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):
- 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.
- Different to physicists, biologists can study their objects with their hands. Wrong – you need a few additional tools for microbiology, cell biology, etc.
- 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 rest my case.
This post was first published on Nature Network, which has since been discontinued. The post has been moved to SciLogs.