El choque de las civilizaciones de la biología

El verano pasado, en una reunión en las afueras de Aspen, Colorado, se dieron cita varias docenas de físicos para celebrar lo que la revista Nature describió como "la sensación creciente de que la forma de pensar de su disciplina será crucial para levantar la cosecha de la era postgenómica de la bilogía". De hecho, puesto que la genética habrá de mejorar todo, desde la salud del ser humano hasta la agricultura, los físicos y matemáticos de todo el mundo se están volcando hacia las ciencias de la vida. La biología es el campo donde estará la acción científica (y el dinero) en este siglo.

Pero esta no es la primera ocasión en que los físicos y los matemáticos han buscado en la biología nuevos campos para plantar, y la historia de esos esfuerzos ha sido bastante deprimente. Los biólogos y los físicos tienen metas y tradiciones distintas, y buscan respuestas diferentes, porque hacen preguntas diferentes.

Mi primer encuentro con esta división entre las disciplinas sucedió hace muchos años cuando estaba dando un curso de métodos matemáticos en biología. Después de plantear un problema biológico con 11 variables, utilicé un método sencillo llamado análisis dimensional para demostrar que sólo era necesario estudiar empíricamente tres, puesto que las relaciones entre las demás variables se podían inferir con lógica. "Pero no ha hecho los experimentos", se quejaron los estudiantes, "así que ¿cómo puede saberlo?"

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