‘Pure’ versus ‘Applied’ Science

When I started this blog, more than ten years ago, I imagined I would write about physics, and specifically about physics at the interface with biology. Perhaps, I thought, I would write about exciting papers I’d read; indeed, I asked a couple of other researchers in my field to join with me in doing this, to be met with little enthusiasm. In practice, things have turned out very differently. The science itself has not featured greatly here; I’ve largely written about the doing of it – who does it, how it should be done (and equally important, how it should not be done), and how it is funded; the political landscape for science; and the diversity angle. Interdisciplinary work – of the sort I was doing at the time – has certainly featured, particularly in the early days. So have its challenges, not least around funding, but not much about the science itself. I don’t regret that. I’ve had fun with writing this blog. I’m sure it has helped my writing skills (never too late) and I’ve enjoyed the interactions I’ve had, initially through posted comments although now much more usually over Twitter. But today I want to revert to something closer to my original concept, although still without detailed science.

I am prompted to write this by reading an editorial in the newsletter of the Institute of Physics’ Biological Physics Group written by my Cavendish Laboratory colleague, Pietro Cicuta, who is stepping down as Chair. I was instrumental in setting up this group nearly fifteen years ago, and I was its Chair for the first few years. As far as I can tell, this editorial is available to all, and not just IOP members, so I encourage you to read Pietro’s thoughtful views. He says

‘Today, many of us capably handle living systems within our physics departments, or in genuine cross-disciplinary environments, making entirely new research possible, for example integrating new tools and designing experiments that are as systematic as many other areas of condensed matter physics.’

In the early 2000’s, physics departments did not expect to have cell culture facilities, for instance, nor to teach material that might be called ‘biological physics’, although the field has various equivalent names (e.g. biophysics). Things have undoubtedly moved on; many departments are now well equipped with facilities for working with live organisms and with teaching relevant material.

However, I absolutely share Pietro’s concern

‘that despite the excitement of our field, the new teaching courses we developed, the fundamental progress that it is possible to achieve even with relatively small teams, the relevance to real challenges that matter to the public…. despite all this, we are still seen as one of the various sectors of “applied physics”. We have not impacted the “physics culture” very much: particle physics, astrophysics or cold atoms are not considered as physics applied to particles, stars or cold atoms… they somehow are still “the physics”.

Readers who are not physicists might wish to consider what the topics are that they immediately think physics covers, and it probably wouldn’t involve malaria (I wrote about Pietro’s work in this area in the Guardian, back in 2014 when that paper was committed to science blogs), or Covid (more on that shortly), or tumour evolution (to cite the work of another Cavendish colleague Sarah Bohndiek). On the contrary, their thoughts are more likely to turn to black holes and the Higgs’ Boson, or perhaps how to manipulate single atoms at ultracold temperatures. As Pietro says, the rest is, somewhat derogatorily, described as ‘applied’. Dirty stuff, that might be useful….not seen nevertheless as differently exciting and full of wonder.

Back in 2010, when this blog was still largely on the topic of biological physics, I asked ‘Where’s the Wow Factor?’ for this very reason: mainstream physicists think there can be no beauty or amazement in areas away from the sorts of topics I list above. Pietro’s editorial indicates how little things have changed in the last decade. Yet, physicists working in this area can contribute very substantially to our wellbeing, potentially to ‘healthy ageing’, as through work on cancer. If physics is being applied to cancer, why does that not attract a sense of amazement? It baffles me why our culture, and this includes the media in the way they report stories, see so-called applied physics as less worthy of interest than black holes. It isn’t that everyone believes ‘applied’ is bad in all disciplines, because they have made so much – rightly so – about the work of Sarah Gilbert’s team on vaccine development. ‘Pure’ (as that must be the opposite of applied, I suppose) work may have underpinned the development, but its current wow factor sits in enabling it to be applied to our real world, in moving us gratefully on from total lockdowns.

I mentioned physicists’ contribution to Covid. Here I will cite theoretical physicist Mike Cates (educated in the Cavendish, but now Lucasian Professor – the Chair formerly held by Stephen Hawking – in Cambridge’s Department of Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics) who, early on in the pandemic, kickstarted an initiative known as RAMP (Rapid Assistance in Modelling the Pandemic) under the auspices of the Royal Society. This brought together, essentially via crowd-sourcing, over 1800 scientists who felt they had something to offer. Mike’s latest co-authored paper from this programme Efficient Bayesian inference of fully stochastic epidemiological models with applications to COVID-19 takes tools from other areas of physics to apply to this current problem, relying also on the late Dave Mackay’s (another professor at the Cavendish) work on inference. Why is all this work not seen as mainstream?

It seems to me right and proper that fields should evolve. We should remember that James Clerk Maxwell was fascinated by light and colour, but also how our eyes worked to perceive that colour (see, for instance, Basil Mahon’s biography The man who changed everything). In 1855 he presented a paper Experiments on Colour, as perceived by the Eye, with remarks on Colour-blindness to the Royal Society, and five years later he followed up with On the Theory of Colour Vision  to that same august institution. People back then were much more open-minded about what ‘physics’ might be. Certainly his work in this area, along with all his other notable achievements, did not stop him becoming the first Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge – when the Cavendish Laboratory was first opened – in 1871.

Somehow, in the intervening century and a half, scientific culture has become much more narrow-minded, putting us into boxes unless we fight hard. This is the problem for researchers attempting to break down disciplinary boundaries. The interface between physics and biology is one which has become much more blurred; for those of us working at that interface the work is fascinating, intriguing and infinitely worthwhile, and comes in many different flavours. But some of our colleagues seem stuck in a time-warp and, inevitably, that message may rub off on those they teach. I look forward to the world of physics in this country (other countries do rather better as far as I can tell) losing its hang-ups about pure versus applied, what is ‘proper’ physics, and what is not. I hope many members of the Institute of Physics read Pietro’s editorial and consider their positions.

 

 

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2 Responses to ‘Pure’ versus ‘Applied’ Science

  1. Andy Cooper says:

    Great post – I see an exactly parallel discussion in Chemistry, with comments about what is / isn’t “real” organic chemistry, polymer chemistry, catalysis, or whatever, being quite common. Usually this is unhelpful, and there is plenty of research out there that is ‘purely’ tedious (!) I think this is slightly generational, though. I see a parallel issue, at least in the UK, where some younger scientists feel that their work needs to have a near-term practical application to be valued, or at least to address a societal issue in a direct way. To many younger scientists, interdisciplinarity has become a more quotidian notion that equates to potential fundability. This has been reinforced by research evaluation processes and (sometimes) institutional messaging. To me, this is not all bad — it does help to balance out the ‘purity’ narrative — but there is also some risk that it promotes a ‘middle-for-diddle’ and overly strategic career strategy for a generation of scientists. Far better, I think, would be a system where both high quality fundamental work *and* applied work is respected and rewarded. I also feel it’s a false dichotomy. Much fundamental science has come out of observations in more applied work, and the reverse is obviously true, and well documented. Many pivotal advances were completely abstract, at least initially. An example that nicely ridicules discipline purity is Applied Mathematics, a.k.a. Impossibly Hard Mathematics to many Chemists … We should focus on the quality and likely importance of the work, more than it’s ‘flavour’: notions of discipline purity just hold us back.

  2. Simon Leather says:

    I was once introduced to some visitors by my Head of Department, as “This is Simon, he is an ecologist, albeit an applied one”

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