Theoretical physicist by training but I work on biological problems, in particular regarding microbes and their ecology. I would ultimately like to understand the relationship between the physiology of individual bacterial species and the ecology of whole communities.

I started as a pure theoretician, but after my PhD I switched to also doing experiments so now I can repeatedly bang my head on something different than my laptop.

If I'm not in the lab I'm probably trying out new restaurants, walking my dalmatian Bruno or bingeing some show on Netflix.

@LeoPaccianiMori Is that a common switch? My assumptions of physicists (scientists in general) was always that those 2 types were always born out of the individual's fundamental personality type.

@obi MUCH more common than what you would imagine, at least for the specific case of physicists going into biology. When I was studying physics in college the chasm between theory and experiment was deep and very entrenched in people's mind


@obi and generally speaking it is pretty much unheard of that someone in a "traditional" branch of physics moves from theory to experiment or viceversa

Β· Β· 2 Β· 0 Β· 1

@obi but in the past few decades a lot of physicists have realized that there are A LOT of interesting problems to be studied in biology, and so lots of people are moving there, very often switching from theory to experiment

@obi The situation is very similar to what was happening in quantum mechanics in the 1920s/1930s: lots of data and interesting phenomena that are observed, there's no really unifying theory to describe most of them and people work on both their theory and experiments (or viceversa on their experiments and the theories that explain them)

@LeoPaccianiMori very interesting. Is it because of how long it takes to come up with, and "prove", new ideas, that it seems like a losing endeavor for the majority?

@obi yeah. I mean, in "traditional" physics we are at a point where in order to even keep up with the latest theory you need to spend YEARS studying the mathematical tools needed to handle them, and conversely you need YEARS of experience to be able to build and use the machines needed to verify the theories experimentally (think about the Large Hadron Collider: each upgrade takes years and requires the work of thousands of people with years of experience). In biology this problem simply does not exist. In my case, for example, I had to spend a few months in the lab learning how to do some measurements and then I was able to just pick up and start any experiment I wanted (and experiments take days, a few weeks at worst, instead of years)

@LeoPaccianiMori Is that purely based on the complexity of the physics experiments vs the less complexity of biology experiments then. Physicist would have to dedicate most of their life to one experiment, vs being able to jump right in to a biology experiment? Is that the reason for people such as yourself to switch? It would seem more stressful I guess, to do the former and yield little results, where as the latter you can immediately move on to the next experiment.

@obi I would say partly, yes. Again, take the Large Hadron Collider: it is an increadibly complex machine, and upgrading it requires the coordinated work of thousands of people with very different skillsets (e.g., cryogenic engineers for the parts that keep the magnets at temperatures close to absolute zero, IT engineers that have to build and maintain an infrastructure capable of storing a data flow of hundreds of gb per second). In my case, on the other hand, I just have to take cells out of a freezer/fridge and put them in a test tube (it's a little bit simplified, but this is basically what I do). Maybe I have to repeat the experiments in a few different conditions, but I can simply run the experiments at the same time

@obi One of the big differences, though, is also in the interpretation of data. Again, using the LHC as a comparison, we now have a very good knowledge of the physical model that describes how particles work (the Standard Model), and experiments are basically designed to try to find cracks in the model so that we can go further and discover new things. On the other hand, in biology you very rarely have a "unifying theory" so once you have the data it can be much harder to interpret

@obi And also: if you work with a machine you know exactly how the machine is made and how it works, so you can understand if unexpected features in your data come from problems with the machine or actual new physics. In biology, on the other hand, we simply don't have a full understanding of how cells work, so when you see something unexpected it's much harder to understand if you're indeed seeing something new or you simply didn't know from the beginning how your system works. Does that make sense?

@obi And obviously, there's a lot of variability within both physics and biology. I've used the LHC as an example because it's one of the most widely known experiments, but there are hundreds of other projects out there that, even though maybe not as complex, still require the coordinated work of lots of people and take years to build (see for example the LIGO/VIRGO experiments for graviational waves)

@obi Same in biology: if you work with model organisms like E. coli you have A LOT of literature out there on how the organism works, so you can start from a fairly good understanding of how your system works (even though there is still SO MUCH we don't know). However, if you study other less "mainstream" organisms that becomes more difficult

@obi So to make a long story short:
-"traditional" physics: experiments take very long time to set up, but you have strong theoretical foundations on which you can build (and potentially discover something new)
-biological physics: experiments are MUCH simpler to set up, but the data is also more difficult to interpret unequivocally

@obi Hope this makes sense! I probably got carried away a little bit πŸ˜‚

@LeoPaccianiMori I guess you are studying things in biology fundamentally different than those in physics. You are looking at function, not really absolute origin for the phenomena.

@obi Yes and no. I mean, of course physicists that work in biology have to look at function, but I would say the main difference between a physicist and a biologist working on the same problem is that the biologist will focus on the HOW (e.g., how can this microbe grow on this substrate? What are the molecular mechanisms that allow it to do so?), while the physicist will look at fundamental principles (building on the previous example: why would any microbe want to grow on that substrate in the first place?). Does that make sense?

@LeoPaccianiMori LIGO in my eyes is the most successful experiment of all time. Mainly due to it's nearly instant results. I wonder what the probability is that they were so successful so soon. Probably nearly impossible to calculate.

@obi I agree. And every time I think about the technical challenges that they had to overcome in order to observe gravitational waves it just blows my mind :mind_blown:

@LeoPaccianiMori I actually would think the opposite. Unless physics has come farther than I thought haha

@obi physics has come a long way, but as far as biology goes we still lack a fundamental knowledge of how cells work. If we DID have such a fundamental knowledge, for example, we would be able to create living cells from scratch, but that's simply not the case (yet)

@LeoPaccianiMori I often thought this understanding could lead to the only feasible true space travel. Growing a spacecraft that is. If you could genetically engineer it, it could heal itself, easily protect the occupants from radiation, produce oxygen , and fill up at the nearest star or nebula lol.

@obi If we had that understanding, it probably could (at least potentially). But unfortunately we're not there yet

@LeoPaccianiMori I think there must be parallels in both fields with the fundamentals maybe though? The whys and hows?

@obi Yes, for sure! But in biology we are simply not in the same place as physics. I mean, in physics we have some fundamental theories (e.g., quantum physics, general relativity etc.) that we can use to describe almost every possible phenomenon we observe - and when we don't is when we can discover new physics. In biology this simply does not exist: there is no "theory of everything" in biology (at least yet)

@LeoPaccianiMori I wish I could remember his name, just remember that the Higgs experiment would show a range, and there were 3 different methods being explored that depended on it, and this Italian Physicist spent his whole life on one. I have too much random crap in my head to access this bit of info. Blah.

@obi Haha no worries πŸ˜‚
I also remember several professors caught up in a similar predicament. Even one of my professors when I was a students had his theories almost completely disproven by LHC when I was attending one of his courses. That wasn't fun πŸ˜‚

@LeoPaccianiMori I can't imagine. I am sure these kind of fears lead back to the original question I posed. Thanks for all the thoughts.

@obi Thank YOU! I'm always glad to have these conversations πŸ˜€

@LeoPaccianiMori last question Is this going to hurt. Been saving these reading for about a year, and keep putting them off out of fear of brain ache. Abstract seems like it could make the beat case, but I am gonna have to dedicate what little free time I have.

@obi oooh QFT! So many memories πŸ˜‚
There is DEFINITELY going to be some brain ache. I remember going through it when I was a student, and I already knew both quantum mechanics and field theory so I thought it wouldn't be so bad to just put the two things together. I was WRONG πŸ˜‚
Joking aside, there might be some "energy barrier" that has to be overcome, but it's going to be worth it because it's just a beautiful and elegant theory (if you're into that)

@LeoPaccianiMori That's all I am looking for! Will have to give it a go then, after a finish a couple others I am reading. Thanks, again.

@LeoPaccianiMori I remember an Italian Physicist, can't recall his name, but was eagerly waiting the first results of the LGC, which would determine which theories were most likely, and he at an old age looking absolutely terrified on what the results would be. I guess this would explain his situation. (ultimately, the method of his study I believe was not probable after results came)

@obi Yes, this is a pretty common situation in "traditional" physics, especially now in particle physics. A professor develops a theory to describe some properties of particles and builds his/her own carreer on that, and then the theory gets disproven 20/30 years after that. Sometimes you get lucky (see the Higgs boson), but most time you don't

@LeoPaccianiMori Yeah, that was the assumption I was making. I guess I assumed moving out of physics to another field, you would retain the same theoretical vs experimental mindset. Interesting that it's not the case, as much.

@obi yeah I mean it's not like the mindset is not there at all. Lots of people that do the switch still only do only theoretical or experimental work. But there's a whole community of people that sits in the middle (me included)

@LeoPaccianiMori Wow. Never really thought about it like that. Enlightening.

@LeoPaccianiMori But I guess I wouldn't know. I just read a lot of books in the field for leisure, I don't live the lifestyle.

@obi Glad I showed you something you didn't know about! πŸ˜€

Sign in to participate in the conversation
Qoto Mastodon

QOTO: Question Others to Teach Ourselves
An inclusive, Academic Freedom, instance
All cultures welcome.
Hate speech and harassment strictly forbidden.