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

@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

@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

@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

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