What’s the difference?

I realized recently that, over the last few weeks, I got completely obsessed with hung up on the question what the difference is between physics and biology (and why the type of scientist that will pursue one vs. the other differs, apparently).

This is all I could come up with initially (and yes, I realize how daft the different points are):

  1. While both physicists and biologists study what things are made of and how they work, physicists go for non-living matter and biologists for… well, squishy things. Duh.
  2. Different to physicists, biologists can study their objects with their hands. Wrong – you need a few additional tools for microbiology, cell biology, etc.
  3. Biology is, overall, more descriptive than physics. Wrong – astrophysics is at least as much of a descriptive discipline as, for example, ecology. With the latter, you even have the option of following up observations with field experiments – while in the former, you can’t cause a black hole to collapse to see what happens…

Then it occurred to me: physicists like to shoot things, biologists go for the kill.

To determine the nature of things, physicists shoot them – or rather, shoot at them. With big things. In fact, the bigger the instrument, the more information is to be gained – synchrotrons are really old news, the shiny new toy in the physicists’ box of tricks are x-ray free electron lasers. They’re building one in Japan and one in California, but the European XFEL we’re building is going to be the best of all of them. The facility will be 3.4 km long and tunneling underneath Hamburg – show me the experimental setup in biology that can beat that, size-wise.

Biologists, on the other hand, kill things to understand them. Organisms are collected and dissected; formalin, ethanol, or other pickling ingredients are poured on them, or they are frozen in liquid nitrogen. Sometimes, they are kept alive for a little while to conduct experiments on them – but they still die an unnatural, usually premature death eventually.

So how can it be that biology is supposed to be the ‘squishy’ discipline, considering the heartless killers we are?

I sat through an award lecture at the DESY the other week, and really didn’t understand much. But something struck me.

Figure 2 here – don’t ask me any questions about it

And this:

Brain coral close-up. By Alex Mustard, with permission

I rest my case.

This post was first published on Nature Network, which has since been discontinued. The post has been moved to SciLogs.

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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11 Responses to What’s the difference?

  1. steffi suhr says:

    Some days those numbered lists work and others they don’t, right? I swear they were fine.

  2. Alexander Knoll says:

    Well, with the GAS (giant animal smasher, also known as squirrel smasher), biologists now also have the chance to use large machinery to shoot things around. 😉
    This can get a bit messy, though, as you can see in this classic from Nearing Zero.

  3. steffi suhr says:

    Heh – thanks for those links, Alexander! Of course, there’s (increasing) overlap and collaboration.

  4. Mike Fowler says:

    Cool images. A lot of ecologists don’t like need to kill the things they’re interested in.
    Population dynamics (which can also create nice fractals and spatially self-organised patterns with models) is concerned with squishy stuff that’s been counted, then trying to explain the spatio-temporal patterns of the counted stuff.

    Redecorating? How about some bright new curtains?[1]
    Host-parasitoid models are particularly fun for generating spatio-temporal patterns. Above, Host patches are linked by ‘small world’ dispersal. Not regular, not random, somewhere in between. The parasitoids don’t disperse. Initially synchronised population fluctuations (at the bottom of the panels) lose synchrony over time (moving up the panels) due to the interaction between the irregular dispersal pattern and density dependent feedback.
    I basically get to write code to generate pretty patterns in my day job. Fun, eh?
    More details available here Ranta et al (2008), Proc. Roy. Soc. Lond. – B 275: 1775-1783

  5. Sara Fletcher says:

    The thing with synchrotrons and XFELs is that even though they are designed and built by physicists, they are used by an increasing number of biologists – at Diamond Light Source for example about 40% of research is in life sciences. FLASH at Desy has already been used to look at pico plankton – essentially by firing very powerful X-ray beams at it and managing to image it in the split second before it explodes…

  6. steffi suhr says:

    @Sara: FLASH at Desy has already been used to look at pico plankton – essentially by firing very powerful X-ray beams at it and managing to image it in the split second before it explode
    It’s a wonderful combination of both shooting and killing, isn’t it? I have to admit that I am just learning how important different light sources really are for the life sciences.
    @Mike: I hope your wife picked the curtains for your place…

  7. Sara Fletcher says:

    @Steffi: I have to admit that I am just learning how important different light sources really are for the life sciences.
    I do suspect that the life scientists that use synchrotrons are coming from similar backgrounds – the vast majority of life scientists that come to Diamond use the protein crystallography beamlines.

  8. Mike Fowler says:

    Synchrotron sounds like an attachment that Henry might use, for one of his many organs.

  9. Richard Wintle says:

    Let’s not forget that certain biologists like to shoot things too.
    Poor, poor nematodes.

  10. steffi suhr says:

    I am kind of freaked out by conditional lethal system, Richard.

  11. steffi suhr says:

    Sara, sorry – I have to add a link for FLASH, after all it’s the proof-of-concept for our faciltiy.

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