Friday, December 19, 2014

A Theoretical Physicist’s Journey into Biology

Many physicists have shifted their research to biology, but rarely do we learn how they make this transition or, more importantly, why. But the recent article “A theoretical physicist’s journey into biology: From quarks and strings to cells and whales” by Geoffrey West (Physical Biology, Volume 11, Article number 053013, 2014) lets us see what is involved when changing fields and the motivation for doing it. Readers of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology will remember West from Chapter 2, where Russ Hobbie and I discuss his work on Kleber’s law. West writes
“Biology will almost certainly be the predominant science of the twenty-first century but, for it to become successfully so, it will need to embrace some of the quantitative, analytic, predictive culture that has made physics so successful. This includes the search for underlying principles, systemic thinking at all scales, the development of coarse-grained models, and closer ongoing collaboration between theorists and experimentalists. This article presents a personal, slightly provocative, perspective of a theoretical physicist working in close collaboration with biologists at the interface between the physical and biological sciences.”
West describes his own path to biology, which included reading some classic texts such as D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form. He learned biology during intense free-for-all discussions with his collaborator James Brown and Brown’s student Brian Enquist.
“The collaboration, begun in 1995, has been enormously productive, extraordinarily exciting and tremendous fun. But, like all excellent and fulfilling relationships, it has also been a huge challenge, sometimes frustrating and sometimes maddening. Jim, Brian and I met every Friday beginning around 9:00 am and finishing around 3:00 pm with only short breaks for necessities. This was a huge commitment since we both ran large groups elsewhere. Once the ice was broken and some of the cultural barriers crossed, we created a refreshingly open atmosphere where all questions and comments, no matter how ‘elementary’, speculative or ‘stupid’, were encouraged, welcomed and treated with respect. There were lots of arguments, speculations and explanations, struggles with big questions and small details, lots of blind alleys and an occasional aha moment, all against a backdrop of a board covered with equations and hand-drawn graphs and illustrations. Jim and Brian generously and patiently acted as my biology tutors, exposing me to the conceptual world of natural selection, evolution and adaptation, fitness, physiology and anatomy, all of which were embarrassingly foreign to me. Like many physicists, however, I was horrified to learn that there were serious scientists who put Darwin on a pedestal above Newton and Einstein.”
West’s story reminds me of the collaboration between physicist Joe Redish and biologist Todd Cook that I discussed previously in this blog, or Jane Kondev’s transition from basic physics to biological physics when an Assistant Professor at Brandeis (an awkward time in your career to make such a dramatic change).

I made my own shift from physics to biology much earlier in my career--in graduate school. Changing fields is not such a big deal when you are young, but I think all of us who make this transition have to cross that cultural barrier and make that huge commitment to learning a new field. I remember spending much of my first summer at Vanderbilt University reading papers by Hodgkin, Huxley, Rushton, and others, slowly learning how nerves work. Certainly my years at the National Institutes of Health provided a liberal education in biology.

I will give West the last word. He concludes by writing
“Many of us recognize that there is a cultural divide between biology and physics, sometimes even extending to what constitutes a scientific explanation as encapsulated, for example, in the hegemony of statistical regression analyses in biology versus quantitative mechanistic explanations characteristic of physics. Nevertheless, we are witnessing an enormously exciting period as the two fields become more closely integrated, leading to new inter-disciplinary sub-fields such as biological physics and systems biology. The time seems right for revisiting D’Arcy Thompson’s challenge: ‘How far even then mathematics will suffice to describe, and physics to explain, the fabric of the body, no man can foresee. It may be that all the laws of energy, and all the properties of matter, all…..chemistry…. are as powerless to explain the body as they are impotent to comprehend the soul. For my part, I think it is not so’. Many would agree with the spirit of this remark, though new tools and concepts including closer collaboration may well be needed to accomplish his lofty goal.”

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