems in biology:

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. […]

Nowhere above does he say “the physics of …”. It is great that physicists are turning to biology for new problems to solve, but I grow a little tired of the physics vs biology mentality. If we truly want to make great strides in understanding biological phenomena, we need to stop pigeon-holing disciplines. There is no “us” or “them”, “they” aren’t doing things incorrectly, we’re all simply using the tools we were trained to use to solve the problems we find interesting. What we really need to do is find better ways to share ideas, so that everyone understands exactly what they can contribute. We can’t be afraid to learn from each other, and in the case of biology, it is most certainly a two way street.

* More on this soon.

  1. Duncan Hull    3730 days ago    #

    All this pigeon-holing of scientists, reminds me of The Peoples Front of Judea vs. The Judean Peoples Front

    We’re all Scientists at the end of the day, right?

  2. indeed    3730 days ago    #

    I have news for physicists who have woken up to find lots of fun problems in biology: most of us are solving physics problems in biological systems.

    As a biochemist doing biophysics, you’ve earned my respect by recognizing this.

  3. Jesse    3729 days ago    #

    It’s an interesting point you raise. I think that dividing science into different fields has its uses, however. Meetings like the symposium you mention are useful because they bring together a large group of people working on similar problems. Division of science into subfields allows for the development of useful techniques for specific types of problems. What if there were no physics texts or biology texts, but only a giant Encyclopedia of Science? What if you had to scan every journal article published each week to find the ones relevant to your own field of study?

    Maybe we are all scientists at the end of the day, but we each bring a different perspective and background to a problem based on our training. I think the division of science into subfields is useful for organizing a huge amount of knowledge. The important thing is not to be fooled into thinking the divisions are real, that there are well-defined boundaries between different fields.

  4. Rosie Redfield    3728 days ago    #

    Nice post!

  5. Andre    3728 days ago    #


    That’s a good point. Disciplines have developed partly to handle the huge amount of knowledge and information out there, but as you say, when you start to see clear boundaries between fields it’s easy to see people in other fields as, well, others. And I think that’s Phil’s point. Not that we shouldn’t have different fields of science, but that we shouldn’t think our field is all there is.

    In particular, a physicist who thinks biology is never done “right” studies biology at her own peril. She may even become the topic of hilarious arxiv papers.

    On the other hand, someone with a traditional physics background can have great things to say about biology: if a physicist decides to learn more than the basics in at least some subfield, then she might find she has a deep and complementary perspective on the same tangled beautiful mess that drives biologists wild.

  6. Aaron    3728 days ago    #

    I’d say that this kind of experience — the us versus them thing — is really part and parcel of interdisciplinary science (of all kinds, not just biophysics) right now. Some of it is probably from bumping up against institutional boundaries, which are useful for bureaucracies like universities since it makes it easier to budget, assemble course catalogs, and distinguish academic degrees. Some of it is, I think, the natural human tendency to tribalize our social interactions.

    I’ve been working across these boundaries for a while now, and have found that I’m happiest when I’m working with people who aren’t intellectually limited either by these boundaries, by whether we’re “doing physics” or “doing biology” or whatever, or by whether you’re a “physicist” and I’m a “biologist” or what. Unfortunately, most scientists are not like this, perhaps because the incentives of academia (prizes, grants, jobs, journals, etc.) tend to encourage the opposite kind of behavior, or perhaps because there’s a lot of cultural momentum within science that maintains these boundaries.

    One difficult thing with being interdisciplinary is in getting your work accepted (by that, I mean getting published and getting/keeping a job). If you’re working in more than one field, then success really means doing first-rate work in each of them. Otherwise, you run the risk of being viewed, e.g., as a biologist by physicists and as a physicist by biologists, when really you want both groups to see you as one of their own and your work as something they admire. Science shouldn’t have to be this way obviously, but thems the breaks for now.

  7. Alex    3726 days ago    #


  8. K    3719 days ago    #

    Part of the problem with bringing “us” and “them” together is the unbelievable arrogance that physicists approach biology with. How many times have I have I heard a “true” physicist (as I am trained merely as a biophysicist) say “its time we show them how its really done” or “lets due it the right way this time.”

  9. MsPhD    3718 days ago    #

    Amen. Great post.

    Unfortunately unless departments and funding agencies and search committees wise up real soon, they’re going to lose out on some of us.

    They keep trying to pound me into a square hole, but I just don’t fit. I think I’d rather leave than let them keep trying to squish me.

  10. Frederick Ross    3649 days ago    #

    Physicists in particular have especial trouble with this boundary. From my own experience, I think it’s for two reasons.

    The first is an impedance mismatch in communication. The physicist asks a question, expecting a number, an equation, enough material where he can do back-of-the-envelope calculations, which are his criterion for “understanding.” The biologist gives him a set logical statements which combine to form a syllogism that says something about reality. Physicists aren’t comfortable with logic; biologists aren’t comfortable with analysis (or with symbolic logic, unfortunately).

    The second is a lack of textbooks. The physicist entering biology is usually handed something like Alberts or another random book that contains cartoons about E. coli and the mythical average mammalian cell. These books are so frustrating as to be worse than useless. For almost a year after I crossed the boundary, I refused to read and instead insisted on interrogating biologists directly. They took it well, thankfully. But compared with all the carefully written books someone entering physics is faced with, biology is a bit of a wasteland.

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