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

@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 ๐Ÿ˜‚
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 ๐Ÿ˜‚

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@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 ๐Ÿ˜€

@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 ๐Ÿ˜‚
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 ๐Ÿ˜‚
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.

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