Separate disciplines as an outdated idea: An example from Physics and Biology

More often than not, we box the science disciplines into two broad categories. On one hand are the mathematical sciences, mathematics, physics, theoretical computer science, etc. and on the other are the observational sciences like chemistry, biology, and earth science. What’s worse than the above completely incorrect labeling is that these two groups often don’t see eye to eye with each other. The first group often complaints that the latter is not often rigorous enough and the second retaliates by saying the former is just too idealists with no connection to the real-world at all. As a student of physics, this division seems pretty close to home since Physics has both strong theoretical and experimental groups. So, I thought it would be interesting to see how a harmony rather than feud may help both sides enormously. As an example let’s take a look at the relation between physics and biology.

Because of the way it’s taught in our schools, these two subjects seem extremely distant from each other by both the matter of subject and the philosophy that governs its pupils. But since the second half of the last century, the physicists and biologists have started taking a peek at each other’s work and the results are enormous. Of course, the most obvious connection seems to be the instruments developed in physics labs that are helping biologists with their research. From small cantilevers that can measure the tensile strength of protein molecules to advanced electron microscopes that can actually videotape the molecular transportation inside a cell. Each of these works deserves more than a blog on its own. But it goes way beyond that. The principles of physics can be directly used to explain the behavior of biological systems. Questions like how bats or dolphins navigate and hunt their prey or how migrant birds know their way back home can be answered by looking at the respective animals from a physicist’s viewpoint. The concept of surface tension may seem mundane to an enthusiastic biology major but it’s the basis for understanding how plants transfer food inside themselves or how ants carry water like a solid object.

Figure 1
[Figure 1: Researchers from Yale found a way to see live how vesicles are formed.]

And of course, this relationship is not a one-way street. The discoveries in the field of biology push the modern physicists to scrutinize and revise their models of nature. There’s an old joke about laws of aerodynamics prohibiting bees to be able to fly (the punchline being: they fly because they don’t know the law). This must’ve forced the model builders to change the law and generalize it to include our nectar loving friends. Similarly, the fact that chromosomes can hold so much information in such a small space still pushes the quantum information and condensed matter physicists to further understand information storage. The rhythm of the heartbeat, the population growth of various species of animals are vigorously being researched by physicists who make models of them. Patterns are often thought of as mathematician’s field of play but the beautiful patterns in flowers and plants force us to ask the question how do plants know about maths? These may in turn help us make better supercomputers or understand phase space of gravitational systems which have no straightforward connection to biology.

Figure 2(1)
[Figure 2: Fibonacci sequence appearing in Flowers.]

The point of this blog is simple: an outsider’s perspective is important in science. If instead of quarreling which discipline is better we all try to contribute to the ongoing pursuit of knowledge, we’ll get to know our universe better and faster. So, if a problem you’re interested in is baffling you, go seek the help of your friend from a different discipline. He or she may be able to help you in capturing your beast.

References for further reading:

[1] From dead cells to live movies


[3]Scientists finally figure out how bees fly

[4] DNA as data Storage device: Hope or Hype?

[5] The Impact of Physics on Biology and Medicine

[6] How plants do their Math

Image References:

Figure 1:

Figure 2: Wikipedia

Cover Photo and context:

It’s a picture of the famous Mandelbrot set generated in a computer by the author. Although discovered as a purely mathematical entity, it’s fractal structure seems to resonate in populations of species and coral formation, etc.

By Arindam Bhattacharjee, IISER Pune.


About the author: I am an Int. Ph.D. student from IISER Pune whose interest lies mostly in theoretical physics. When I’m not doing Physics I occupy myself with football, reading poetry, or amateur photography. My favorite pastime also includes disturbing my friends and colleagues with random debates and cooking barely edible foods.


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