Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Physicists and Biologists Trying to Coexist

Nature is running two parallel stories,
Thirteen tips for engaging with physicists, as told by a biologist
Twelve tips for engaging with biologists, as told by a physicist
This struck me at first as very strange. Reading on, the underlying issue seems to be that all the biologists and physicists who work together in fields like medical imaging drive each other crazy.

The biologist thinks physicists are restless scientific children who are always asking some sideways question instead of sticking to the topic at hand:
When physicists say they do not understand something that you have said about biology, it’s possible that you do not understand that topic either. ‘Understanding’ operates at different planes in different disciplines . . . When physicists say they do not understand an aspect of biology, they are not requesting a ‘Biology 101’ explanation. In my experience, when physicists ask a biology question, they want to apply the thinking of physics to biology; specifically, they are searching for universal, mathematical explanations.

Physicists move away from settled questions. In biology, much less seems settled. Emphasizing what you know is less interesting than saying what you need to learn.
And this:
In discussing their own work, physicists will often reach for a formula. After they write the equation and stare at it as if pondering a Mark Rothko painting, they might proffer an explanation.
The physicist also seem to worry that physicists are making trouble and gives her fellows advice like,
Build synergy . . . Learn the language . . . Get comfortable being uncomfortable . . . . . . Ask questions . . . Embrace uncertainty . . . Learn statistics . . . Don’t lose touch with your roots
But on the other hand:
Don’t forget that you bring unique skills . . . Do not blindly accept dogma.
After reading both articles I started to get the picture that this is hard. The whole point of bringing physicists into biological labs is that they know different things and might ask different questions, but having ignorant outsiders ask questions is annoying and must get exhausting after a while. Every few years a physicist with limited biological knowledge might have an insight that biologists missed, but in between those moments of insight there is a whole lot of explaining and feeling criticized by the cold stares of equation-mad physics nerds.

And remember to laugh:
Physicists laugh a lot. Not only is the humour of physicists arcane, but almost anything unexpected can provide a jocular moment. Theirs are the ultimate inside jokes, which are often not obviously funny. But laugh along anyway — even if you don’t find the humour, they won’t know the difference.

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