World's Fair

One of the first ever humour pieces that the Science Creative Quarterly published is resurfacing today, and it’s also one of my favourite (if only because it contains the phrase, “accelerating two rats to relativistic velocity.”)

There is the common perceived consensus is that there is “physics envy” among those in the life sciences, whereby, we biology types secretly wish we could be physicists:

Physicists often state their belief that all biologists would rather be physicists, but became biologists only because they were not very good at math. As evidence for this, they point to such findings as the fact that the vast majority of published studies in virology, cell biology, endocrinology, and even microbiology, use few if any partial differential equations or elements of number theory, and only one paper written by a biologist in the past 25 years (in the field of neurophysiology) has ever used tensor calculus.

But this piece proposes a different reality. That, in truth, it is the other way round – that, in fact, physicists, deep down, wish they could all be biologists. And that they had ultimately failed their true calling because of the simple “assertion that physicists have trouble keeping things alive.

Anyway, judge for yourself. Read, “Physics Envy Among Biologists: Fact or Fiction?

And while we’re at it, maybe I can start a small scientist specific meme with the following questions:

1. What’s your current scientific specialty?

2. Were you originally pursuing a different academic course? If so, what was it?

3. Do you happen to wish you were involved in another scientific field? If so, what one?


  1. #1 David Ng
    July 9, 2007

    I’ll start:

    1. Currently, I’d say I’m heavily involved in science communication. If the question asked for expertise, then I would also include molecular biology.

    2. I trained as an immunologist – more at the biochem side rather than the tissue culture side. This more or less involves a good handle of molecular stuff (particularly with proteins), so I wouldn’t say it’s a “different” academic course exactly.

    3. You know, last year when I worked on the MacGyver PCR machine, I thought it was really cool that there are these folks who could just “make” stuff. I guess, maybe I’m a bit envious of the folks who do things like engineering physics? Plus, always wanted to work with dinosaurs when I was younger – still sort of do…

  2. #2 Travis
    July 9, 2007

    I don’t know if I am a good person to add to this as I’m still a grad student but I will give it a shot.
    1. I’m currently working in high energy particle physics on the ATLAS experiment at CERN.
    2. I did undergraduate degrees in Computer Science and Physics. I knew I wanted to work in physics from the start of university but before this I was also thinking of just pursuing computer science. I also wasn’t sure I wanted to do HEP as I was also interested in astronomy and cosmology.
    3. I would probably still be in physics, probably in the fields mentioned above. Astronomy and cosmology are intertwined with particle physics so I find them both very fascinating.

  3. #3 Martin R
    July 9, 2007

    Here’s my reply. I basically just want the physicists’ money.

  4. #4 Kaija
    July 9, 2007

    Interesting questions…for the record, I’m still a grad student also, but I worked “in the real world” between MS and commencing the PhD program.
    1. I am currently studying biophysics, specifically intracellular single molecule interactions.
    2. My BS and MS is in mechanical engineering. I liked the applied math and physics, but didn’t want to end up working for the Big 3 automakers or having my job offshored.
    3. I like applied science, as in biophysics aimed at biomedical applications, but that’s the engineer in me that wants to do stuff knowing that it will get used somewhere to make a difference. Pure math/pure science/pure physics is intellectually interesting to me, but I guess it’s the end use that gets me really excited!

  5. #5 steve
    July 9, 2007

    I am a physicist, and I’ve never known anyone to make the claim that “biologists wish to be physicists.” However, physicists routinely have experiments with 10 or more sigma confidence. If there is any reason for the life sciences to envy physics, it is probably that.

    1. physicist, just graduated with my Ph.D.
    2. nope; always physics.
    3. I’m happy where I am, but I wish I had learned a little more computer science.

  6. #6 Blader
    July 9, 2007

    1. I’m employed as a scientific visionary, one who earned a PhD in molecular pharmacology.

    2. My initial interests, from a very early age, were in the population dynamics of wild rodents and their predators, but I switched disciplines (from a major in Fisheries and Wildlife) midway through college on the advice, taken late one evening in a college town coffee house, from an attractive blonde with whom I was seeking copulatory pleasures, saying that, “there are no jobs in that field.”

    Our relationship sputtered without consummation shortly afterwards. My subsequent route to pharmacology was largely precipitated by performing self-directed study of mescaline derivatives in their natural forms.

    3. Had the internets been invented by the time I was doing my mescaline experiments, I probably would have instead just read about how the drugs work, “saved a few years” of my life at a critical developmental juncture, and I would have also probably have gone into investment banking with a specialty in the semiconductor sector. There, I would have probably just made science a hobby, rather than a vocation. You know, become like the kind of multi-kazzilionaire who owns a mansion on his personal Caribbean island, complete with his personal electron microscope housed in the basement.

  7. #7 matt
    July 9, 2007

    I must admit to falling into the not-good-enough-at-math category. I took both physics and neuroscience first semester at college, and the level of math in the physics course was pretty much enough to make up my mind. On the other hand, the reaction I get when I tell people I’m a neuroscientist (or developmental neurobiologist) has got to be nearly as good as saying astrophysicist, and that’s what counts, right? Intellectual intimidation?

  8. #8 Brian Gilbert
    July 9, 2007

    1. I’m a physical chemist. My specialty is surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy.

    2. I began college as a German major, but quickly decided that I was more interested in science. I enrolled in chemistry, calculus and physics, and ultimately became a chemistry major. Summer jobs (an assay lab at a gold mine, a internship at Bayer Leverkusen) and undergraduate research ultimately led me to an interest in molecular spectroscopy. Ok, I just like playing with lasers.

    3. No. I’m quite happy, and am at a point where I can start to pick up other ideas that interst me. I’m even starting to dabble in molecular biology through a collaboration with a colleague.

  9. #9 jtdub
    July 9, 2007

    That sounds awfully similar to Mouse Elasticity And Kinetic Rebound In High-Acceleration Collisions from here.

    Perhaps physicists have humor envy. Or at least satire envy.

  10. #10 Heather
    July 9, 2007

    1. I’m not a scientist, just like learning about stuff.
    2. Previously a well-trained classical musician.
    3. Wish wholeheartedly that I’d had access to better science and math education before college-of any sort. A little more confidence/training and I’d be a physicist with biologist envy today.

  11. #11 Timon
    July 10, 2007

    1. I guess I’d describe my field as molecular biology of cancer (graduate student as well).
    2. I’ve generally stayed true to biology, though I must confess that in almost every instance where I’ve had free reign to choose my courses, I’ve gravitated towards the arts (literature, religious studies, Italian film studies [don't ask]).
    3. While I wouldn’t want to change my focus, I am consistently blown away by the math and physics types I meet. It seems there’s a chance for elegance in that area that might not be possible in biology’s writhing mess of cells and sundry.

  12. #12 Renee
    July 10, 2007

    1.I’m studying experimental physics at the undergraduate level.

    2.I started my degree in neuroscience but that didn’t quite pan out.

    3.Sometimes I wish I was in an engineering discipline only because of the job security.

  13. #13 Jonathan Badger
    July 10, 2007

    Well, it *is* pretty clear that many physicists seem to want to be biologists these days — they are leaving physics by the droves to become bioinformaticians and systems biologists. But I’m not sure that’s due to any envy except maybe grant envy — it’s a lot easier to get a grant studying something that’s hot like systems biology than in most branches of physics.

    Biologists wanting to be physicists? Not since the 1950s.

    Anyway, for the questions:
    1) I’m an evolutionary microbial genomicist at a research institute (JCVI)
    2) While my undergraduate and doctoral training was in microbiology, I did a postdoc in a Computer Science department (bioinformatics, particularly algorithms for inferring phylogeny).
    3) While I studied a lot of calculus as an undergrad, I wish I knew more discrete math/graph theory. And more statistics wouldn’t hurt either. But I’d use these tools to do basically the same science I do now — I just wouldn’t have to rely so much on collaborators.

  14. #14 fireweaver
    July 10, 2007

    1. i’m a lab animal veterinarian

    2. when i was a kiddo, my master plan involved being a horse vet. **worlds** apart, trust me. and while i now have the exciting risk of picking up various hot zone stuff in the biohazard suite, i’ll never worry about taking a hoof to the face.

    3. no, i really love what i’m doing. and basically, i get to be tangentially involved in pretty much everyone’s research, since i oversee animal care for many many different projects. and yes, Matt, it’s all about intellectual intimidation…but as a vet, people think you’re both crazy smart *and* cuddly. fun times!

  15. #15 Renee
    July 10, 2007

    1. What’s your current scientific specialty?
    Behavior, drawing from all techniques (neurobiology, ecology, psychology, neuroscience, molecular, etc.)

    2. Were you originally pursuing a different academic course? No

    3. Do you happen to wish you were involved in another scientific field? If so, what one?
    I don’t want to be in another field, but I do have physics envy. I feel that if I had a better grasp of physics, math, and especially computer science I could be a much better biologist. I think part of this is that I dislike being limited in the techniques and discipline I use to solve a problem, and this is one of my weak areas.

  16. #16 Saif Ahmed
    July 10, 2007

    I was intersted in finance and computer science and decided to pursue a computer science degree. This was a blessing because I was able to pick up finance easily (whereas learning CS requires a fair amount of work and many years.) My CS background provided the tools to solve problems only about 5% of finance professionals can solve. Add in diff-eq’s and i have an advantage over almost 99.9% of finance professionals.

  17. #17 kate
    July 11, 2007

    1. Generally, neuroscience; specifically, behavioral neuroendocrinology.
    2. No, to be honest I kinda fell into grad school. I loved academia too much to leave it, so I went straight in from undergrad. And only at one point did I have a mini-crisis b/c I didn’t have a backup plan. But I was a psychology major and needed something more concrete and quantitative, so I turned to neuroscience post-bacc.
    3. Absolutely not. The interaction between hormones and behavior is one of the most fascinating and complex areas to immerse yourself in. And you can study it at multiple levels – molecular, cellular, electrophysiological, behavioral. For me, it can’t get more dynamic than that.

  18. #18 "Joe"
    July 12, 2007

    1. Retired high school Physics Teacher

    2. I started out in Chemistry, and was convinced by a friend (after flunking out) that Physics would be more fun.(He was right)

    3. I found that my career was the most fun I could have.I loved going to work. I loved coming home. What could be better?

  19. #19 Alexander Repiev
    November 20, 2010

    Perhaps this might be of interest:
    “’Physics envy’ – physics abysmally misconstrued!” –

  20. #20 Ryan Thurman
    August 26, 2014

    1. Molecular Cell Biology / Biochemistry (graduate student). Undergraduate major was in biology.
    2. Since the beginning of college, I have always wanted to be a molecular biologist. Perhaps it was due to my fascination with synthetic biology, and I thought understanding the basis of life forms would allow a greater degree of control. As I was exposed to more research ideas and knowledge, I became more frustrated with the lack of prediction in biological systems. As a result, I became more interested in physical/chemical aspect of biology, where there is greater degree of precision that can be obtained in experiments.
    3. I have to confess that as a biologist, I envy physicists. I grew up knowing that I wasn’t very exceptional in physics. Strangely, I was better at pure mathematics than I was at physics (I hear usually it’s the other way around). To me, it’s fascinating that some physicists are able to predict how the world functions using only pen and paper (okay, maybe add in some laser and fancy machines too). I am quite amazed by those with very exceptional quantitative skills. I do enjoy biological research quite a lot. My personal experience is that to be good at biology, one needs a resilient spirit that can withstand repetition of many tedious work.