Biology's Clash of Civilizations

Last summer, at a meeting outside Aspen, Colorado, several dozen physicists gathered to celebrate what the journal Nature described as the "growing feeling that their discipline's mindset will be crucial to reaping the harvest of biology's post-genomic era." In fact, with genetics set to improve everything from human health to agriculture, physicists and mathematicians worldwide are pouring into the life sciences. Biology is where the scientific action--and the money--will be in the coming century.

But this is not the first time that physicists and mathematicians have looked to biology for new fields to plow, and the history of such efforts has been fairly dismal. Biologists and physicists have different goals and traditions, and they look for different kinds of answers, because they ask different kinds of questions.

My first glimpse of this disciplinary divide came many years ago while teaching a course on mathematical methods in biology. After introducing a biological problem with 11 variables, I used a simple method called dimensional analysis to demonstrate that only three needed to be studied empirically; the relations among the rest of the variables could be inferred logically. "But you haven't done the experiments," the students complained, "so how can you know?"

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

To access our archive, please log in or register now and read two articles from our archive every month for free. For unlimited access to our archive, as well as to the unrivaled analysis of PS On Point, subscribe now.

required

By proceeding, you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy, which describes the personal data we collect and how we use it.

Log in

http://prosyn.org/tE8y2Ux;

Cookies and Privacy

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. To find out more, read our updated cookie policy and privacy policy.