Physics-based biology and blindness to the abstract

Biologists can have an uneasy relationship with math and theory. The field prioritizes pushing forward the conventional status quo at the expense of abstract theorizing and risky experiments. Bill Bialek, theoretical physicist at Princeton University, said, “we cannot expect that the biology community itself will create a genuinely receptive audience for theory.”

I’m criticizing the culture of biologists, but, in all fairness, other scientists, like physicists, suffer from their own issues as well. Physicists fear complexity and ambiguity in their work. But I can testify that these issues biologists suffer from harm research and can be solved with a greater understanding of the abstract.

From the first biology course I took in high school, I was bored. Everything was about memorizing vocabulary and information. It was easy to understand why I quickly ran to physics. But, even as much as some of the tests supposedly focused on “application” instead of “memorization,” the magic was never there. Even though some exams would emphasize “applying” certain concepts to answer questions, the rigor of the reasoning was never anything more than superficial knowledge of facts. Even when I entered university, the inquiry, creativity, logic, and other forms of critical thought were gone. Instead, the biology curriculum was always about knowing information and regurgitating it on exams. The consequences are that we’re setting ourselves up for siloed cultures, risk-averse research, and regressive thought.

Physics, on the other hand, gave me what I wanted. In my physics courses, I could understand how problems made sense from questions to answers without worrying about memorizing too much. I could use mathematical equations to explain phenomena, rather than accepting them for the way they were. Thankfully, my upper level biology course (AP Biology) shifted the focus away from memorization and towards more effective ways of learning, but physics always had that charm that other disciplines lacked. As Bialek explains, a theoretical physicist can sit at a computer with a pen and paper in order to perform research as much as he/she wants to. An experimental biologist requires all the equipment of a lab and stringent requirements of conducting research in order to get work done. These are generalizations and simplifications that don’t account for the nuances and differences in individual instances of both physics and biology, but the cultural distinction stands. The field of physics can allow for that exploration and creativity that biology needs to grasp. Physics research builds and re-builds upon theoretical premises much more easily than biology does.

I still find biology beautiful, with some areas even more interesting than physics. For me, the research on evolution and genetics is far more interesting to me than the high-energy particle collisions at CERN or the solid-state materials work. And the utility of biological research, from medicine to social sciences, is often viewed as more valuable than many areas of physics.

I don’t believe the field of biology is broken beyond repair, nor that it is in some sort of crisis. It’s more of an issue that is holding the discipline back that should be worked against. We need a universalist ethos that allows for greater cross-cultural transmission between the two biology and physics. Interdisciplinary fields such as bioinformatics and biophysics are a step in the right direction for both fields, but a more fundamental change in the way biologists approach problems is necessary. Biologists can think through problems the same way physicists do. This could mean using statistical techniques from thermodynamics in simulating genetic evolution. Or it could be looking at analogues between elegant physics equations and nature’s tendency for simplicity. Maybe physics can learn from biology, as well, if physicists embraced complexity in their work.

With greater reverence for creativity and abstract in new ways of looking at biology, scientists can be encouraged to take more risks. And the risks will yield greater results, quelling the fears that taking risks is harmful to science. And maybe I can enjoy my biology classes a bit more. 

Leave a Reply