Pharyngula

Of Books in Neurobiology

Over the last few weeks, we the Neuro class have finished our last book and we began Time, Love, Memory by Jonathan Weiner. The theme of this book is experiments on behavior on fruit flies, drosophila.

I’m beginning to see why fruit flies would be such a good choice. They are low maintainance and are offer much more statistic data potential. T. H. Morgan was known for his early work on fruit flies. From my understanding, he’s the first one to use them as a model species. Seems much more economical than the classic mice or dogs.

I also find it pretty cool that Seymour Benzer, a pioneer in molecular biology, was previously a physicist who helped develop the transistor. After working on the transistor, he became a biologist. It seems like quite a shift. Since the 40s/50s, has there been a change in the ability of people to change fields at such an advanced level? If we turn the clock back to the 1600s, the time of our previous book: Soul Made Flesh, there was much more of an interplay between fields. I guess all sciences are united by the Scientific Method, but it does seem like kindof a jump.

Comments

  1. #1 Buddenbrook
    November 2, 2007

    Have Christof Koch’s and late Francis Crick’s ‘Neuronal correlates of Consciousness’ caught on in the field? Koch’s book The Quest for Consciousness I thought was fascinating.

  2. #2 Sili
    November 2, 2007

    I vaguely recall from my scattered reading of Genius that Feynman took a year off and worked in a molecular biology lab, more or less for the hell of it. He even made a discovery, even though he didn’t get it published first. Something about two consecutive single-point mutations cancelling eachother out? – this before the deciphering of the genetic code.

    The late, great Larry Trask had a B.Sc. in chemistry before turning to linguistics. The same goes for Thatcher, though she went for law instead (interestingly that first education helped convince her of the correctness of the chemistry behind ozone depletion and her subsequent support of the Montreal protocol – if only more politician were more than just politicians).

    But all of those are pretty much contemporary with your example. I still think it happens, though. The people in question just haven’t risen to prominence yet.

  3. #3 sailor
    November 2, 2007

    In some senses it was easier in the 1600s because we knew so much less. Nowadays fields are quite specialized, so at the very least switching fields is a lot of learning (back then I suspect it was more thinking). I seem to remember some story about furit flies being chosen because they couldn’t find funding for mice, or was it monkeys?

  4. #4 Waterdog
    November 2, 2007

    The 17th and 18th centuries (and to a lesser extent, the 19th century) were the age of polymaths. Nowadays, such breadth in one’s training and accomplishments is nigh impossible, simply because of the incredible depth of the myriad fields of scientific study now, it’s difficult to get a strong background in more than perhaps two or three.

    But the search for the mechanisms of inheritance was comprised of a lot of molecular biology, and molecular biologists, when the field was just emerging, were often chemists and physicists. Watson and Crick (and Wilkins) won the Nobel for chemistry, not physiology and medicine.

    The future of science probably lies largely in a more modest sort of polymath. Those who continue to study more than one area, and bring the techniques of one to bear in another: computer scientist biologists who use computing techniques for models of population dynamics, physics-trained scientists and engineers, or mathematicians, who tackle problems in biology, in the broad and loosely-defined area of biophysics, evolutionary biologists who tackle sociological questions via mathematical population models based on an evolutionary perspective, physicist/computer scientists who develop new theories of computing based on quantum mechanics and/or optics.

    The best way to make a mark these days is to straddle at least two worlds, and make some connections. The other option is to specialize in an emerging field with a lot of major unanswered questions still, and possibly even open up a brand new branch of science while you’re at it.

  5. #5 zayzayem
    November 2, 2007

    I think sailor hits the point of the major reason why big cross disciplinary late career shifts don’t occur as often these days.

    It requires a lot of re-specialisation.

  6. #6 cm
    November 2, 2007

    Nowadays, such breadth in one’s training and accomplishments is nigh impossible, simply because of the incredible depth of the myriad fields of scientific study now, it’s difficult to get a strong background in more than perhaps two or three.

    2 or 3? Haw!

  7. #7 Ashutosh
    November 2, 2007

    In recent decades, the question of changing fields in the true sense often does not arise because one is working on the boundary between two fields anyway, two fields like physics and biology that were considered poles apart in the 40s/50s.

  8. #8 Epistaxis
    November 2, 2007

    I guess all sciences are united by the Scientific Method

    I guess, but the “Scientific Method” isn’t really all that unique. Make a guess, find evidence to see if you were right or not, then argue with the community until someone produces even more evidence that overrules yours. The crap they make kids memorize in school (“Formulate a Hypothesis, Design an Experiment, Make an Observation…”) just makes it more confusing and pretentious by giving fancy names to things that should be common sense.

    Incidentally, if you talk to a (modern) physicist and biologist, you’ll probably learn about two very different variants of that basic outline. The main reason biology is mostly done by biologists now is that the body of knowledge (and technique) has grown so vastly. Back in the Enlightenment, when the first things that even qualified as science were getting done, it wasn’t so hard to master all human knowledge because there wasn’t so much to master.

  9. #9 Beth
    November 2, 2007

    I think I remember one of my profs saying that in the 1940’s someone big in physics said that biology, especially molecular and genetics would be the next place to make big discoveries and a bunch of physicists jumped to the other end of the science building. Anyone know what I’m talking about? I barely do.

  10. #10 John
    November 2, 2007

    What is the “scientific method”? Is there actually a method or steps one takes to “do” science?

  11. #11 Ashutosh
    November 2, 2007

    Well, Niels Bohr wrote a book named Light and Life, but it was Erwin Schrodinger’s book (1944) What is Life? that did inspire a couple of physicists to jump into biology. Max Delbruck who worked with Bohr was a major example. I think Francis Crick had also read the book. Then there were relatively minor but important players like Leo Szilard, conceiver of the nuclear chain reaction, who themselves took the lead.

  12. #12 poke
    November 2, 2007

    What is the “scientific method”? Is there actually a method or steps one takes to “do” science?

    No, there’s no method.

  13. #13 Diochs
    November 2, 2007

    Time, Love, Memory is an excellent book. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

  14. #14 Amenhotep
    November 3, 2007

    Unfortunately some bright people (particularly doctors, for instance: see http://questiondarwin.blogspot.com ) seem to think that because they are expert in, say, medicine, they are automatically expert in, say, biology. I think this is why we have so many creationist doctors. Or maybe it’s just that the creationist lobby like to wheel out the medics to impress us.

    Having said that, I don’t think the age of the polymath is dead – they do need to be a bit more “hands off” though. It’s important to read Nature and Science, as well as specialty journals.

  15. #15 Olaf Davis
    November 3, 2007

    It does still happen. My grandfather, the Sachs of Cosmology’s Sachs-Wolfe effect, now does research in computational genomics. It may not have been common for a few centuries, but there are examples today as there were half a century ago.

  16. #16 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    November 3, 2007

    What is the “scientific method”? Is there actually a method or steps one takes to “do” science?

    The term has several connotations.

    It is often used as a description of the overall process that has developed, including such parts as publications and peer review (the market of ideas) and conferences and chats over a cup coffee (a scientific community). As such, it is a description of what we observe to work at a given time.

    Then we have the attempts, often by philosophers, to analyze what makes it work. In addition they may want to identify a special set of characteristics that would identify theories developed by such means. (The demarcation problem.)

    FWIW, I think there is a marked difference between say Linnaeus’ science and Darwin’s. Linnaeus relied on descriptions, in principle he looked at the data and then found an adaptable description for it. And while he came to suspect that there was something funny going on between species (hybrids) AFAIU he didn’t promote it as a challenge.

    Darwin worked from the other end, he found early on a specific set of mechanisms which could then be tested against later data. Anything that couldn’t be explained or remained unexplained was a challenge.

    What characterized the method is such terms as “descriptive”, “no mechanisms”, “no targeted testing”, “challenges avoided as problems”, and the later “predictive”, “theories”, “testing predictions”, “challenges promoted as opportunities”.

    [Personally, I think we, or at least some of us, are still much educated in the old tradition. It took me a long while to stop seeing challenges as problems, and even longer to make statistically conclusive tests on models and mechanisms alternatives.

    Yep, I started out researching in a small and shielded area (a small part of semiconductor material and processing) – any result was a success. 😛 And the shortcomings of that work is my current motivation behind discussing this. Oh, most of the results have remained solid. But it seems to have been more technical skill than an understanding of the larger skill, if you get my drift.]

  17. #17 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    November 3, 2007

    What is the “scientific method”? Is there actually a method or steps one takes to “do” science?

    The term has several connotations.

    It is often used as a description of the overall process that has developed, including such parts as publications and peer review (the market of ideas) and conferences and chats over a cup coffee (a scientific community). As such, it is a description of what we observe to work at a given time.

    Then we have the attempts, often by philosophers, to analyze what makes it work. In addition they may want to identify a special set of characteristics that would identify theories developed by such means. (The demarcation problem.)

    FWIW, I think there is a marked difference between say Linnaeus’ science and Darwin’s. Linnaeus relied on descriptions, in principle he looked at the data and then found an adaptable description for it. And while he came to suspect that there was something funny going on between species (hybrids) AFAIU he didn’t promote it as a challenge.

    Darwin worked from the other end, he found early on a specific set of mechanisms which could then be tested against later data. Anything that couldn’t be explained or remained unexplained was a challenge.

    What characterized the method is such terms as “descriptive”, “no mechanisms”, “no targeted testing”, “challenges avoided as problems”, and the later “predictive”, “theories”, “testing predictions”, “challenges promoted as opportunities”.

    [Personally, I think we, or at least some of us, are still much educated in the old tradition. It took me a long while to stop seeing challenges as problems, and even longer to make statistically conclusive tests on models and mechanisms alternatives.

    Yep, I started out researching in a small and shielded area (a small part of semiconductor material and processing) – any result was a success. 😛 And the shortcomings of that work is my current motivation behind discussing this. Oh, most of the results have remained solid. But it seems to have been more technical skill than an understanding of the larger skill, if you get my drift.]

  18. #18 sailor
    November 3, 2007

    “What is the “scientific method”? Is there actually a method or steps one takes to “do” science?”
    The short answer is to follow the evidence in formulating your ideas about the world and test these ideas by setting up an experiment, which (if the ideas are wrong) will show them to be wrong. This is the essential difference between science and normal and religious thinking, where people just look for for supporting evidence and tend to ignore negative evidence.

  19. #19 David Marjanovi?
    November 3, 2007

    Like all scientific names except species names, Drosophila begins with a capital letter.

    Scientific method… falsification and parsimony. You’re doing science as long as you can answer the question “if I were wrong, how could I know?”.

  20. #20 David Marjanovi?
    November 3, 2007

    Like all scientific names except species names, Drosophila begins with a capital letter.

    Scientific method… falsification and parsimony. You’re doing science as long as you can answer the question “if I were wrong, how could I know?”.

  21. #21 thwaite
    November 3, 2007

    Historians of science now talk a lot about the fundamental shift to ‘professionalization’ from the 1800’s. This interacts with specialization and with the simple gargantuan growth of knowledge, all discouraging to interdisciplinary careers. Some topics – like evolution – are intrinsically interdisciplinary.

    As to whether professionalization fundamentally changes the character of science – can one effectively be a scientist if you haven’t become part of some guild – this is interesting and passionately argued. A taste can be had by perusing the index entries for ‘professionalization’ in Peter Bowler‘s comprehensive EVOLUTION: The History of an Idea (2003 3rd ed’n). As suggested by his subtitle, he doesn’t favor the primarily sociological analysis, but the book includes surveys of the pertinent claims and history.

  22. #22 PhysioProf
    November 3, 2007

    “Anyone know what I’m talking about?”

    Yes. Many physicists shifted to biology in the post-WWII period: Benzer, Sewall Wright, Max Delbruck, Francis Crick, Cyrus Leventhal, Eduardo Macagno, Gunther Stent.

  23. #23 chuko
    November 4, 2007

    Lots of physicists are now doing biology right now, of a sort, anyway. They do tend to go into those aspects of it that their skills and tools could be helpful. Protein folding, medical imaging, mechanical modeling of joints and such, and astrobiology are all biological sciences with physicists doing a large part of the work.

  24. #24 hoary puccoon
    November 4, 2007

    Max Delbruck shifted from physics to biology during WWII. He fled the Third Reich for political and conscientious reasons, and, as an enemy alien in America, could not work in the war effort. (I believe, Luria, Delbruck’s collaborator, was also a physicist barred from doing physics, although as an Italian Jew he should really have been considered a refugee, rather than an enemy alien. It worked out all right for them; they eventually shared a Nobel Prize.)

    We tend not to think of Linus Pauling shifting fields, but he was hugely influential in bringing chemistry and biology together in molecular biology.

  25. #25 Keith Douglas
    November 4, 2007

    Beth: Schrodinger, almost certainly.

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