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

@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

@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.

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@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?

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