Envy? Hardly.

Dave at the World's Fair is trying to start a "meme" based on a Science Creative Quarterly piece about physics envy among biologists and vice versa. He's asking other science bloggers whether there's another field that they wish they were working in.

While I have occasionally joked that if I had it to do over, I would become a biologist studying coral reefs, so I could justify spending my sabbaticals snorkeling in the tropics, I'm really very happy doing what I do (at least when things work). I enjoy experimental work, I like the fact that my lab is fairly self-contained, and I think AMO physics is a great area to be in because it offers connections to a huge range of phenomena, and clean, clear results. I'm jealous of the funding levels for some other fields, but I'm not envious of anybody else's science.

I'm particularly not envious of biology, in which every result seems to be messy and contingent. Everything has a hundred confounding factors, and all the results seem to be statistical. Clean and unambiguous results are rare, and that would drive me absolutely crazy. They're one small step removed from social science.

There is one thing I envy about biology, though, and that's their reputation as the friendly, approachable science. Which, as far as I'm concerned, is mostly undeserved.

One of the maddening things about teaching first-year students is how many of them come into physics classes already convinced that physics is difficult and arcane and they're not going to be able to handle it. This is before taking a single physics class in college, mind.

But half of these students will cheerfully announce that they intend to be pre-meds. Physics is scary, but biology is cuddly and approachable.

And yet, some of the absolute worst talks I have ever heard have come from biologists-- loaded with jargon, devoid of motivation, without the slightest attempt to connect with an audience beyond their immediate field. Synthetic chemistry is worse, but it takes some doing to beat out molecular biology talks in the area of incomprehensible gibberish. A lot of the bio blogging here and elsewhere is the same way-- it's no more comprehensible to the laity than Jacque Distler's TeX-enabled string theory blogging.

And yet, students flock to it, which I find baffling on some level. I think the difference is that physics is known to be highly mathematical, and Math is Hard. In biology, on the other hand, the difficult bits are all about vocabulary, and anybody can learn jargon. It's a lot easier to learn to throw around big words and make people think that you know what you're talking about than it is to learn to manipulate equations.

So, if there's anything I envy in another science, it's the way entering students see biology as something approachable and within their ability to understand. I think we lose a lot of good students from physics because they show up to the first day of class convinced that they're going to struggle, and at the first sign of difficulty they just throw up their hands, and run for the life sciences. If they came in with a better attitude, they'd have a better experience, and I wouldn't have to listen to people tell me about how much they hated physics all the goddamn time.


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I'm not actually as hostile to biology as this sounds, but honestly, how can you have an "envy meme" without a little brick-throwing? Reading one post after another in which people talk about how much respect they have for other sciences is boring.

Conflict, people. We need conflict.

I think that the enviers are compressing a standard (at least century-old) Reductionist argument.

Sociology, the notion is, is reducible to Psychology, Psychology to Biology, Biology to Chemistry, Chemistry to Physics.

Of course, this is nonsense. WHY it is nonsense depends on your metaphysical stance, the extent to which you believe that Nonlinear Science and Network Theory play a role, the extent to which the computer is seen as a unifying medium, and many other factors.

All of these sciences have been through paradigm-changing revolutions since the "hierarchy" was described.

Is Physics reducible to Mathematics? Ask the Loop Quanum Gravity people, or the String Theory people. But that's a whole other kettle of fish. Which are Biology...

Your freshman flock towards biology/pre-med because being a doctor, or doing biological research, is easy to understand. The goals are easy for laymen to appreciate. You fix people up. You grow things in petri dishes and splice genes. Save the world!

But they generally have no idea what a physicist is trying to do. Atomic bombs are cool, but that's done. Can you explain to a general freshman audience why trapping ions is really practical and relevant? *And make them care enough to want to do it?* Atomic clocks? Quantum computing? Whatever, dork. It takes a few years of indoctrination for the young physicist to appreciate that.

Its about 1000 times worse for a pure mathematician. I'm a chemist-turned-physicist with a detour through pure math.

By Upstate NY (not verified) on 10 Jul 2007 #permalink

Maybe you're not envious, but your resentment and hate come off even worse.

I realize you're responding to others, but the original article was obviously satirical.

Have you ever imagined for a second in your "superior" physics/math brain that people might just enjoy doing biology?

Research is driven by questions, and some people are drawn to asking questions about how life works.

If everyone chose biology out of default, as you suggest, there wouldn't be very many good biologists.

If you don't think biological research has contributed anything except for messy, unapproachable science, then go solve a differential equation the next time you get sick.

It should also be noted that in my experience (admittedly limited to a couple of semesters as far as college physics is concerned) that biology at least tends to approach things people run into on a regular basis in a manner closer to "practical" than physics does. I can set up a fish-tank "ecosystem" at home just like the ones discussed in class and used in the lab. On the other hand, I still can't seem to find a Carnot Engine on E-Bay anywhere (Maybe those Steorn guys have one in their warehouse, next to the bottles of "positive test charges" and "holes".)
It's frankly off-putting to spend an hour in a lab with a bizarrely contrived contraption and a gaggle of math-puzzles to prove that something will fall when I let go of it. Or clicking on fake, idealized "electrical circuits" that do nothing in a cheesy computer simulation.
On the experimental side - I can do useful biology experiments with a tiny budget, kitchen implements, and a trip to the grocery store if I have to and still have a reasonable chance of picking up new and interesting data. It seems like this isn't really possible in physics without grotesquely expensive, specialized, and delicate equipment - unless you're just playing "math puzzles". Either way, it usually seems like the new discoveries are extremely philosophical in nature. ("Hey, if we use THIS set of math formulae, we can kind of infer maybe sort of what might have existed before the Horrendous Space Kablooey!", for example, or the occasional "teleporting photons" story.).
Not that I'm unappreciative of people who are willing to work in that kind of atmosphere - some extremely useful technology comes out of this work eventually. I personally don't like the idea of working that far away from the practical applications of the research though. I suspect this is true of a lot of people who stay out of physics.
As an aside - I'm slowly coming to the opinion that "pre-med" and "biology" (as a science) shouldn't really be considered the same thing. What I've seen of the medicine that pre-meds learn doesn't look like science to me so much as "technology". Not that this is bad - under normal circumstances, I generally prefer that on the rare occasion that I need medical attention that they stick to procedures that are well-tested and well-practiced, even if they aren't exactly cutting-edge (a lot of the microbiology taught to med students seems to be left over from the Victorian era - Gram stain: 1884 - ...but if it tells them which antibiotic is likely to clear up my sore throat, so be it.)
Finally - yes, the jargon can be annoying - but this is true if you walk into ANY field's classroom. (How many different meanings do physicists have for "reversible" [thermodynamics: "there is no such thing as a reversible process". Optics: "yes there is."]? Or "resonance"? Up Quark? Strange Quark? Pineapple-upside-down quark?...) Doubly so if you have learned one field's jargon well and end up listening to someone in a different field who uses the same word differently. I think that's just the nature of the speciation of modern scientific disciplines.
If it's any consolation, the "meta- -ome" thing annoys me, too.

premed != biologist

Premeds HATE biology once they realize that huge swaths of what they have to learn doesn't apply to biology. At our college, massive numbers of pre-meds dropped biology in favor of a health science degree once they figured that out.

It's too bad, really, because a lot of doctors I know could use a less human-centric view of the world.

If the only difficulty in biology is jargon and anyone can learn it, we are anxiously expecting your groundbreaking contributions to evolutionary biology and neurophysiology. It's just about throwing out a bunch of words, right? Right?

Why so many premed majors???


Seems like there are a few people hating on Chad because they missed the point. While there are quite a few physicists that are arrogant enough to think that the "soft sciences" like biology are easy, in my experience most are pretty respectful of other fields. But ask your average non-scientist(including all college freshmen, essentially) and they will tend to think that physics is intrinsically too hard and remote for any actual, well-adjusted human being to do. So budding scientists often go into a field like biology that they expect is more accessible. That attitude(among NON-SCIENTISTS) is what Chad seems to be lamenting(and parodying).

As another comment, it does seem kind of absurd to lump pre-meds and biologists together. That's like classifying lawyers with philosophers; sure, they both often engage in and work on verbal argumentation but the differences couldn't be more profound. There's also the obvious way in which money drives many people into one field but not the other.

Hey, I'm happy to admit my mathematical abilities, while they got me through my pre-med requirements (including calc. and gen. physics) with a B or better average, are not up to the task of completing even an undergraduate physics major very well. With hard work I maybe could have gotten through it, but I would've been pretty miserable. Frightened even. More so than was usual, anyway. Orgo. was sporadically very interesting, but the fumes made me dizzy, and memorizing all the synthesis and nomenclature stuff often bored me to tears, I'm afraid. Bio. always fascinated me, and while I was studying for the MCATs after graduating, and working in a top-flight molbio lab, I caught the research bug, and the rest was history. I think physics is the coolest, and I sometimes wish I had the chops, but I'm hardly morose over being a mere bio researcher, and I'm very sastisfied with my job. I don't quite get the "envy" for any discipline. Nor the rivalry, except I think really bright people who wind up doing physics could maybe be happy applying their wits to biological problems, and come away thinking that while often not highly mathematical, biological science still can be quite challenging and rewarding.

I kind of take exception to the notion that it's a bunch of poorly-motivated claptrap that one could fake their way through with a good command of the jargon. There's jargon aplenty in every field, and likely the reason it seems opaque to you vs. your field of physics is because it's not your field of physics. Hell, a virologist can barely talk to a neurobiologist as it is, much less a physicist with obviously little interest in the life sciences. It's a sad symptom of the fact that there's a terribly enormous diversity of things to know out there, and one human brain can only hold so much. That, and one can only provide so much background to a talk aimed at other researchers before they simultaneously bore their audience into slumber and use up their allotted time before even their first slide of actual new data. I trust this is true of any science field, and simply no reason to single out a particular one for criticism.

Math IS hard, for many people. To those who have mathematical gifts, I'm sure it's difficult to understand why others are intimidated by it. I've noticed a few things over the years, though, which, while baffling to me, are nonetheless almost certainly true: There are people out there who can otherwise think very creatively and logically, but who lack a high degree of mathematical acumen, and people who are practically human computers but who can't reason their way out of a paper bag. IMHO, the best of the best have all the logic, creativity, synthetic skill, and sheer mathematical talent to be the best of the best of scientists, and they generally seek to become top-flight physicists. Those with all those talents except maybe the über-math skills might end up doing well in biology. But there's still a lot of logic that must go in, and perhaps even a greater need to use a kind of pattern-recognizing intuition to synthesize well. The amount of fairly discrete data out there needed to thoroughly understand even a single biochemical pathway are truly astonishing once one delves into it seriously. Keeping it all straight is no mean feat at times, and those who can't get eaten alive when under the cruel scrutiny of their peers. It's a lot more than a command of jargon that's required.

So you're right that bio maybe gets too much credit for being "easy", but I think you have to acknowledge that individuals posessing both the mathematical gifts as well as the reasoning abilities required to be truly successful physicists are probably quite rare. Give yourself more credit, for one thing, and maybe get away from harping too much on the bad reputation you think physics must have to drive people away. Those primarily concerned about the plumage and the bucks go into medicine (I suppose a precious few actually like healing people, as well). Those who like science tend to gravitate toward what they can do best, and they've often had grueling and stressful years of secondary and weeder-level undergraduate schooling to figure that out already before they declare a major.

By Low Math, Meek… (not verified) on 11 Jul 2007 #permalink

#12 Low Math, Meekly Interacting: "Math IS hard, for many people. To those who have mathematical gifts, I'm sure it's difficult to understand why others are intimidated by it."

Having been an Adjunct Professor of Astronomy at one college and math at a different university, both alleged subjects of envy or anxiety, I am this summer a high school teacher of Math whose students express their hatred of the subject (scroll down):
Why Math Teachers Get Grumpy
"I hate math because it make's you think too much and it hurts my brain..."
"... Math is the worst subject Invented. Its so hard and intricate...."

Yet this Fall I am expected to teach in the "Health Careers Academy" -- a school within the school, with its own grant and specialized medical-care-related faculty. I'm to teach Chemistry, Earth Sciences, and Biotechnology. I also publish in Mathematical Biology. My membership in the arXiv has the default category of "molecular networks." So where's the alleged barrier between the Physics/Math and the biomedical? Imaginary, and I don't mean the square root of minus one.

Only Barbie dolls say "Math is hard. Let's go shopping."

And the G.I. Joe dolls whose chips were swapped with Barbie doll chips, in that memorable conceptual/guerilla art project.