Knowing What You Know (and What You Don’t)

This whole blog of mine was meant to be about interdisciplinary science. At least, when I started it up, 3 years ago next month, that was what I had in mind as my major theme. In fact, like so much of my life, it hasn’t panned out quite as envisaged. In the early days there were a number of posts on the topic; more recently practically none. So, time to redress that balance. I have been at a conference this week, organised under the auspices of the EPSRC-funded Network on the Physics of Life (I’m on its steering committee). Its aim is to start shaping the dialogue about what the UK Physics community can offer in solving biological problems. In part, acting as a network, its role is to bring researchers together to find innovative ways of moving the field – and it’s pretty broad – forward. In part it aims, through focussed workshops and discussion sessions, to identify major challenges where the tools (conceptual as well as experimental) of the physicist can usefully tackle important biological problems.

This week’s first plenary event focussed on The Living Cell and was a mixture of talks and discussion. The discussion amongst the attendees in break-out groups was targeted at identifying possible topics for future meetings. In particular we want to identify themes that bridge the different lengthscales relevant to ‘life’, so from within a single cell up to the multicellular and whole organism level. We also want to make sure we have plenty of biologists amongst our attendees to keep us on the straight and narrow when it comes to biology. To paraphrase what Viola Vogel (one of our keynote speakers) said, physicists need to learn enough biology to be able to ask relevant biological questions, not merely ones they can simplify enough to solve.

For a physicist to become fluent in biology – or the same in reverse – takes time and effort. I hope the time when physicists thought all problems could be solved by sufficient simplification (see this xkcd cartoon) are long past, but I wouldn’t be too sure. Biology and physics may differ very substantially in the way they see problems, and that is exactly why conversations between them can be so rewarding once the language barrier is overcome; this needs to include the translation of acronyms, but also must include getting to grips with words that appear to be the same but have different connotations and those that are utterly unfamiliar.

Nevertheless, even the most bilingual of biological physicists (or equally physical biologists) is probably only going to have knowledge associated with some small area. Perhaps they are expert in lipids and cell membranes, or molecular machines such as kinesin, or the extracellular matrix; but they are unlikely to be expert in all of them. Unfortunately collectively there are too many ‘or’s’ like this, so it is impossible for any one of us to be an expert in more than a small niche area. What we can do is try to look for connections, use the skills we have to ask the unexpected questions of our colleagues and see if approaches used in one field can helpfully be applied elsewhere. It is this last ‘philosophy’ that has led my Cambridge colleague Ben Simons, a theoretical physicist whose background lies in chaos theory, to develop completely new ways of thinking about stem cell differentiation thereby leading to a rethink in the (biological) stem cell community. In some ways his theories are incredibly simple, essentially equivalent to work from the nineteenth century on how surnames propagate or die out, but their application to stem cell colonies meant the overturning of received wisdom – if I understand this right!

To digress briefly, regular readers of this blog may know that Erasmus Darwin  is one of my heroes. He was a polymath, a physician by day, an innovator and entrepreneur in his spare time with interests ranging from carriage axles to meteorology, as well as a well-known poet in his day. Thomas Young, he of Young’s slits and modulus, was another physician (rather less successful than Darwin) who managed to cover an enormous range of sciences including optics (physics) and the mechanism of vision (biology) as well as elasticity and who also had a hand in decoding the Rosetta Stone. Not for nothing was a recent biography of him by Andrew Robinson entitled ‘The Last Man who Knew Everything‘.

This epithet should be contrasted with the title of another physicist’s biography I’ve just finished reading: ‘The Man who Changed Everything‘ , a book by Basil Mahon about the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell. Having read this I realise that as an undergraduate physicist his name had been liberally sprinkled over my courses without me really taking in that fact. The Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution of velocities in gases was a key memory from my first year courses. Of course at that point I also encountered Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism as I struggled with the ideas of div, grad and curl from vector calculus. Maxwell relations – those equations linking differentials of thermodynamic functions – featured in the second year.  Somewhere along the line I must have been introduced to that friendly, impish character of Maxwell’s demon, who sits next to small slits to try to mess up the second law of thermodynamics, as an early example of a gedanken experiment. I didn’t realise Maxwell also played a key part in developing dimensional analysis too, an approach that seems obvious now but was much more obscure to me at the start of my undergraduate life.

Maxwell had very broad interests and an ongoing area of experimentation throughout his life was in colour. To him we owe the idea that all spectral colours can be made up of red, green and blue (the RGB palette familiar from Photoshop for instance), unlike the way paint colours add, and he created ingenious ways to study the make-up of the whole spectral range of colours. Indeed he took the first colour photograph, using red, green and blue filters to superimpose images, although the fact that this worked turns out to have been fortuitous, at least according to this biography.

But was he genuinely interdisciplinary or merely a fantastically gifted physical scientist? And if not what is he doing featuring in this post (other than because I have a deep admiration for polymaths)?  Like Young, his interests in image formation included an interest in the eye itself. He developed apparatus for studying the eye, an early ophthalmoscope (although not the very first which had been developed by Helmholtz a little before) and used it to study the yellow spot (macula lutea) which is an opaque area on the retina.  Indeed his discovery of the RGB system arose from his interest in colour vision and how we perceive colours.

Maxwell of course was the first head of my own Cavendish Laboratory, the man who was instrumental in the design of the old buildings in the centre of Cambridge. His time there was cut short by his death at only 48 but during his life what a huge amount he managed to accomplish. He knew the importance of knowing what you do know and what you don’t; of having the tenacity to tease out the simple from the messy and complicated and to know who to turn to when information from outside one’s own area of expertise is required. These are all skills we should work at acquiring, all the more so if we aspire to move from our own discipline to work in another, facilitating working with others whose backgrounds may be very different from our own.

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6 Responses to Knowing What You Know (and What You Don’t)

  1. Geologist says:

    Being truly multidisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary is not easy. There are several reasons why this is so, but I think that it really is this difficulty that is the primary reason why so few people really do it, or do it well.

    As you noted, to be successful in this, you need to be able to speak and understand several different scientific languages. You must be willing to learn those languages and learn quite a bit about the other sciences. For most, this is something that cannot really be achieved until after tenure, or even after Full Professor, simply because the time investment to do so is risky. If you are not successful or if you are slow to progress into the new field, you will not be promoted, or risk falling behind in your own field and essentially dropping out of the race.

    However, something I didn’t really fully understand until I had already jumped head first into this endeavor is that funding agencies (at least in the USA) talk a lot about interdisciplinary research but they don’t put their money where their mouth is. Current funding agencies across all disciplines (that I’m aware of), have pretty rigid boxes that you are supposed to fit into in order to get funding. But if you truly are doing multidisciplinary research then you can’t cut up your projects to fit into their boxes because the different disciplines really need to be working together, collecting data together and working with the findings on the spot. Trying to do a part here with a separate grant and a part there funding by a different agency doesn’t work. For one, these ‘parts’ won’t be funded because of the very reason that they can’t stand alone. And each agency says “no – go elsewhere” and the ‘elsewhere place’ says “no go back there”.

    There are a few grant types that try to be interdisciplinary, but they are interdisciplinary ONLY for those fields/subfields that they have already decided are allowed to work together. New twists and combinations of fields are just not allowed.

    I really hope that our bureaucracy can soon (!!) change to adapt and keep up with the fact that how we do science is changing. The little rigid boxes need to figure out how to not be so rigid and funding agencies need to be allowed and find ways to work together better (e.g. NSF, NIH, USDA, etc.).

    So far, I am very successful and very interdisciplinary, it is exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. But I do fear that real progress is definitely being hampered by the lack of flexibility in how science is funded.

    • I’m afraid the system is just as bad re interdisciplinary funding as your description in the US. I wrote about this worrying state of affairs in an earlier post. Just as you describe there are ‘boxes’ (in our case I’d say criteria) which tend to catch out the genuinely interdisciplinary project. The UK Research Councils try to dispute this (see this later post) but the reality doesn’t match the rhetoric most of the time.

      I’d also agree that it is tough to become truly interdisciplinary until you are well-advanced in your career. Every time I’ve been involved in discussions on the issue of interdisciplinarity and education the conclusion has always been get a firm education in a single subject and branch out later, otherwise you end up being a jack of all trades rather than an expert.

  2. Steve says:

    One of the main issues is the way in which Universities are structured; often along discipline lines. I hear all too often that “this is a physics problem”, or “that’s an engineering problem” from apparently learned people but history would tell me differently.

    One of my heros is Osborne Reynolds, who was a physicist and was given the title “Professor of Engineering” – he was the first to hold this title in the UK. We all know him for the Reynolds number, which has broad applicability. He pioneered the idea of “outdoor physics” which meant going out into the countryside, mainly around Manchester (yes, there is some) and try to think about problems such as understanding fluid flow in rivers, why lightening split some trees open. Fun stuff like that. He showed that he could take his physics and apply is more liberally than the pure lab “ideal situation” experiments so popular amongst his colleagues. Perhaps the lesson we learn here, if we do the same thing with physics/biology problems, is an appreciation of the variable, the uncertain and the need to sharpen our theories more simply to probe outside the discipline. What Reynolds did was to come up with a number that can now be applied liberally to blood flow, nanomaterials and the flow of the river Irwell! I’m sure that Reynolds didn’t approach his science with a view that it had to be housed in a subject classification, and I’ve no doubt that he appreciated the complexity of the problem beyond what classic physics had taught him. Some of my old collegues at Manchester had some evidence that he talked to the biologists there rather a lot, so perhaps a bit of a pioneer…?

    I think a lot of the success of interdisciplinary science depends on people’s curiosity and their ability to ask the right questions, and ask them of the right people. Like minded scientists across the disciplines can make great progress if they do this. Like minded scientists within a so-called discipline may not. If we are to conceited to beleive that our own disciplines hold the answers to a problem then we will probably become unstuck. There are also methods that biologists use (comparative method being one) that are useful for narrowing down complexity in biological systems to tease out underlying mechanisms. Losing sight of the very fact that the systems we try to understand have a biological context is all too easy as well, if we act alone as physicists.

    I have also found that biologists write much better than us so-called physicists (see that sentence proved my point….). The papers I have written with biologists are more a work of prose and the students I have taken on never had issues with writing up their theses. All in all it’s been a rich experience for me and one which I will continue (hopefully) for the rest of my career.

    How Universties enable this to happen is anyone’s guess. I favour getting out of the office and outside into the real world, taking time to think, then ask your biologist colleague how he/she thinks it all works and see what happens after that….

  3. Geologist says:

    Steve – Our university built a building specially designed to mix different disciplines, and in many cases, even share lab space. The idea was that by building these spaces, more interdisciplinary interactions would occur, such as seeing one another in the hallway and eventually leading to coffee and further conversations. It is a great idea, but of course such a scheme leads to other problems as well. Which faculty go in the building? Who is left behind ? How does physically splitting up individuals from a department affect that department?

  4. Steve says:

    We have similar buildings in my institution, and we are just starting to build a new one right next to my department to interface physics with biology and engineering, maths etc etc. The mix of people that are placed in there is an issue, and those that are left behind can sometimes end up with taking the lion’s share of the administration of the “old department”. Simply just placing a mix of people into a building isn’t necessarily a recipe for interdisciplinary science. You have to set some challenges and have a figurehead who is good at guiding/leading people down a certain way. It does help to have a well-defined grouping for funding proposals seeking interdisciplinary work, but it’s a large investment and risky unless the person at the top has the right vision.

  5. Laurence Cox says:

    Whilst in Cambridge recently I had the benefit of seeing the the Cavendish Laboratory (from the outside) on a scientific heritage tour. Our guide told us an anecdote about Peter Kapitza and Ernest Rutherford and showed us the crocodile carved by Eric Gill on the outside of the Mond Building where Kapitza worked. “Crocodile” was Kapitza’s nickname for Rutherford (referring to the crocodile in “Peter Pan”).