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.